Life Under Fascism

What is life like for us under fascism? It’s fine. I eat, sleep, work, play computer games and football, and get laid.

Repairs have begun on the roofs of the Soviet high-rise buildings on my work beat. The contractor drags powerful electric roofing kettles onto the roof, hacks away the old tar, melts it down, and immediately pours it back onto the roof. The kettles are powerful—advanced technology that works quickly and efficiently.

The kettles are also five years old. They are left right on the roofs over the winter, and so they are rotted and burned out. The molten tar splashes onto the cables, and everything in the vicinity burns and smokes. It is no exaggeration to say that you can smell the stench two blocks away. It is unlikely that there is anything healthy in the fumes generated by the molten tar. It is Uzbeks who work on the roofs: their bosses persist in calling them jigits. They work without safeguards or personal protective equipment. On the first day, they asked their bosses for water. Their bosses told them to get it themselves—”otherwise, next time they’ll be asking for broads in bikinis.”

Yesterday the cops nabbed them. The cops told them, “Your registration isn’t in our database. So, you either spend a couple days in jail until we figure it out, or you each cough up 5,000 rubles now.” [At the current—official—exchange rate, 5,000 rubles is approximately 88 euros.]

Do you think there is a database somewhere that says that you are just a human being?

Their electrician is from Bashkiria, a skinny kid in glasses with a typical whistling accent. He graduated from an architectural college back home, came to Petersburg, and worked on a low-voltage network for a couple of months, but now has been hired as an electrician servicing the three-phase fifty-kilowatt kettles. On the first day, he regarded the whole setup with mortal dismay. In his bag he has a set of screwdrivers and a crimper for patch cords. Now he dives into the overheated equipment, changes the burnt-out heating elements, and splices the burnt, beaten cables. Then he unsuccessfully tries for hours to wash off the oil stench.

“Who will pay for your disability?” I ask him.

“They can’t pay us overtime.”

He put up with this as long as he could before breaking down and going on a drinking binge. He squandered all his money, arriving back at work with a black eye and his left cheek puffed up like a pillow. His glasses were still intact, however. He asked me to lend him money for beer.

“How much do they pay you?” I ask.

“They promise mountains of gold.”

“Could you be more specific?”

“It’s daily work. 2,500 rubles a day.”

The word he was looking for in Russia was “daywork” [podënnaia], not “daily work” [podnevnaia]. There is such a thing as “daywork” and “dayworkers.” Who make sixteen dollars a day if you calculate their pay in terms of the actual exchange rate.

How much does the Russian lad Vitya, who made the remark about the “broads in bikinis,” make? How much does their supervisor, a handsome, businesslike, quick-thinking middle-aged man with shifty eyes, make?

What will they buy for themselves by pinching the money budgeted for roof repairs? A car? A tiled path for their dacha? When they walk on this path, will they think about the people whose health has been permanently scarred by tar on hot roofs? I doubt it.

Fascist brutality springs from this everyday, workaday brutality. Indifference to people as individuals grows from this virtually legalized slavery.

Source: George Losev, Facebook, 28 June 2022. Mr. Losev works as an on-duty electrician for the housing authority in Petersburg. He points out that the roofing tar kettles he describes are nothing like the one in the video I inserted, above. They are much larger and electric-powered. This is not to mention that “Alfredo the kettle man” (in the video) is wearing protective equipment, unlike the Uzbek workers in Mr. Losev’s story. Translated by the Russian Reader


I was asked to show how to make a “syllable tram.”

I scanned the roadway (see the links, below). The drawings were quite hastily done, right before class. (

The strip should be glued with adhesive tape on the reverse side. (Leave a millimeter between the sections so that it is easier to fold and store.) The tram, which is approximately 290 mm wide (nearly the same width as an A4 sheet of paper) and 85 mm high, is fitted onto the strip. One window in the tram is cut out, and a transparent sleeve is pasted on the other, into which a consonant is inserted.

The strip needs to be fastened with something. (I fastened it to the table with tape.)

The tram travels from right to left. When it reaches a marked stop, a vowel appears in the cut-out window. When you make the tram, test it and draw the letters on the strip so that they appear in the exact same place as the empty spot.

