Ivan Davydov: The Russian Protest Federation

614352f5bad27acc282af798084aa5e3Protest rally in Abakan against plans to raise the retirement age. Photo by Alexander Kryazhev. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Republic

The Russian Protest Federation: How Moscow Has Stopped Shaping the Political Agenda. Will Ordinary Russians Realize Pension Reform and Geopolitical Triumphs Are Linked?
Ivan Davydov
Republic
September 27, 2018

The people who took to the streets long ago on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue deserve the credit for the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections in Russia. It was a time that would be unimaginable now. There was no war with Ukraine. Crimea had not been annexed. No one had given Syria a second thought. It still makes you wonder why the Kremlin took fright then, albeit briefly. Instead of guessing, we should note it was the capital that led the national protest movement then, confirming yet again the centripetal nature of life in Russia. Over a 100,000 people attended the first two protest rallies in Moscow, on December 10, 2011, and February 4, 2012. Petersburg took second place, sending 25,000 people onto the streets for its February 2012 rally, but no one other city was even close. Protests took place in dozens of cities, including all the major ones, but the best the regions achieved was something on the order of 5,000 people in attendance. In most places, the average crowd numbered around a thousand people.

The opposition failed just like the regime. It transpired the national agenda and the agenda of Muscovites were the same thing. The farther you went from Moscow, the less people were worried about the issues exercising newspaper reporters. Least of all were they worried about their own real problems, about local issues, and thus there was no chance of changing things in Russia.

But the credit for transforming gubernatorial elections into something really resembling elections, albeit quite remotely, must go to the regions. The takeaway message is that the regime’s electoral fiasco in the regions on September 9 is a nationally significant event. The rank-and-file voters there, who cast their ballots for sham candidates from parties other than United Russia as a way of registering their disgust with the local political bosses, have turned circumstances inside out. The regions are now dictating their agenda to Moscow, as governors who seemed invulnerable only recently look shaky, and even Putin himself has been forced to break a sweat.

Airbag
As befits a myth, the Moscow myth that, putting it as succinctly as possible, Moscow is not the real Russia, is not true at all. But, like any good myth with life in it, it is based on real things. As I write this column, water is gurgling in the radiators of the standard Moscow high-rise where I live, because the heating season has kicked off. It is ten degrees Celsius outside, and Moscow’s tender inhabitants would freeze otherwise. Meanwhile, all the news agencies are reporting as their top news item that a place in the queue to buy the new iPhone at Moscow stores will set you back 130,000 rubles [approx. 1,700 euros]. That is expensive, of course, but you would let yourself be seen as an outdated loser at your own peril.

Muscovites protest often, although in fewer numbers than during the fair elections movement. To outsiders, however, protesting Muscovites almost always look like whimsical people who are too well off for their own good. Everyone knows Moscow has wide pavements, new subway stations, the Moscow Central Ring, and perpetual jam festivals and nonstop carnivals on Nikolskaya Street. People who live in places where even today anti-tank trenches pass for roads, and the mayor nicked the benches from the only pedestrian street (urbanism is ubiquitous nowadays, no longer a Moscow specialty) and hauled them to his summer cottage, find it really hard to take seriously people who are up in arms over a new parks whose birches were imported from Germany, and holiday lighting whose cost is roughly the same as the annual budget of an entire provice somewhere outside the Black Earth Region. The residents of “construction trailer accretions” (you will remember that during one of President Putin’s Direct Lines, the residents of a “construction trailer accretion” in Nyagan came on the air to complain) find it hard to understood people protesting so-called renovation, as in Moscow, that is, people who protest the demolition of their old residential buildings and being resettled in new buildings. For that is how it appears when geographical distance obscures the particulars.

The regime has skillfully manipulated this gap. Remember the role played by the “real guys” from the Uralvagonzavod factory during the fair elections movement, or the out-of-towners bussed into the capital for pro-Putin rallies on Poklonnaya Hill and Luzhniki Stadium. But the gap functions as yet another airbag for the Kremlin even when it makes no special effort to manipulate it. Moscow is part of Russia when we are talking about national issues and the fact those issues are debated in Moscow as well, but since any sane non-resident of Moscow believes Moscow is no part of Russia, the big issues end up being issues that exercise Muscovites, but do not interest people beyond Moscow.

The Main Political Issue
Alexei Navalny has bridged the gap slightly. His attempt to set up regional presidential campaign offices seemed absurd since everyone, including Navalny, realized he would not be allowed on the ballot and there would be no reason to campaign. He ran a campaign anyway, and his campaign offices turned into local pockets of resistance, into needles that hit a nerve with the regime while simulatneously stitching Russia together and removing Moscow’s monopoly on national politics. His campaign offices are manned by bold young people willing to take risks and good at organizing protest rallies. Of course, even now more people in Moscow attend Navalny’s protest rallies than in other cities, but people have still been taking to the streets in dozens of cities for the first time since the fair elections protests of 2011–2012. Navalny’s campaign offices splice issues that the locals get with national issues, thus producing the fabric of real politics. When I discussed the subject of this column with the editors of Republic, one of them joked Navalny was a “franchise.” The joke has a point, but the point is not offensive.

It was Vladimir Putin, however, who really turned the tide or, rather, the federal authorities, of which Putin is the living embodiment. The pension reform has made it abundantly clear the Russian authoritarian state no longer intends to be paternalist. The state has suddenly discovered what people actually liked about it was the paternalism. Or they put up with the paternalism. It is hard to say what word would be more precise. But they did not put up with it due to its victories on the geopolitical front.

The pension reform has erased the line between the big issues, debated by well-fed people in Moscow, and the real issues that constitute the lives of real people. This is quite natural, since being able to claim Russia’s miserly pensions a bit earlier in life is more important in places where life is harder. Moscow is definitely not the worse place in Russia to live. Despite the myth, Moscow is no heaven on earth, either, but the central heating has already been turned on, for example.

So, even a dull, boring, well-rehearsed formality like gubernatorial elections has become an effective tool of protest. The regime made a single mistake, a mistake to which no one would have paid attention to a year ago. (Since when has vote rigging seriously outraged people in Russia? Since days of yore? Since 2011?) The mistake set off a chain reaction. The new single nationwide election day had been a boon to the Kremlin, its young technocrats, and its not-so-young handpicked “businesslike” governors. If the elections had not taken place simultaneously everywhere, and the fiasco in the Maritime Territory had occurred at the outset of the elections season, it is not clear how powerful a victory the no-name candidates from the loyal opposition would have scored.

Maybe Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky would have had to disband their parties for fear of reprisals from the regime, since, the way they have long seen things, there is nothing more terrifying than success, and nothing more dangerous than real politics.

A Moscow municipal district council member from the opposition can easily make a coherent, meaningful speech about how the war in Syria has impacted the clumsiness of Mayor Sobyanin’s hired hands, relaying the tile in some unhappy, quiet alley for the third time in a single year. The council member’s speech would elicit laughter, and the laughter would be appropriate. But amidst the customary laughter we need to be able to discern the main question of a reemergent Russian politics.

The issue is this. Will ordinary Russians understand—and, if so, how quickly—that the pension reform (the first but not the last gift to the common folk from their beloved leaders) is part and parcel of the mighty Putin’s geopolitical triumphs, their inevitable consequence, rather than a betrayal and a rupture of the social compact, as certain confused patriotic columnists have been writing lately?

Ultimately, it is a matter of survival for Russia and for Putin. One of the two must survive. As in the films about the immortal Highlander, only one will be left standing at the end of the day.

Ivan Davydov is a liberal columnist. Translated by the Russian Reader

God Is Merciless, or, Mary Dejevsky

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Since childhood I have had the habit of going to sleep listening to the radio. It would be a queer but innocent habit were it not for the fact that I had Lutheranism mainlined into my brain during childhood as well. I am thus perpetually a sinner in the hands of an angry god, and that god is frequently quite displeased with me. Or so it seems.

From time to time, Jehovah punishes me by putting the British journalist and Putin fan Mary Dejevsky on the radio as I am going to sleep.

Last night, she was on ABC Radio National’s Between the Lines, and she was in fine fettle.

Asked about the political crisis sparked by the pension reform in Russia, Dejevsky said she rather admired Vladimir Putin for spending some of his tremendous reserves of political capital and popularity by biting the bullet and trying to solve an objective problem so his “successor” would not have to solve it.

It is actually a good problem to have, this business of needing to raise the retirement age precipitously, Dejevsky argued, because it is premised on the supposedly happy alleged fact that Russians are, on average, living much longer than before, and that, we were meant to imagine, was due to Putin’s wise policies.

When the hapless Australian interviewer, Tom Switzer, asked her about the nationwide protests sparked by the proposed reform and the numerous arrests at those protests, Dejevsky dismissed them out of hand, claiming she had been to “provincial Russia” just last week, and things there were “peaceful.”

I won’t even go into Dejevsky’s sparkling defense of Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea, which prefaced her lies about Putin’s popularity, the pension reform, and the supposedly sleepy provinces.

In case you are not a Lutheran occasionally punished by the Lord God Jehovah by having to listen to Mary Dejevsky in the middle or night or read the latest pro-Putinist tripe she has written, I would remind you she has long been gainfully employed by the Independent and the Guardian as a columnist, and she is a frequent guest on thoroughly respectable news outlets such as ABC Radio National, BBC Radio 4, etc.

It seemingly has not occurred to the smart, cynical folk working at these bastions of tough-minded journalism that Mary Dejevsky is a less than objective observer of the Russian scene.

The Lutheran god is a merciless god. {TRR}

Photo by the Russian Reader. This blog was slightly edited after I received legal threats from an electronic entity claiming to be Mary Dejevsky.

Raivo Shtulberg: I Am the Pug Who Barked at Voldemort

“I am the pug who barked at Voldemort”: High school teacher in Ryazan Region forced to resign after refusing to campaign for United Russia
Darina Shevchenko
October 30, 2015
Yod

Reivo Shtulberg
Raivo Shtulberg

Raivo Shtulberg, thirty-six, taught physics, computer science, and German for thirteen years at the only secondary school in the village of Olkha, in Ryazan Region’s Ukholovo District. Before elections to the Ryazan Regional Duma, in September of this year, the school administration demanded that teachers persuade at least six villagers to vote for the ruling United Russia party. Instead, Shtulberg shot a video in which he explained how teachers were being forced to campaign and posted it on the web. Shtulberg was forced to resign, and can now longer find employment as a teacher. Yod learned the details of the story.

The teachers were given questionnaires and asked to return them filled out with the names and signatures of the people they had successfully canvassed. Shtulberg was outraged by this request.

“At first, we filled in the names of distant relatives so they would leave us alone, but we were told it had to be fellow villagers. I got angry then. We were doing repairs at home, but I had to canvas the village for signatures. Other teachers also resented this. In particular, one of them said something about ‘Russian idiocy,’ but they dutifully went out canvassing.”

Shtulberg recorded a video in which he related how teachers had been forced to campaign for United Russia and posted it on YouTube.

“I acted spontaneously. You might say it was the revolt of the underdog. I am like the pug who barked at Voldemort. Village teachers are paid tiny salaries. I wore the same blazer to work for eight years or so, until two years ago it was completely tattered and I had to buy a new one. The principals have bigger salaries, and they can be ordered to campaign, but a full belly does not understand an empty one. I am not against any party or politician: I cannot reconcile myself with the low quality of life of teachers. If tomorrow, United Russia provided good roads and decent wages, I would vote for them or anyone else [who does these things]. Ultimately, it is my legal right to choose whom I vote for,” says Shtulberg.

The video garnered around 15,000 views on YouTube. It was seen by Yuri Bogomolov, co-chair of the regional branch of the opposition Solidarity and RPR-PARNAS parties in Ryazan. On the basis of what he heard, Bogomolov filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office asking that United Russia be barred from the elections. It was after this, according to Shtulberg, that a crackdown against him was launched at school.

The school’s principal called a faculty meeting, which was attended by Shtulberg’s mother, who also taught at the school. Shtulberg did not attend the meeting himself. He says that the principal made it clear to his mother they both had better resign, otherwise they would be quietly “removed.”

“You can always find fault with a teacher. For example, by doing a full review of all the subjects he teaches and visiting his classes every day, then giving a series of quizzes and removing him for incompetency, and by carefully studying his record keeping,” says Shtulberg.

Yuri Bogomolov urged the disgraced teacher not to resign voluntarily and offered him legal assistance.

“I have no doubt that the campaign questionnaires were handed out at the school where Shtulberg taught. We know that employees at other schools, factories, and hospitals in Ryazan Region were forced to persuade people to vote for United Russia. In my recollection, Shtulberg is the only public sector employee who has openly and personally alleged violations,” says Bogomolov.

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Photocopy of the campaign canvassing questionnaire that Raivo Shtulberg and his fellow teachers were required to ask people in their village to fill out. “Why I will be voting in elections for the Ryazan Regional Duma on September 13, 2015. 1. Because I live in the land of Ryazan. 2. Because I am concerned about the future of my family, my region, [and] my country. 3. Because it is my civic duty. 4. Because it is our common cause. 5. Because I am certain that TOGETHER WE ARE A UNITED RUSSIA. Surname Name Patronymic __________________________ My mobile phone number: __________________________________ My email address: ____________________________.” United Russia received 62% of the votes in the election. Their nearest rivals, the Communists, received a mere 13%. Opposition party Yabloko failed to overcome the five-percent barrier.

Shtulberg turned down the politician’s assistance and voluntarily resigned. His mother also resigned.

“To be honest, I was scared. I was not ready for such an abrupt turn of events,” he says.

Shtulberg’s colleagues responded neutrally to his dismissal.

“Village teacher are mostly good people. They perform their duties conscientiously, but they try and not speak out on political topics, because [they think] it isn’t worth the effort.

“Sit tight, go along with things, do what they ask you to do, get your salary, and don’t dare oppose not only the authorities but even the principal. My colleagues told me reproachfully, ‘United Russia pays our wages. Why can’t [you] live peacefully like other people? We have to vote for whomever the boss tells us to vote,” says Shtulberg.

His fellows villagers were also indifferent to the teacher’s firing. Only the children whom Shtulberg had taught wrote him messages of support on a social network.

Shtulberg says he really loved his job.

“I tried every lesson to give [my pupils] something insightful. In German, I would often offer them extra texts of my own. I would try and make sure the computer games were more interesting, show them lots of videos, and do presentations. I would not say I was pals with my pupils. I kept my distance, but I treated them respectfully.”

After he was fired, Shtulberg tried to find a work at a school. At first, he was offered a job teaching computer science in a neighboring village, but then he was turned down for the job with no explanation.

“I cannot confirm it, but probably they called my previous place of employment and were told what sort of person I was,” says Shtulberg.

He tried to find a job at a school in Ryazan, but realized he would not be able to move to the city. A teacher’s salary would only cover the rent.

stulberg-3
His former bosses claim that the athletic Shtulberg is a binge drinker and alcoholic.

Shtulberg says that he now works as a copywriter and earns enough to get by.

His only regret is that his mother lost her job at the school because of him.

“Mom worked forty-five years at that school. She was an excellent public educator. Mom really misses the school and her pupils. She is in bad psychological shape now. I am very scared for my brother. He also works as a teacher, in a nearby village, and I am afraid he also might suffer because of me,” says Shtulberg.

At the Olkha Village School, Yod was told that Raivo Shtulberg had never worked there. In turn, the Ukholovo District Department of Education and Youth Policy told us that Raivo Shtulberg had taught at the village school in Olkha.

“The school’s principal had to cover for him all the time, because he drank and skipped classes. Because of his alcoholism, he recorded a video, posted it on the web, and dragged all of us through the mud,” our source told us.

Shtulberg is not surprised by these comments.

“I did not abuse alcohol and did not skip classes. But a response like this from bureaucrats does not surprise me. For the authorities, public sector employees do not exist as it were. We are these also-rans pottering about somewhere. We behave peacefully, do not ask for a lot of money, and that is fine. Public sector employees are viewed as a silent constituency that can be used at [the regime’s] discretion.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Our Swimmer
Our Swimmer

I guess I am a sucker for these stories of underdogs from the Russian hinterlands and margins of Russian society fighting the powers that be practically on their lonesome. There sure do seem to be a fair number of them in the press lately, which is encouraging.

They tell us two things. First, that it is a lie that Putin’s “base of support” is found in places like the village of Olkha in Ryazan Region, where the indomitable Raivo Shtulberg worked as a high school teacher until he was summarily fired for refusing to canvass for the ruling United Russia party in the run-up to regional parliamentary elections there this past September.

If people in places like Olkha “support” Putin and UR, it is not because these mighty rulers have improved their lives in any substantial way. It is because these people are passively afraid of losing what they already have and actively afraid of political authorities in general. History has taught them this lesson.

More importantly, in many cases, they are simply intimidated, upon pain of firing, into “throwing their support” behind the ruling party during elections.

So, among such “losers” like Raivo Shtulberg, Putin is not “popular.” On the contrary, he has been “popularized” among such “simple” and “disempowered” folk through a whole armory of tactics including relentless media propaganda, outright intimidation, and vote rigging.

When push comes to shove, as I hope and think it might someday, folks like Raivo Shtulberg’s fellow villagers will remember his “foolish” deed from several months ago or a few years back, and that will be all she wrote for Putin and UR.

All the pundits, analysts, and journalists who had been excitedly citing polls and 600% approval ratings for Putin in the interim will suddenly do an about-face and pretend they were on the side of the “ordinary people” all along.

Second, Putin’s real base of support is among those who have made out like bandits, either on a major or minor scale, over the past fifteen years. Some of these people might also, technically, be classified as “public sector employees,” like Raivo Shtulberg, but they do not work as village schoolteachers, and their pay grade is way higher. And the kickbacks and perks they enjoy are astronomically better.

And these real-live Putin supporters do not live, for the most part, in villages like Olkha, but in cities like Moscow, Petersburg, and even London.

It is a story too long and convoluted to tell in this slapdash afterword, but to some extent (although certainly not entirely), the Fair Elections movement of 2011-2012 was an attempt by a segment of this pro-Putinist class to save face in its own eyes and the eyes of the “civilized” world by opposing itself feebly to Putin’s “electoral dictatorship.”

Be that as it may, when you are tempted to imagine or encouraged by a lazy journalist or “analyst” to think that Russia’s anti-democratic woes are caused by Putin’s “popularity” among the simple toilers and rural yokels in the “heartlands,” think about what Raivo Shtulberg did and what happened to him, and think again. Russia is where it is today because well-educated people from Moscow and Petersburg with tons of connections to start with wanted it to happen that way.

In the Russian Hinterlands

The social structure of life in the Russian provinces is defined by the shadow economy
Simon Kordonsky and Yuri Plyusnin have explored life in the hinterlands
Pavel Aptekar
May 28, 2015
Vedomosti

Provincial Russian society is divided into several quasi-estates, which are defined by informal features. Membership of “one’s own” set in the hinterlands provides access both to the fruits of the state allocation of resources and the benefits of the shadow economy, while maintaining an acceptable standard of living even when a person’s official status is low. The provincial lifestyle impacts how life is practiced in the big cities. The social structure of the provinces is stimulated by informal economy and the rent economy, and by the desire of the ruling class to preserve its privileges. Such are the conclusions of a report issued by the Khamovniky Foundation, “The Social Structure of Russian Provincial Society,” prepared by Simon Kordonsky and Yuri Plyusnin on the basis of research done by the foundation between 2011 and 2015. Soviet-era social statuses have been lost, and most residents of the hinterlands cannot clearly define their place in the new social reality. The new сlass criteria—level of income, membership of the civil service, entrepreneurship—are having a hard time taking root in the small towns and rural areas.

66.3% percent of the population, the popular majority, lives on wages, old-age pensions, and state allowances. The share of businessmen, members of the liberal professions, and seasonal workers (i.e., those who earn their money in places where they do no live) does not exceed 15.2% and is comparable to the number of outcasts (13.4%), i.e., prisoners, convicted offenders, and homeless people. Government officials make up another 5.1% of the population. The percentage of outcasts is high, but it should not confuse us. According to the calculations of Vladimir Radchenko, former first deputy chair of the Supreme Court, during the past twenty years, one in every eight men has passed through the prisons in Russia, and the proportion of men familiar with the criminal subculture is twice as large.

In the provinces, the individual’s position is a reflection of their informal influence, which primarily depends on their belonging to an informal group (e.g., a family, clan, street, professional community or gang). Official status and publicly declared income (wealth) are less significant factors. Simon Kordonsky told Vedomosti that upward mobility is difficult. People with criminal records find it hard to get decent jobs, while energetic businessmen and seasonal workers with higher incomes tend to emphasize their status outwardly, through the ways they furnish their homes and other superficial features. Yet they maintain informal ties with other local residents. Aggravation of relations can take a dramatic turn, involving arson, arrest, and even violent death. Local communities are willing to come together to defend themselves from “strangers”: from industrial and infrastructure projects by large companies, government pressure on local kingpins and leaders, and incursions by criminal gangs.

Provincial society is more fragmented and loose, argues Natalya Zubarevich, who researches Russia’s regions. She believes that Kordonsky and Plyusnin’s description of their social structure is too schematic, and that we should speak of ten to twelve large social groupings. But the current situation in the hinterlands is indeed largely a consequence of the informal economy, notes Zubarevich; statistics ignore it, but it impacts people’s unofficial status. Archaic economic forms are well developed in the villages and small towns: subcontracted manufacturing, with families and locales specializing in various forms of manual labor, and garage workshops where everything “from furniture to children” is repaired and produced. The informal and natural economies help the locals survive crises. The metropolitan centers and the provinces influence each other. The big cities export advanced technologies, contemporary lifestyles, and consumer standards to the hinterlands, but they adopt the informal practices common in the provinces, the unwritten laws, and the authoritarian style of relations. In turn, the growing informality of governance and the economy in the provinces is reinforced by the current political model, under which the ruling class has been trying to transform its unofficial privileges and group interests into law.

Victoria Lomasko: A Village School in Russia

A Village School
Victoria Lomasko
May 19, 2013
soglyadatay.livejournal.com

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This is the school in the tiny village of Nikolskoye. You can get to the village by bus from Tula: the trip takes an hour and a half. There is no public transportation between Nikolskoye and the nearest large village, Krapivna, and the district center of Shchyokino. The locals rarely leave the village.

school-2 Zoya Nikolayevna: “In four years, we’ve turned it into a normal school.” Sergei Alexandrovich: “The parents now see their children as human beings.”

This is the school’s director Zoya Nikolayevna and her husband Sergei Alexandrovich, a teacher and the school caretaker. They live in Krapivna, and until 2008 they worked at the Krapivna boarding school for orphans and sick children. When the boarding school closed, Zoya Nikolayevna, Sergei Alexandrovich, and a team of Krapivna teachers transferred to the Nikolskoye School.

Around eight in the morning, the couple leaves for work by car. The trip takes them through hills, a forest, and fields.

school-3 “It’s been flooded for a month.”

The road from Krapivna to Nikolskoye crosses the river Upa. In the spring, the Upa floods, completely covering the bridge. During the floods, the Emergency Situations Ministry organizes passage across the river. Previously people were ferried on a military amphibious vehicle, which resembles a tank without a gun. Now they are ferried in a small motorboat. The motor constantly stalls, and an ESM guy has to row all day from shore to shore, battling the strong current.

“There is no spare motor, mooring or field kitchen,” the ESM guy complained as he plied the oars, “but the brass flies in an expensive helicopter and shoots everything on an expensive screen.”

 The teachers from Krapivna make the crossing twice a day.

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Teacher: “Children calculate on their telephones. They have no use for mathematics.”

There are twenty-three pupils and ten teachers at the Nikolskoye School. There are four pupils in the biggest class, and one in the smallest.

Several pupils commute from the neighboring villages, where there are no schools. In summer, they come on bicycles; in winter, they go on foot. When the roads are drifted over with snow, and the local authorities have not had time to clear them, they stay at home.

The school in the neighboring village of Kuzmino remained open for a long time with five pupils. There were more teachers than pupils.

If there is no school, a village is doomed, the teachers say.

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By comparison, there are no fewer than twenty pupils in each grade at the Krapivna village school, and a total of 226 pupils in all.

There are classes in which half the pupils are children of migrants. Families from Dagestan are moving to Krapivna in large numbers and buying homes. Migrants from Central Asia settle in hostels on the outskirts of Krapivna. They work in gardens and storage facilities.

In the class depicted in the drawing, above, there were two pupils who were Uzbeks, a Tajik, a Lezghin, and an Azerbaijani.

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The children get along with each other.

“They’re all local kids to me. We have a friendship of peoples here,” said the teacher smiling.

But there are problems, too. Not all the children of migrants speak Russian passably. Not all the children are sent to school on time. For example, the Tajik boy was three heads taller than the other pupils. It turned out he had been enrolled in the first grade at the age of ten.

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Teacher: “Is ‘Moscow’ a person’s name or a place name?” First-grader Sasha: “It’s a street.”

For now, there are only ethnic Russian children at the Nikolskoye School—no migrants.

The village has a single employer, Nikolai Kurkov, former chairman of the Lenin Komsomol State Farm and now the owner of two farms, a grove, and a dairy.

The parents of the pupils at the Nikolskoye School either work for Kurkov or have moved to Shchyokino or Tula, leaving their kids with their grandmothers.

The kindergarten closed back in the 1990s and, unless their grandmothers raise them, the children turn into rural Mowglis.

There are two pupils in the first grade, but the teacher has a hard time coping with them.

“At the beginning of the school year, they ran around the classroom during lessons and screamed,” she recounts.

It would be unprofitable to open a private kindergarten in the village: Nikolskoye residents would not be able to pay more than a thousand rubles a month (approx. twenty euros) per head to send their kids there.

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The village school lacks a gym and a cafeteria. A kitchen has been set up behind the bookshelf in the most spacious classroom. The tables there are laid when the children have lunch.

They are fed buckwheat kasha, macaroni, and rice with gravy, sausages or hamburger patties, and a delicious compote. The grandmother of one of the students, a former employee of Kurkov’s dairy, works as the cook.

A chauffeur drives the village’s “gilded youth,” Kurkov’s numerous grandchildren, to a more comfortable school in the district center.

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Chorus on stage: “These are the victims who have come to life from the ashes and risen once again, and risen once again!”

On May 9 (Victory Day), the pupils at the Nikolskoye School put on a holiday concert under the direction of the music and physical education teacher. Guests arrived: two war veterans, who had got tipsy for the occasion; two female graduates of the school; three old women; and an elderly former teacher who cried throughout the concert.

The upperclassmen have been touched by the events of the Great Patriotic War (World War Two). Many of their grandparents had told them how the fascists marched through Nikolskoye when they were children. But other events of Russian history are dry, boring texts in textbooks to the kids.

The first-graders do not know the name of our country’s capital.

“Well, and what of it?” winces their teacher, who believes Moscow is a big dump.

Indeed, what of it? Moscow residents are also uninterested in the life and death of lost villages like Nikolskoye.

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Recent publications in English by and about Victoria Lomasko:

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Victoria Lomasko (right) teaching an art workshop at the girl’s juvenile correctional facility in Novooskolskaya, September 2014