The roadway:

https://disk.yandex.ru/i/dGXik7Z3Nmwpgg (Yandex Disk)

https://drive.google.com/file/d/13k0cDuhXD-hAzytGpGYgpsZEdR9jmsVd/view (Google Drive)

Source: Natalia Vvedenskaya, Facebook, 28 June 2022. Ms. Vvedenskaya teaches Russian to immigrant children at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. Most of these children are originally from Central Asia, like the workers in Mr. Losev’s story. The first image, above, is a screenshot of a short video that Ms. Vvedenskaya included in her original post, showing her pupils playing with her “syllable tram.” Translated by the Russian Reader

Back to the Basics

Today, September 1, is the Day of Knowledge — the first day of school — in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries. As it happens, it was sometime around the Day of Knowledge thirty-one years ago that I began studying Russian. My first Russian teacher was a Hungarian woman named Zsuzsa, at Portland State University. She was only the first of many wonderful guides to the language over the next five or six years (the time it took me to achieve relative fluency), including Nora, Sergei, Zoya, and an amazing Chinese grad student who explained Russian grammar — in Russian (speaking English in class was forbidden at UDub) — better than anyone I’ve ever met; all the lovely, patient and generous lecturers and instructors at the Herzen Institute, who were selflessly dedicated to their profession at a time when working conditions for teachers in Russia couldn’t have been worse; the incomparable Katya Vidre, who introduced me to the work of Alexei Khvostenko and Sergei Dovlatov and so many other things; and countless other Russians, especially the cast of bohemians who helped me with my thesis project, a translation and line-by-line commentary of Joseph Brodsky’s long poem “Predstavlenie.”

Although you might not always guess it from this blog and its prevailingly grim subject matter, learning (and reading) Russian has been immensely liberating. Becoming a Russian reader and speaker has made me a different person, a person capable of seeing the world, however darkly or brightly, through other eyes.

I was reminded of this tremendous gift and the sheer joy of plunging into a new language by the four “Russian pedagogical moments” below. I hope they inspire some of you to learn Russian. At very least, you can read through this post and learn your first twenty-seven words and phrases in the language. ||| TRR

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“V or B? Fill in the missing letters.” This is a worksheet made by the RFL teacher extraordinaire Natalia Vvedenskaya for the immigrant children she teaches at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. The words are banan (“banana”), yabloko (“apple”), vaza (“vase”), kolbasa (“sausage”), divan (“couch,” “sofa”), sobaka (“dog”), rebyonok (“child”), and morkovka (“carrot”). This was originally posted on Ms. Vvedenskaya’s Facebook page.

The words and phrases on the second page of the worksheet are velosiped (“bicycle”), avtobus (“bus”), baton (“baguette”), volshebnaya palochka (“magic wand”), gruzovik (“truck, lorry”), banka s vareniem (“jar of jam”), rubashka (“shirt”), and baklazhan (“aubergine, eggplant”).

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Some of Bridget Barbara’s favorite Russian words are arkhiologicheskikh (“archaeological”), zharko (“hot”), delala (“[a female subject] was doing/did”), kavychki (“quotation marks”), prikol’no (“cool”), kuda (“to where”), sovremennyi (“modern,” “contemporary”), ping-pong (“ping-pong”), bifshteks (“beef steak”), and dostoprimechatel’nosti (“sights,” “landmarks”).

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Vadim F. Lurie, “Russia for the Sad.” Posted on the photographer’s Facebook page on August 13, 2021, and reproduced here with his kind permission. The textbook in the photo is open to pages headed with the word grust‘, “sadness.” As Mr. Lurie informs me, “The boy is examining a special book about emotions and discussing it with his mother.”

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Natalia Vvedenskaya playing language bingo with her pupils at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center. She writes: “We discussed transport today. Bingo is still the best game for all levels of knowledge of the language and ages. Only it’s very exciting. The screaming is fearsome.”

Making Women Visible: Russian Language Classes for Immigrants and Refugees in Petersburg

apa-1
Darya Apahonchich with students during class. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“Making Women Visible”: Why Female Immigrants Stay at Home for Seven Years
Karina Merkurieva
Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda)
March 7, 2020

“My husband and children and I came to Russia from Afghanistan over eight years ago. At first, I had no time to learn the language: I had to help the children and work at home, and then I was unable to find suitable courses. So this is only my second year studying Russian,” says Suraya.

Since she is shy about speaking Russian, she agrees only to a written interview. She has been studying Russian for a second year at courses for female immigrants and refugees in Petersburg. Classes are held at Open Space, a co-working space for social activists, and at two libraries. Groups are divided into several levels according to how well the students speak Russian.

In February, project organizer Darya Apahonchich announced the launch of a new group for beginners. According to her, she saw the need for such courses in 2018, when she worked for a similar project run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“There were classes for children and adults. I taught Russian as a foreign language. The only problem was that only those who had official immigrant or refugee status could attend. In Russia, not everyone obtains this status. Another thing was that the course was limited in time. Not everyone was able to get the necessary minimum of Russian under their belt in this time,” Apahonchich says.

The group she led mostly consisted of women over the age of thirty.

“Young women who come to Russia at an earlier age and go to university have one set of opportunities. As soon as a woman becomes a mother, her set of opportunities decreases dramatically,” Apahonchich adds.

At one of the classes, a new student from Syria decided to join the group. In order for the students to get acquainted, Apahonchich suggested that everyone introduce themselves by telling what country they had come from, how long they had lived in Russia, and how long they had been studying Russian. It transpired that nearly all the women in the class had lived in Russia around seven years, but had only begun to study the language. According to them, they had no opportunity to study Russian before: they had to raise children. Working outside the home was not the custom in their native countries, so their husbands had not allowed them to take language classes.

apa-2A lesson in Darya Apahonchich’s group. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“I was very shocked at the time. These women’s children have basically grown up in Russia: they know Russia on the level of native speakers, and make jokes more easily in Russian than in their native languages. The women have found themselves linguistically and culturally isolated, however. They stayed at home all those years. They didn’t even have a place to learn the language,” says Apahonchich.

When the Red Cross courses were coming to an end, Apahonchich suggested to the women that they should not quit their studies, but continue studying Russian elsewhere. They leapt at the suggestion.

“I realized that those woman would go back to their families, and that would be the end of their introduction to the Russian language. I didn’t want to let that happen,” she recalls.

Other groups and new teachers have subsequently emerged. The project currently encompasses four groups at different levels of proficiency. Classes are taught by eight volunteer teachers. Some of them, like Apahonchich, majored in Russian language pedagogy at university, while others are native Russian speakers with humanities backgrounds and experience teaching history or Spanish, for example.

“I wanted to create a horizontal structure in which each teacher could organize their own groups and take responsibility for the learning process,” says Apahonchich.

As a result, the teachers work autonomously: they find venues for holding classes on their own, and decide with their groups what topics would be interesting to discuss in class.

In her group, for example, Apahonchich focuses not only on teaching the Russian language, but also on the legal aspects of life as an immigrant in Russia. During classes, her students read brochures on how to behave if you are faced with aggression from the police, how to get a job, and how to rent an apartment without falling victim to fraud.

“Our all-female collective discusses issues related to health and doctor visits,” says Apahonchich.

According to Suraya from Afghanistan, this is one of her favorite topics.

“I also like to read texts about Russia and Petersburg, and discuss the weather and family. I really need this vocabulary when I pick up my daughter from kindergarten or go to the clinic. In the clinic, however, I often encounter aggression. The people at reception shout at me if I don’t immediately know what to say,” Suraya explains.

While the courses are more aimed at teaching Russian, the instructors sometimes also talk to the female immigrants about women’s rights.

“Right now, the easiest way, I think, to get women out of linguistic and cultural isolation is to get them into the world of work. That way they could learn Russian more quickly, adapt socially, and make new friends. At the same time, we have before our very eyes the example of women from Central Asia who come to Russia to work and eventually find themselves separated from their families. That is the other extreme. For the time being, I just want these women to stop being invisible. Currently, the majority of the Russian populace doesn’t even suspect how many female immigrants live in cultural isolation in their country,” says Apahonchich.

According to the UNHCR, about 220,000 refugees and persons with temporary asylum status were registered in Russia in 2019. Most of those people came from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader