Zeitgenossenschaft

almost violence

Judging by virtual and real encounters in recent weeks, Russophonia has been doing its darnedest to descend into a war of all against all.

Thus, at the birthday party of an old family friend, a group of Russian physicians—people who run whole departments of hospitals and even whole hospitals—artlessly segued from running down the birthday boy’s grandson, who was seated only a table’s length away from them, and is one of the sweetest young men I have ever met, to making baldfaced statements such as “Putin is the guarantee of stability,” “There should be more than one currency in the world,” and outright nationalist assaults, prompted partly by the fact I had been introduced to the other guests not by name, but as a “citizen of country X.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the Russophoniacal political spectrum, which looks a lot like the opposite end, only it is topsy-turvy and striped, a well-known Ukrainian provocateur decided to take a few swipes at me on Facebook by claiming I “defended” Russia.

What he really meant by this, I could not figure out for the life of me, but I gathered that the point of his mostly incoherent remarks was that, since I write about Russia and edit a website about Russia, I was thus inadvertently or even deliberately legitimizing the country.

The problem for professional Russophobes like him is that Russia exists and has existed for a long time. No one can wish it away, just as we cannot wish away climate change, rampant poverty or racism. But we can wish for a world without any of these things or a lot less of these things, and we can make that world a reality.

Russians can also wish for a more democratic, egalitarian Russia and make that a reality, too. If, like me, you are not in a position to engage directly in the country’s democratization by virtue of your nationality, you can at least help people in Russia campaigning for a freer, fairer country by writing about them and, more generally, by providing or seeking a clearer, more detailed picture of what has been going on in Russia, and what the causes of current events in Russia really are, refusing to accept the lazy non-explanations of Russophobes, Russophiles, crypto-Putinists, and bored academics alike.

My Ukrainian detractor was not having any of it, alas. My unwillingness to accept the falsehood that Russians are mostly bad to the bone was more proof I was soft on Russia.

The crux of our disagreement was that I refused to concede that there are inordinately large numbers of bad or stupid people in Russia, as compared with other countries. On the other hand, I do believe, on the basis of long years of in-country observation, conversations with thousands of Russians, and intense and extensive reading of the Russian press and the relevant literature, that Putin’s alleged popularity is an authoritarian construct, not an expression of the popular will.

This is an argument that needs to be made in full, which I have done in bits and bobs over the last few years, often by translating the work of Russian observers who have made similar claims. That is, it is, at least, a rational argument that has a good deal of evidence to support it.

I definitely do not believe in collective guilt, which my Ukrainian interlocutor seemed to think was as natural as the sun rising in the morning.

My detractor believed in lots of noxious things and decided he could dump them down my throat by way of debunking the ten-plus years of hard work I have put in covering Russia from an angle no one else covers it.

Several of my comrades and friends were party to this ridiculous conversation, but instead of defending me or at least pointing out the flaws in the Ukrainian provocateur’s completely blowsy argument, they just let him spit in my face repeatedly, although his only real object was to get my goat and disparage my work.

Here we arrive at an actual—not imaginary—problem in Russia these days: the lack of solidarity among people who should otherwise feel it and exercise it towards each other and, in its absence, the sickening phenomenon of people standing by idly and silently as out-and-out bullies—the police, Putin, NOD, “Cossacks,” Russian physicians, Ukrainian provocateurs, and so forth—beat up other people physically or verbally or both.

In the aftermath of solidarity’s triumph in the Yuri Dmitriev case, a groundswell has been seemingly gathering to support the nine young Penza and Petersburg antifascists abducted and tortured by the FSB, and then accused, absurdly, of being wannabe terrorists supposedly hellbent on causing mayhem during the March presidential election and upcoming World Football Cup.

If the groundswell really does exist, the credit for it should go to an incredibly tiny group of people who decided they had to make a lot of noise about the case at all costs. Most of these people are 100% Russians, whatever that means, and I have rarely been so inspired as I have been by this group of people, most of whom are also fairly young and predominantly female.

In fact, if you read this and its predecessor, Chtodelat News, you will find lots of stories, some of them going ten years back, chockablock with smart, courageous, team-oriented, democratic, egalitarian Russians.

Russia thus has every chance of becoming a democratic, egalitarian country in the foreseeable future. But the same could be said of the United States and a whole host of other countries—the vast majority of countries on earth, I would imagine—that either have strayed too far from the democratic path or never were quite on track in the first place.

Democracy is not an essential feature of some peoples and countries, while despotism is an essential feature of other peoples and countries. If you believe that canard, it will not be long before you are saying the Jews are entirely responsible for the mess we are in, the Palestinians are capable only of terrorism, the Americans are too blame for all the world’s problems (including problems they really did not have a hand in causing) or your own people (fill in the blank) are too corrupt, swinish, and stupid to govern themselves, so a dictator like Putin or Assad has to do the job for them. There is no alternative, in other words.

Democracy is something we do together. We either practice hard and try to make every note bend just right or we don’t practice at all or not often enough, in which case a cynical cacophonist like Putin or Trump gets to call the tune for us. Not because we are inherently racist or authoritarian, but mostly because we are too scared, indifferent, busy, self-absorbed, lazy and sorely tempted not to listen to our better natures and see the good in others.

But we are obviously not essentially good, either. We are the political animals who have the power to make and remake ourselves and our societies in ways that are better and worse. We also have to decide all the time what constitutes better and worse.

If you do not believe this, you do not believe in the power of politics and do not understand the “mystery” of human beings. Ultimately, you think that some humans or all humans are too wayward and disorganized to get their act together, and therefore should be policed.

I did not think up this distinction between politics and policing myself. A far wiser and thoughtful man than I am, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière did, but as the years go by, seemingly becoming nastier and darker, I see how his distinction does get to the heart of the matter.

This is simplifying the matter unforgivably, but you are either on the side of politics or the side of the police.

Politics is messy and usually not particularly satisfying, but it is the only way we have to approximate knowing all the things we have to know to make and enact good decisions that affect us all.

Policing, on the other hand, is easy as pie. Entire groups, classes, peoples, and groups are declared out of bounds and thus subject to police action. If you argue with the police about their inclusion of a particular group of people on its list of “not our kind of folks,” they will say what police always say on such occasions—”Oh, so you’re in cahoots with them?”—and rap you over the head with a truncheon.

In the years I have been editing websites and deliberately misusing social media for the same purposes, I have been rapped over the head with heavy verbal truncheons so many times I am now permanently punch drunk.

Most of the policing, unsurprisingly, has been meted out by Russophones, many of whom really do suffer from chauvinism of a kind that, at best, does not brook the possibility that a non-native Russophone could have anything worthwhile to say about Russian politics and society. The Ukrainian provocateur was from this school of opinion.

Since there are something like twenty people in the world—seriously!—who genuinely support what I do here, I guess I will keep doing it, but the other day’s round of kangaroo boxing left me seriously wary about people whom I had considered comrades. // TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Zeitgeist Checklist

taste real mexicoA Williamsburg-inspired eatery in snowy central Petersburg, 5 February 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

It’s remarkable how the MH17 final report and Ukrainian political prisoner and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike have exacerbated two sad trends among Russia’s left/liberal/creative/academic intelligentsia.

The first trend involves intelligenty out-Putining Putin and his regime’s put-on anti-Americanism by ramping up the number of social media posts and hasbarical hate-a-grams about the US, its sinister machinations, and its signal failings.

This is part of the same operetta in which the nefarious NATO is a greater threat to world peace than a country that reserves the right to invade its closest neighbor and join in crushing a democratic, grassroots rebellion in a faraway country whose people have never harmed Russia in any shape or form.

But it’s no fun talking, much less doing anything, about that at all, because it would require real collective effort. So, depending on your political tastes, it’s much easier, as a Russophone, to hate on NATO or Hamas.

Some Russians go for the trifecta, hating on both “terrorist” organizations, while also indulging in the most satisfying infantile pleasure on our planet today: Islamophobia. You know, Europe has been overrun by Islamic terrorists and that whole tired spiel, which gives such a sense of purpose to otherwise wildly ignorant people who have betrayed their own country and countrymen so many ways over the last 25 or 30 years it should make all our heads spin.

The other trend, which has also kicked into high gear again, is going hipster as hard as you can. There are any number of “projects,” “creative clusters,” eating and drinking establishments, festivals, semi-secret dance parties, and god knows what else in “the capitals” to make the younger crowd and even some of the middle-aged set forget they live in a country ruled by a ultra-reactionary kleptocratic clique that can have any of them abducted for any reason whatsoever at a moment’s notice and charged with “involvement in a terrorist community” or some such nonsense and ruin their lives forever.

That’s no fun to think about it, either, and it’s altogether scary to do something about it, so why not pretend you live in Williamsburg while you can?

The day before yesterday, I translated and posted an essay, by Maria Kuvshinova, about Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike and the non/reaction to this brave call to action on the part of Russia’s creative so-called intelligentsia. At some point, I thought the essay might be a bit off the mark, but on second thought, despite its obvious quirks, I decided Ms. Kuvshinova had sized up the Russian zeitgeist perfectly.

Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts. // TRR

Salmagundi: A New Low

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An advertisement for hard drugs in downtown Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

“I very often hear from smart and even progressive colleagues, not only so-called conservatives, that we should not exaggerate. The regime, they say, has not cracked down on millions of people, and you can criticize it, albeit on the internet. There are protest rallies from time to time. Intelligent books are published, not burned, and monuments to Stalinism’s victims are erected. The west has many of its own faults, too, and generally speaking, the regime is not all that oppressive.

“What I do not like about this rationale, however, is the constant desire to normalize current Russian reality, turn a blind eye to the crimes and mean tricks that actually do occur, muffle criticism and, ultimately, justify the regime, if only unconsiously. It is somehow especially offensive to hear and read such things when they are said and written by people who have left Russia.”

Source: Sergey Abashin

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“Oil.” Photo by the Russian Reader

“When the Russian Federation occupied Crimea, Russians celebrated. When Donetsk and Lugansk were shelled and captured, they encouraged the vampire and cursed the Ukrainians. When the Russian Federation bombs Syria, our vast country’s deaf inhabitants are out of the loop.

“But why do they got upset when their own children are poisoned? Are the children of the Crimean Tatars, made orphans, and the murdered children of Ukraine and Syria worse than the children of Moscow and Voronezh?

“As long as you agree to kill others, don’t expect happiness. Your actions will catch up with you, sooner or later.

“Some would call it fate, others karma, still others, divine punishment. What’s the difference? Everything in this world is connected.”

Source: Elena Zaharova

DSCN4860Front page of official municipal council district newspaper, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

“‘My name is Mikhail Safronov. I’m a tenth-grade student and I’m against the decision by the Russian Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to close the British Council in Russia.’

“According to Mikhail, closing the British Council would deprive Russians of the opportunity to learn about British culture, study English, and attend lectures, seminars, and other interesting events.

“’I think that political squabbles should not affect educational and cultural activities, for when we look at the historical past, we shall see that culture has always been an important element in any situation,’” believes Mikhail.”

Source: Email message from Change.org

lahiorotat-jaloviinaScreenshot from the video for “Skujaa” by Helsinki hip-hop group SMC Lähiärotat

The really hilarious and sad thing is the number of Russians who are convinced that, because they are “victims” of their own regime, the so-called west (the EU, US, etc.) owes them something, everything.

I don’t mean asylum. Under international law, countries are obliged to provide safe haven to people who flee their own countries “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Unfortunately, there have been a good number of Russians who have fled Russia for just these reasons in recent years, and many of them have been granted asylum, as they should have been.

But there have been many more Russians who have simply left the country for a better life somewhere else.

That’s cool, too.

Or it would be cool if more or most Russians extended the same right to live the good life to other peoples. But even as they either live happily in the west or think hard about relocating there, which they regard as an entitlement and a birthright, many of them are horrified that Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, etc., have been “overrun” by Muslims, Mexicans, Africans, Indonesians, etc.

The entitlement to a good life does not extend to these people, even if some of then, namely, Syrians, have been fleeing their homeland because the Russian government has allied itself with the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to crush all opposition to his tyrannical dynasty and been bombing the last opposition strongholds to smithereens with its superior air force and firepower.

I don’t need to tell you how many refugees, displaced people, and asylum seekers the Assadist massacres in Syria have generated, but Russia itself has taken in only a handful, at most, of these refugees, and caused them a lot of problems in the process.

Meanwhile, wherever they are in the rest of the world, at home or abroad, a good number of Russians would deny refuge and asylum to these same people because, in their mind, they are all potential “Islamic terrorists” or otherwise incompatible with “western civilization,” whatever that is and as if Russia were indubitably a part of it, an imaginary construct.

This same sense of entitlement extends to the mostly jejune “battle with the regime” at home. Of course, there are lots of Russian grassroots activists and opposition politicians who fight the good fight without even once thinking about “the west” and what it can or should do for them in their uneven struggle with the Putinist tyranny.

But there are just as many Russians who take it as a given that “the west” should be ready and willing to provide them with whatever they require when they need it: funding for their endless “projects,” junkets to conferences, research fellowships, lectureships, etc.

You might wonder why a grassroots activists or an opposition politician would need a research fellowship. Most real activists and politicans don’t need them, in fact. But the “struggle” in Russia has generated a rather large academic cottage industry of researchers and “activist researchers,” supposedly engaged in studying the “struggle,” the country’s “social movements,” and so on.

By all means, whenever possible, “the west” should fund this research, too. Russian intellectuals—unlike Syrian intellectuals, Iraqi intellectuals, etc., (do “Islamic terrorists” even have intellectuals?)—are entitled to this support because, in mysterious ways I cannot even fathom at this point, they “share the same values” as “westerners,” whoever they are.

Here’s the kicker. While western leftists and other assorted kooks have imagined “the west” has been doing Satan’s work and trying its darnedest to dismantle the once-mighty socialist utopia, the real story has been that the west actually has been flooding the former Soviet Union and Russia in particular with all manner of aid to civil society, academia, and even governments.

This extends even to the US State Department, rightly condemned as the source of all evil in the known universe. There is probably not a single person in the current Russian government and parliament who has not been the beneficiary, at some time in the surprisingly recent past, of an all-expenses-paid fact-finding junket to the US and/or the EU. A rather large number of Russian law enforcement officers and judges have also been on such trips to the Great Satan, as I know for a fact.

You might argue this kind of aid is ultimately self-serving, and you would be right. It was and has been mostly premised on the crazy notion that Russia was a democracy, and the west just needed to give it a little help and practical advice to get it all the way to the premier league of democracy, so to speak.

In the historiography of the Soviet Union, an important breakthrough was made when a new tribe of then-young historians started doing something that subsequently became known as “revisionist” history. That is, they dared to look at the Soviet Union as something other than a nonstop Stalinist totalitarian nightmare, meaning they tried to examine how ordinary Soviet citizens perceived their society or periodized the country’s history to show how very different the Stalin era was from the Thaw, and so on.

We are in desperate need of a revisionist history of the recent past, meaning the 1990s to the present. I realize no serious historian believes in “histories of the present,” but it’s good to attempt such things anyway, if only to preserve parts of the present or the near past that will not be so obvious to the people who come after us.

What I have in mind most of all is the very successful attempt to hypnotize the whole world into believing what I call the standard narrative about the collapse of the Soviet Union, its aftermath, and the rise of Putinism. Remarkably, the standard narrative is shared by Putinists, anti-Putinists (especially leftist anti-Putinists,) and lazy western academics and journalists alike, that is, by people who would seem otherwise to be at odds in the present when it comes to interpreting Russia’s current morass or, alternately, “resurgence.

I don’t want to rehearse the standard narrative here, partly because at this point it bores me to tears, and partly because I don’t want to give yet another platform to a story that the remarkable US president would call “fake news.”

The upshot is that everyone has forgotten that, during the “savage nineties,” Russian politicians, Russian society, Russian media, and ordinary Russians were not all reflexively anti-American and anti-western. Nor were they necessarily pro-American and pro-western.

Whatever they were, then, and whatever they were doing, it was this that was crucial to what happened in Russia at the time, for good and for ill. Meaning that no amount of American and western aid, advice, and other interventions (including the interventions of capitalist wheeler dealers and carpetbaggers) made a critical difference to the polity or the unbearable chaos, depending on your point of view, that Russians produced collectively at that extraordinarily interesting time

To know that, it helps a great deal to have actually been here to witness it, as I was.

This is not to say that nothing the west and the US did at the time (I’ll leave it you to make up your own lists of those things) had any impact on life in Russia. What I do mean to say is that impact was never so critical as to make inevitable the period that followed, meaning the Putinist period, in which the country’s ruling elite has been engaged, from day one of the post-Yeltsin, in an all-out “cold civil war” (a term coined by a friend of mine) against ever more numerous and ever larger segments of Russian society.

However, throught both periods, western governments, including the US, and western organizations of all kinds have been keen to promote democracy, civil society, academic research, and culture in Russia, and have spent a good deal of time, energy, and money on that mission, premised, mistakenly or not, on the notion that Russia was a society not so different from our own societies.

I realize I am deliberately emphasizing the positive side of this relationship and practically ignoring the darker, negative sides of this effort. I am doing so for two reasons. One, I really do believe the positive has outweighed the negative. Two, I think the real challenge for serious “new revisionist” historians of the recent post-Soviet past would be to not take the standard narrative as a given, because once you do that, I would argue, you are a short slippery slope away from full-blown Putinism, which in Russian hipster leftist discourse usually has been camouflaged by a rather dubious take on post-colonialism, namely, that “the west” has attempted to “colonize” post-Soviet Russia, that would make all the pioneers of post-colonialist theory turn over in their graves, that is, if they are not still alive and happily theorizing among us.

The flipside of this wholesale sellout to the Putinist standard narrative, paradoxically, is the widespread belief that “the west” owes each and every Russian a personal debt either for screwing up their country so badly or, conversely, for not doing enough to make it a full-fledged democracy.

So, having spent millions and billions of dollars and euros, and thousands and hundred of thousands of manhours doing our best to help our wartime ally take what we all thought would be a tiny, natural, easy step in the right direction, we are now universally reviled (and revile ourselves) either for attempting to divert Russia from its unique historical trajectory or not doing enough to divert Russia from its uniquely catastrophic historical trajectory.

Concomitant to this “porridge on the brain” (kasha v golove) is the equally widespread and equally false notion that “we” (as if “the west” were a real thing, a monolith centrally governed by me or the Rockefeller family or my Uncle Duane) have not been paying enough attention to “victimized,” “colonized” or “resurgent” Russia (cross out the words that do not apply) both in terms of journalistic coverage and academic research.

In fact, Russia has had so much attention of all kinds lavished on it in the last thirty years, I would wager that, in terms of character counts, minutes of airtime, column inches, and so forth, it would easily outdo all other parts of the so-called non-western world, China included.

Yet I am constantly encountering people, Russians and “Russophiles” alike, who argue that if “the west” would spend more time (and money) listening to this group of Russian or that group of Russians, it would finally get the “real picture.”

In reality, nearly all those groups of Russians with big messages for the imaginary Big Brother have been furiously shuttling back and forth across the frontier for a long time now, wearing a large furrow in the carpet.

This brings me to my non-intuitive and unforeseen conclusion, which would seem to be at odds with everything I have professed and done over the last nearly thirty years.

What if “we” (although “we” know don’t really exist, but “they” don’t know that, even though “they” don’t really exist, either) just gave up altogether on our nonexistent collective project to befriend Russia or bring it to its knees by begging it fecklessly not to turn into a tinpot kleptocracy.

With all the time, money, and manhours freed up, “we” could engage with other parts of the world or take up other worthy pursuits.

What does this have to do with Russia? Absolutely nothing at all. And that’s my point. I think it would have a tremendously invigorating effect if “we” (who don’t really exist) disengaged from Russia altogether, if only because we need to deal with our own ailing countries or other traumas, joys, and dreams pestering our souls.

And also because solidarity, as I have been harping on for years, is a two-way street.

There was a time, in the nineties, when I thought I could see that two-way street being built. It has long ago turned into a one-way street, however, and whatever “we” do do and whatever “we” do not do, “we” are damned and condemned and reviled and told “we” are not doing enough. That is, “we” are in what Margaret Mead’s less-famous but equally distinguished husband Gregory Bateson called a double bind.

I suggest “we” either just give up and get on with our lives or we take seriously the idea that, for the last two decades, we have been feeding ourselves a load of crap about our relationship with Russia and what has really been going on here, and we have let ourselves be fed a load of crap. TRR

Fruits and Vegetables

“Fruits Vegetables”

Anyone who blames the US Foreign Service and its 755 staffers, most of them Russian nationals, who even as I write this are either being removed from their posts and sent back to the States, or (the vast majority) summarily fired without cause from their jobs at the US embassy in Moscow and the US consulates in Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok, for the earth-crushing “visa crisis” now “unfairly affecting ordinary Russians,” should actually try and figure out what is going on and who is to blame for the so-called crisis before writing yet another wildly misinformed Facebook or Telegram post about how it’s all the fault of Donald Trump, the State Department, and the obtuse staffers in the visa departments at the US embassy and consulates in Russia.

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, is to blame for the “crisis,” because it was he who ordered the summary dismissal or removal of 755 embassy and consulate personnel by September 1, 2017.

He knew quite well his order would, among other things, make it difficult for the US embassies and consulates to process visa requests at the pace required by all those “ordinary Russians” and to do this in the big cities where they either live or live near.

But I have seen hardly any mention of Putin’s role in the affair, especially in the tumultuous fountain of collective wisdom known as Facebook, where yet another festival of free-floating anti-Americanism has erupted.

President Putin, if he actually read Facebook, would be pleased to see what some of his countrymen have been writing, because he would be witnessing the wild flowering of the anti-Americanism he has been carefully planting in place of communism as the country’s ruling ideology over the last eighteen years.

I admit he has been going about it in a way that sometimes suggested he was, instead, “fostering better relations” with the US, but nobody who has actually been following the vicissitudes of his regime and his actual moves and key policy statements would have been fooled by that transparent ruse.

But enough of Putin. He’s a super villain and can thus be excused for doing mean, hurtful things to hundreds of people he has never met. That’s his job.

What about his virtual countrymen, who for the last several days have been writing lots of mean, hurtful, and stupid things about hundreds of people, most of whom they have never met, most of them on the verge of losing jobs some of them have held for one or two decades (the Russians) or being uprooted again and sent to another posting after getting settled in Russia (the actual US diplomats)?

What have they done to deserve your wrath?

Nothing.

Which means, at least, that the minimum of solidarity you could have shown them as they go through something that will cause many of them and their family members a great deal of anguish, to put it mildly, was to think harder for a few minutes, find out what was really going on, and figure out who was really to blame for the problem, instead of once again taking an absolutely useless but “emotionally satisfying” punch at the Great Satan, as if you were taking your cues from Putin himself or the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Allah bless his soul.

I realize what I’ve written will be nearly inscrutable to people who have reacted this way. They just want their visas—and they want them now.

So I’ll leave it at this. Now matter how many times you may have been to the US and how much time you’ve spent there, you’ve demonstrated to me you’re not exactly friends of my country.

At the same time, you’ve shown you feel no solidarity for your own real countrymen, who are losing their jobs because a whimsical tyrant and his clique of friends have decided to rule Russia for as long as they can or until they drain it dry, whichever comes first.

Is the US State Department and its Russian national employees to blame for that state of affairs, too?

No.

So, at very least, you also have a very odd, contemptuous attitude toward your own countrymen and your own country.

Hence your signal inability to blame the man who actually caused the “crisis” for causing it.

Not to mention he scares you to death, so it’s always wiser to blame someone else for his regime’s excesses. It’s a lot safer to verbally roast the State Department, Kirill Serebrennikov, Kirill Serebrennikov’s accountant, and so on, for the “stupid mistakes” they made.

Anyone smarter than they are wouldn’t have done the stupid things they did, and we know you’re all much smarter than the State Department, Kirill Serebrennikov, his accountant, and all the other, now nearly countless victims of the eighteen-year-old Putinist tyranny. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Talk of the Town

You would be forgiven if you imagined Russia’s liberal, leftist, technical, creative, conservative and other intelligentsias were abuzz right now with righteous anger or triumphant glee about what the country’s air force (now officially known, bizarrely, as the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS) has been up to in Syria and, more specifically, Aleppo, these days.

No, many of them are terribly exercised, in various directions, about the controversy over an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.

This was borne out by the websites of some of the country’s leading dailies this morning.

vedomosti-syria

The liberal Vedomosti, a business-oriented newspaper, listed its top stories this morning. The top story was entitled “Faces in a Queue for the iPhone 7”; the second most-read story was about the Sturges show.

True, Vedomosti readers are serious lads and lassies, so the number three story was about Syria. It was headlined, “Five World Powers and EU Demand Decisive Steps from Russia in Syria.”

Earlier today, I posted a few bits from the bizarre article about yesterday’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, published in the country’s other serious, formerly liberal, business daily, Kommersant.

Similarly, Moskovsky Komsolomets could not figure out what its readers would find more titillating: reading about how the VKS’s top guns were bombing Aleppo to smithereens or how astroturfed patriots were threatening the God-given right of every self-respecting intelligent to implement Dostoevsky’s maxim that beauty would save the world.

mk-syria

By way of splitting the difference, this morning’s website featured a picture of a chap obviously meant to embody the most average-looking Russian bloke on earth, sadly contemplating one of Sturges’s blasphemous nudes, while a sidebar headline shouts, “Everyone [sic] Is Bombing: Churkin Thinks Peace Impossible in Syria.”

Izvestia has become a particularly noxious loudspeaker for the regime in the past years, so the front page of its website contained a fair number of articles and op-ed pieces chockablock with baldfaced lies about the bloodbath in Aleppo, but at least it had the dignity not to yield to the fake moral panic brewing around the Sturges show.

The relative paucity of Russian media coverage of the Syrian conflict and publicly accessible grassroots reactions was confirmed by the following completely unscientific Google search.

“Джок Стержес” (“Jock Sturges”) got 12,000 more hits than “бомбардироква Алеппо” (“bombing Aleppo”), even though, one could argue, the bombing of Aleppo by somebody or other has been a more topical item in the news for a longer time than Jock Sturges, whatever his longevity or virtues as a contemporary artist.

Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “Jock Sturges” in Russian, September 26, 2016
Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in Russian, September 26, 2016

When I did the same search (“bombing Aleppo”) in English, I got over a million hits.

Results of Google for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in English, September 26, 2016

Certainly, we immediately have to factor in the sheer numbers of Anglophone media and readers in the world. There are quite a few more of both than there are Russophone media and readers, and so one would expect to find more responses to particular topics of global interest in English than in Russian.

But what about the vox pop?

An even more unscientific survey of the Russophone segment of Facebook this morning (that is, the part of the segment to which I have access, amounting to several hundred people, most of whom could be identified as intelligentsia or quasi-intelligentisa) showed that quite a few people were up in arms over the Sturges show or coolly editorializing about it to their extended communities of invisible friends, while literally no one was writing anything about Syria.

This has been the case for the past year. Not only that, but I have shared a fairly large number of articles and opinions about Syria, including my own, over that time, and have elicited a total of zero likes and comments from my Russian Facebook friends.

Non-Russian friends, on the contrary, like and comment on these posts in the same numbers as they and their Russian counterparts usually react to the other, non-Syrian things I write about.

Maybe I have the wrong Russian friends, but my hypothesis is that “politically engaged” or “socially conscious” Russians are literally afraid to say or write anything in public about the Syrian conflict. They have the good sense to know that their president-for-life has sunken his teeth into this geopolitical chew toy and has no intention of unclenching them.

Hence, anyone foolish enough to comment on this catastrophic attempt to reassert an increasingly impoverished country as a super power might get themselves in trouble with the powers that be. Over the last year, they have been hauling in utterly ordinary people  on “extremism” charges in fairly large numbers for reposting or commenting on the most innocuous things on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.

Even more telling, there has not been a single public demonstration in Russia against Russian military involvement in Syria during the past year—to my knowledge, at least.*

Again, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. The current Russian regime has gone out of its way to make public demonstrations and pickets an unattractive pastime for all but the bravest of Russians.

Still, the war in Syria is the central international conflict of our time, and Russia’s best and brightest have literally nothing to say about it, even though their nominally elected government has not been merely a party to the conflict, but has come firmly down on one side, arguably, the wrong side, the side causing the most damage.

I find this deafening public silence about Syria more disturbing than anything else happening in Russia right now.

* After I posted this, Comrade BN wrote the following to me: “In Moscow last year there were some very small pickets protesting against the war in Syria, and the people who organized it attempted to set up an anti-war committee. As far as I know, though, the authorities pretty much intimidated them with varying degrees of extremity into giving up.”

The Two-State Solution (Racism and the Russian Intelligentsia)

Boris Akunin
Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin:

In Russia, two distinct, completely dissimilar peoples live side by side, and these peoples have long been bitterly hostile towards each other. (May the Byzantine double-headed eagle that Ivan the Third selected as the country’s emblem go to hell in a hand basket.)

There is Us and there is Them.

We have our own heroes: Chekhov, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Sakharov.

They have their own heroes: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and now Putin.

Members of the two nations recognize each other at first glance and experience a pang of acute dislike that selfsame second. We do not like anything about Them: the way They look, talk, carry themselves, rejoice and grieve, dress and undress. Their favorite singers, films, and TV shows make us sick. They pay Us in kind, and with interest.

Apart from Us and Them, there are just plain folk, who make up the majority of the population. We and They are constantly trying to win over this neither-fish-nor-fowl, to introduce them to our values.

What do you think should be done with this reality? Should we kill each other?

—Excerpted from Boris Akunin and Mikhail Shishkin, “Conversation between a Novelist and a Writer,” July 30, 2013

Our Swimmer

While there seems to be a fair amount of self-irony, in the comments, above, by the famed Russian detective novel writer Boris Akunin, I cannot help laughing when I read such exercises in self-praise by the so-called Russian intelligentsia and, at the same time, recall something that happened to me several years ago when I was running a summer study program in Petrograd for an American university.

Our students lived with Russian host families, and fitting student to host family was not always a snap, but it was mostly doable. That particular summer, however, more students had signed up for the program than ever before, and our limited resources were stretched thin. So I was taking recommendations from whomever I could get them, rather than relying only on the list of potential host families provided by our partners at the state university here in town.

That is how found myself visiting a couple in their flat somewhere in the city’s Central District. It was in a Stalin-era building, but the couple proudly informed me right away that Oleg Basilashvili, a well-known screen and stage actor and liberal intelligentsia icon, was a neighbor. They, too, were members of the creative intelligentsia. One of them was a theater critic, while the other had something to do with the Conservatory, I seem to remember.

The point, as I had already told them over the phone, was that I had one student left to place with a family, a male student. They, it transpired, had a teenage daughter. Would it be a problem for them to have a male student living in the same flat as their daughter? No, it would not be a problem, they told me.

Given the reputation of the university I was representing, they might have imagined I would be setting them up with a blond scion of a New England old money, so if their daughter was whisked off her feet over the summer or merely made useful connections in high places, what could be the harm?

As we were wrapping our conversation at their flat, having ironed out almost all the practical details, the couple thought to ask me what the young man’s name was.

“Diego,” I said.

My answer literally sent their eyes spinning in circles and smoke shooting from their ears. All it took was the “wrong” name for them to imagine a summer of their daughter basking in the glow of old American money with a patina of academic respectability turning into the constant threat of rape and ravishment at the hands of a “hot-blooded Latino.”

And they told me that in so many words, all the while denying that they were what they were—racists.

The funny thing was that Diego was gay in every sense of the word: fun to be around, a kind, sweet-hearted young man, and no “threat” to their precious daughter. But since Oleg Basilashvili’s neighbors had already outed themselves as racists, I did not want to hang around and find out whether they were homophobes as well.

I was more naïve than I am now. Although I had already had many encounters with “casual” racism and anti-Semitism Russian style, Petrograd had not yet arrived at the bad part of its mid noughties, when more proactive racists than my intelligentsia couple would ever want to be began assaulting and murdering immigrants, foreigners, anti-fascists, and members of Russian ethnic minorities in especially large numbers.

But I was not naïve enough to try and plead Diego’s case to these assholes. I immediately left their precious den of culture-vulturehood and hit the streets, cursing them out loud while also trying to think of a back-up plan.

That it is when I thought of our long-time acquaintance F.A., who had nannied the young son of a friend for years, and even had cooked for our family for a short while when we were in a bad spot. By no means was F.A. a member of the ballyhooed intelligentsia, which was not to say that she was uneducated or crude or anything but kind, loving, funny, smart, warm, and one of the best cooks I have ever met in my life. Besides that, she had worked in a factory her whole life, doing quality control, and she was Jewish.

When I telephoned her and told her what the deal was, she did not hesitate a second to welcome Diego into her home.

Needless to say, Diego and F.A. hit it off and had a great time in each other’s company that summer.

So when, a while later, I was asked to find temporary summer accommodation in Petrograd for another young gay Latino man, I could think of no better hostess than F.A. They also hit it off famously.

This is my roundabout way of saying something that has only been confirmed ten thousand times since by experiences both personal and vicarious: the liberal Russian intelligentsia is not all it is cracked up to be. It is often not particularly liberal or progressive, and is just as likely to be as Putinist or more Putinist than Putin’s mythical alleged “base” among industrial workers and peasants in the “Russian heartlands” or the “simple folk” in the big cities. If anything, my own experience has been that, on the contrary, these simple folk are not so simple and not so automatically inclined to putinize the world around them, much less racialize it.

There are just as many bigots and racists among the “Russian liberal intelligentsia” as there are among the Russian lower classes, maybe more.

Whatever the case, the fact that many Russian liberals have loose reactionary, racist screws in their brains has become apparent from the rabid reactionary discourse that has sprung up within Russia’s talking, thinking, and writing classes around the “refugee crisis” in Europe and the fresh clashes between Israelis and Palestinians..

Yegor Osipov and Kirill Kobrin’s attempts, below, to counter this utterly irrational discourse might seem mild outside of this context, but they are welcome contributions to a debate that it is most remarkable for its near-total absence from Russian public life.

Yegor Osipov
Yegor Osipov

Humanizing Palestinians
Yegor Osipov
October 21, 2015
Radio Svoboda

“Maybe Israel does not behave perfectly in the Occupied Territories, but this is no justification for terrorism.” This comment on Facebook is nearly the most moderate gesture of support for Israel in connection with the new wave of Palestinian terrorism. Despite the fact that nothing justifies terrorism, the situation requires clarification.

Unfortunately, Russian commentators often forget the fact that Israel occupies around 60% of the West Bank and has been building settlements there for its own citizens. (Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords stipulated this state of affairs was only temporary.) They forget the Jewish settlements are built so as to significantly impede the movement of Palestinians between their towns and prevent the expansion of these towns. They forget that between 2000 and 2012 Israel demolished over two and a half thousand Palestinian buildings, buildings for which it, as the occupying power, had not issued construction permits. They forget that Israel restricts the access of tens of thousands of Palestinians to water, forcing them to pay much more for it than Jewish settlers living nearby. They forget that the IDF keeps troops in the West Bank who are engaged only in maintaining the occupation: a noise grenade there, a noise grenade here, searches of houses (women to the right, men to the left), and so on every other night. This tactic is called “mak[ing] our presence felt,” and sometimes it leads to innocent victims. Without knowing this, you might think that Israel and the West Bank were different planets, but in fact both political entities depend on each other. The West Bank depends on virtually everything that happens in Israel, while Israel (and this becomes clear during waves of terror) depends on the social climate in the West Bank.

The situation with the Gaza Strip, about which Russians also do not know very much, is quite different. In 2005, after the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military personnel, the Gaza Strip was declared territory to which Israel had no obligations because it had “ended the occupation,” although it continued to implement land, sea, and air control of the Strip. After Hamas came to power and began rocket attacks on the southern part of the Jewish state, Israel proclaimed the Strip a “hostile entity” and established a blockade of the area along with Egypt, essentially locking around 1,800,000 people in an open-air prison.

In July 2014, in response to the murder of three Jewish teenagers by Palestinian terrorists, Israel launched an operation in the Gaza Strip, killing more than 2,200 people. Last summer, Jewish terrorists tossed Molotov cocktails at an Arab house, burning alive three members of the family who lived there, including an 18-month-old baby. Israel has yet to indict the terrorists. Some people manage to include this in the “Jewish people’s struggle for survival.” I think it only plays into the hands of anti-Semites the world over. But anti-Semitism, according to a newly released US State Department report on levels of religious freedom in the world, is once again on the rise, and the bias of the UN Security Council and the world’s leading media in favor of Palestine [sic] has not gone away.

Whether Israel will cope with the current wave of terror is a big question, because what is happening is not an intifada, which involves the coordination of armed protest. Today, we are seeing one-off attacks by ordinary Palestinians in no way linked to terrorist organizations. This is desperation after nearly half a century of occupation and the continuing colonization of Palestinian lands by Israelis. Last Friday, Benjamin Netanyahu, who during the recent elections declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, urged Mahmud Abbas to negotiate. But it is very likely that, as Israel’s main partner (just compare Abbas and Arafat), Abbas will be unable to help calm the situation. According to reports by Israel’s security services, the leader of the Palestinian Authority has been trying to resist the current wave of violence as it is. All this only shows that the situation is critical.

However, for the Russian intelligentsia, Israel continues to be a place it prefers to discuss with eyes wide shut and using generalizations like the “clash of civilizations.” Divided, like Europe, over the issue of taking in refugees, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Russian intellectuals, with few exceptions, adopt an uncompromising pro-Israeli stance. Reposts of videos from Israeli hospitals showing “ungrateful” Arabs are accompanied by captions such as “Watch this!” or “Read this!” Others post pictures of the Israeli flag emblazoned with the slogan “Yes! I stand with Israel! Share if you do, too!”

​​The rising wave of support for Israel points to the Orientalist bent of Russian minds, with the classic traits of Orientalism. The eastern, Arab world of Islam is incapable, allegedly, of solving its own problems. This world must always be guided by an “intelligent” West, a role that is often assigned to Israel, because Arabs are fundamentally incapable of changing themselves and their societies. The great Edward Said writes in the preface to Mourid Barghouti’s book I Saw Ramallah that the novel’s translator has done her job excellently, and in the English translation “[t]he Palestinian experience is therefore humanized and given substance in a new way.” Russian intellectuals, however, are not yet willing to humanize Palestinians. Indeed, what difference does it make that Asraa Zidan Tawfik Abed, who tried to stab a soldier in Afula and was gunned down, is a mother of three who holds a degree from Technion University in Haifa?

It is unclear how the conflict will end. It is clear only that the conflict is likely to be another turning point in Israel’s history, the next step after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. What can the Russian intelligentsia do if it wants to help Israel deal with these as-yet-unclear new realities? At the very least, it should cease losing its self-control and speaking the language of the “clash of civilizations,” see, finally, what the Palestinian territories are like and how closely bound the West Bank is to Israel, realize the gravity of the situation in the Gaza Strip, and try and work out a positive agenda. In the end, it is this that has not happened the last twenty years. The occupation of and crimes against the Palestinians are, alas, not the problem. The problem is talking about the occupation and crimes of the Jewish state.

In his popular book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, Yossi Klein Halevi, once a member of the radical fringe of American Jewry, describes the process of his transformation from an ultra-rightist radical to a centrist. When Halevi’s first daughter, Moriah, was born in 1985, he moved all his books about the Holocaust (which had once played a key role in his life as a member of the second generation) onto the upper shelves of his bookcases. He noticed that he put away even books with no pictures. He writes that this was his way of saying to himself these books were no longer the center of his life. Just as Halevi put away books about the Holocaust, the Russian intelligentsia needs to remove the imaginary radio broadcasting news either about the Six-Day War or Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and replace it with two maps: a map of the Middle East and a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The old threats to Israel are ever fewer, while we have a hard time imagining the new threats.

Yegor Osipov is a Russian journalist living in the Netherlands.

Kirill Kobrin
Kirill Kobrin

The Intelligentsia and Racism
Kirill Kobrin
October 23, 2015
Current Time

Nationalism was born two hundred years ago. At first, it was the theoretical labor of the early Romantics, poets, folklore compilers, and forgers of nonexistent ancient epics of their own peoples. Only then was it put into practice: amidst the gun and cannon smoke of the Napoleonic epic, in the secret Carbonari societies, on the revolutionary barricades.

In the late nineteenth century, nationalism generated several new nation-states. They became more numerous after 1918, not to mention the post-1945 period.

The process of carving countries up according to ethnicity continued even after 1991. The further disintegration of big countries into small countries, and small countries into tiny countries, was just barely avoided. And yet, until recently it was thought that nationalism in today’s Europe was the bailiwick of football hooligans and political outsiders. However, as recent events have shown, many, many people think in terms of “blood and soil.”

It has transpired that there is no vaccine against nationalism and even racism not only for so-called ordinary people. Wordsmiths, intellectuals, and even liberals chronically suffer from them as well. Russian liberals have proven especially vulnerable, or rather, members of the educated class who consider themselves liberals. We are not engaged in political analysis in this column, but we will look at the ethnic mindset of current Russian liberals as a historic phenomenon.

Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has excited many people dissatisfied with the Putin regime, even those who resisted the Crimean temptation. For example, one well-known Internet figure, who has somehow passed for a political expert, shook the air with bloodthirsty calls to kill as many Syrians as possible, since they are Arabs and, therefore, enemies.

Whoever bombs Syria today, I very much welcome it, and if it is wiped off the face of the earth I won’t be the least bit disappointed. I will only say thank you.
—Anton Nossik

Many have voiced a slightly more restrained variation on this viewpoint, and one progressive media outlet has published an article that discusses, in particular, the indisputable superiority of Jewish men over Arab men in the sense of devotion to their families and courage. In connection with the influx of Syrian refugees, concern for the purity of European is voiced. The article in question is permeated with hidden and flagrant sexual motifs. The subtitle refers to “Raped Europe,” and in the opening paragraphs the author complains it is unfair that “girls love” starry-eyed defenders of refugees rather than defenders of European values.

Fear and loathing towards an alien tribe (the authors of such texts usually do not distinguish Arabs from Kurds, Kurds from Turks, and so on) and an alien religion, Islam (whose sense and essence they are too lazy to understand) have reached a fever pitch. Like all hysterics, Russian “racialist liberals” have been winding themselves up, and the noise level has been steadily increasing.

We are faced with a typical nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century mindset. Take, for example, the motif of the “raped motherland” (or “native culture”). Motherland and Fatherland had become a “mother” back with the Romantics, and later, Alexander Blok, a Late Romantic congenial to proto-fascist views, even proclaimed Russia his wife.

Oh, my Russia! My wife! Painfully / Clear to us is the long road!
—Alexander Blok

In this scheme of things, any outsider is seen as a threat to the mother’s purity, to her sexual serenity. But war and other hostile (or seemingly hostile) actions are attempted rape. Curiously, the identification also works in reverse. An ordinary woman belonging to “our” people is treated as the Mother, the symbol of the nation.

The further we go into the twentieth century, the clearer the purely ethnic and biological features in the countenance of the Woman/Mother become. She is sexually threatened by telltale-looking strangers: Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda was chockablock with depictions of handsome blonde beauties harassed by swarthy apelike creatures.

For current Russian liberals, the role of the Mother threatened by violence is now played by the whole of Europe. It is strange that these folks so rarely invoke the mythological motif of the rape of Europa, in which the maiden Europa is abducted by Zeus in the shape of a bull, who spirits her away—across the Mediterranean!—to Crete, where has his way with her. The discussions of the newfangled national-liberals about the “rape of Europe” naively retell the myth in the most unpretentious racist manner. The “rapist,” “alien” or “suspicious Muslim” crosses the Mediterranean and, once in Europe, rapes her, meaning he bends her to his will. Just imagine that not so long it was said that classic Freudianism and Jungianism were half-forgotten things of the past. But now it turns out that all these things (combined with Social Darwinism and racial theory about the “inferiority” of certain nations) are alive and dominant in the minds of people, moreover, the minds of people whose job it is to reflect on things and generate meaning.

You can, of course, seek out the historical parallels, for example, the steady rightward drift of the liberal segment of the first Russian emigration or the fascist sympathies of such champions of freedom and justice as G.K. Chesterton. But all historical analogies obscure the essence of the matter. And the essence of the matter is this. Suffocating nationalism, moreover, on both sides of the current Putinist divide, is the principal legacy of seventy years of Soviet rule. While preaching internationalism, the communist ideology and the communist regime were weaker than the primitive xenophobia and fear of outsiders that permeated the minds of the Soviet intelligentsia. The collapse of ideology has brought these sentiments to the fore. Aside from everything else, another thing has become clear. The Russian intelligentsia, which considers itself liberal, knows no more about the world than their predecessors from some Turgenev novel.

By the way, have you heard there was a decisive battle on the Danube? Three hundred Turkish officers killed, Silistra has been taken, and Serbia has declared its independence. Don’t you think that you, as a patriot, should be thrilled? As for me, my Slavic blood is just boiling! However, I advise you to be more cautious. I am sure you are being watched. The spying here is horrible! Yesterday, a suspicious person came up to me and asked whether I was Russian. I told him I was Danish.
—Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve

Everything was clear then: we were fighting for our “fellow Slavs” and wishing death on the “bloodthirsty Muslims.” The only difference is that today the names of the people we should be protecting from the villains are very different. We are witnessing a cynical pathetic remake of the novel On the Eve.

Kirill Kobrin is a writer, historian, journalist, and editor living in London.

The texts by Boris Akunin, Yegor Osipov, and Kirill Kobrin were translated by the Russian Reader.

Seven Years Later: How Things Were Done In Submariners Garden

How Things Were Done in Petersburg: The Destruction of Submariners Garden
July 24, 2008
Chtodelat News & The Russian Reader

The current regime presents itself, at home and abroad, as having brought “stability” and prosperity to Russia. Russians, the storyline goes, are enjoying the fruits of their new consumerist society, and thus social conflict, much less outright resistance to the powers that be, is insignificant. Russians are buying into this new “de-ideologized” ideology because it allows them to buy a better life.

Closer to the ground, however, the picture looks different. In fact, all over Russia, workers are struggling to create independent trade unions and improve the conditions of their work; antifascists are battling to stop the scourge of neo-Nazi attacks on the country’s minorities and foreign residents; and human rights activists, opposition activists, and just ordinary folk are working to make the country’s commitment to democracy and law meaningful (to mention only a few, obvious examples). Because the regime has a near-total lock on the media, most of these conflicts are kept out of the public view or presented to the public in a distorting mirror. And, it has to be said, the numbers of resisters nationwide are such that it would be wrong to say that society at large is (for now) gripped by a revolutionary mood.

In Petersburg, the most significant front in this “quiet” or “cold” civil war in the past few years has been the conflict surrounding the rampant architectural redevelopment of the city. The attention of observers both foreign and domestic has been focused on mega-projects such as the planned 400-meter skyscraper that will serve as the centerpiece of Gazprom’s Okhta Center, just across the Neva River from downtown Petersburg, the demolition of the city’s grand, plentiful “architectural heritage,” and the creative, nonviolent resistance mounted by such grassroots groups as Living City. Less attention is paid to efforts to prevent infill construction, which has become a particular plague in the city’s “non-classical” outlying neighborhoods, most of them built during the post-Stalin, pre-perestroika period.

These neighborhoods offer developers an advantage they cannot find in the historic center: “open” space. In reality, this means the tree-filled courtyards, gardens, and parks that Soviet city planners designed into these new estates in order to give citizens the fresh air, greenery, and recreational areas they were so desperately lacking in the densely built environment of the city center.

These “empty” spaces also present another advantage: they already have the infrastructure (gas, water, and sewerage mains, electrical grids and telephone lines, paved roads, and public transportation) that would be expensive to install in the truly undeveloped territories farther away from the center. Developers also do not have to worry about the building height regulations that still, however feebly, hold sway in the inner districts. They are also encouraged by an overheated economy whose main beneficiaries have few other avenues where they can invest their newfound wealth, and by a plentiful supply of cheap labor in the form of immigrants from the impoverished former Soviet republics.

On the administrative side, they are assisted by the “legal nihilism” of which President Medvedev has spoken so eloquently of in recent months, and by the central state’s identification of new housing construction as a national priority. (It matters little that much of the new housing created in Petersburg is functionally and nominally “elite,” meaning that is both unaffordable for most people and, in many cases, principally serves as a financial instrument for local administrations, banks, real estate agents, and buyers. I.e., it is not built as part of a social welfare program.)

In one seemingly insignificant block in the Piskarevka-Polyustrovo micro-district, in the far northeast of the city, all these factors have recently combined to destroy Submariners Garden, a large inner-courtyard grove dedicated to the memory of Soviet and Russian submariners who lost their lives in peacetime. Local residents have known about plans to build a housing complex on the site of the garden and have been resisting them since 2006. Piquancy has added to their struggle by the fact that the project is backed by the FSB, the Federal Security Service, whose officers have, allegedly, been allotted a certain number of apartments in the new buildings.

In May, the conflict went from simmering to hot when construction contractors tried to install a concrete wall around the garden. They were met with furious resistance from residents, who were assisted by local environmental and political activists. In June, further, unsuccessful attempts to install the wall sparked new stand-offs between construction workers, police, neighbors, and activists. This in turn prompted Alexander Vakhmistrov, one of the city’s vice governors and its construction “czar,” to declare a temporary moratorium on all work.

City officials and legislators also tried to calm residents by claiming that their block would be slated for “renovation”—which is what the administration has dubbed its new, ambitious program to replace many of the city’s Khrushchev- and Brezhnev-era residential buildings with new dwellings that will supposedly be built on the same sites as their dilapidated predecessors and will house the people temporarily resettled from those same buildings. The activists and residents of Submariners Garden have mostly rejected this plan, seeing it as an attempt to put a good face on a bad (con) game that never had anything to do with “renovation.”

Despite all these assurances and promises, however, in the early morning of July 21, construction workers, backed by police and “security guards” (i.e. low-level thugs), arrived at Submariners Garden and began clearing trees. Activists and residents sent out a call for help and tried to mount what resistance they could under the circumstances. They were badly outnumbered, however, and in the event, four of them, including their leader, Yelena Malysheva, were arrested. By evening, the “developers” had accomplished what they had set out to do. They had cut down all the trees in the vast, central section of the courtyard and had surrounded it with a concrete barrier.

Activists promised that the fight has not ended, but, in the absence of a solidarity network capable of reacting quickly and in larger numbers to such “fires,” it is difficult to imagine how they and other Petersburgers in similar straits throughout the city can successfully defend their homes and squares. More important, what is lacking is a compelling alternative political practice that would enlist greater numbers of people in the struggle against hegemonic “aggressive development” (Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s coinage) and the other predations of oligarchic capital by advocating real grassroots participation in planning and socially oriented development.

Nevertheless, what prevents its emergence most of all are the many micro-practices and everyday discourses through which both the hegemons and the hegemonized persuade themselves and each other that only silly “beautiful souls,” old women, and hysterics worry about old buildings, beautiful panoramas, and humble groves in shabby Soviet-era neighborhoods. Worse, these “losers” are often represented, by politicians and the media, as paid agents of more sinister forces who wish to undermine Russia’s long-sought “stability.” In this case, as in so many others, solidarity with such unattractive types is out of the question. Everyone has more important things to worry about.

Here we present video testimony, in Russian, by some residents of Submariners Garden, Each video is accompanied by a transcript in English.

For a good summary of the day’s events and the conflict in general, see Sergey Chernov’s July 22 article in The St. Petersburg Times (which has been reproduced in full, below).

Submariners Garden, Petrograd, July 21, 2008

[Yekaterina:] Wherever we called, they told us that this was all renovation, although it’s not renovation at all—it’s infill construction. We all were against it. There were public hearings: we all signed [petitions] against this project. There was a vote for [or against] renovation: we signed [petitions?] against this renovation when we learned how it would be carried out. There are two children’s institutions here. They want to build two buildings for the FSB [and] a 150-car parking lot, which we really don’t need here.

They began working around seven-thirty. Who exactly gave them permission? This mainly comes from our governor [Valentina Matviyenko]. That is, she gave them the green light, although there is a law protecting green spaces. There is also a law about human rights in general: [one has the right] to live in one’s neighborhood and have one’s say about what will be [built] there and what won’t. We have been stripped of this right.

We have already filed a suit in the [European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg, and we are waiting for our case to be reviewed. What is going on here is total lawlessness: the land was sold, but no one asked us [what we thought about it].

What is at stake here is the value of the land and the value of our infrastructure (our gas mains and electrical cables), which is all ready to use. And the value of our lives: the outer walls in our buildings shake even when a freight train passes by way over there. When a truck passes by below, the outer walls here shake like crazy. We have these huge cracks in the walls, and the ceilings leak in many apartments.

This renovation is not [being done] for us; it’s for someone else. I don’t know what this is. It’s infill construction, ordinary infill construction. We, the residents of Khrushchev-era blocks and five-story houses, are simply being driven out. We have no rights.

My name is Yekaterina. I live literally in the next house over. I have been fighting here for two years. Some people have been fighting for this garden for three years—for this garden, for our green spaces, for our air. The laminated plastics factory periodically sends out fumes. All the children here have allergies. The Avant-Garde plant regularly spits out who knows what. If there is no foliage here, there won’t be any air to breathe. And if there are also going to be 150 cars here or maybe more, then I cannot vouch for what will happen to the health of our children and our own health. I have asthma myself. I cannot breathe the air downtown and I cannot live there.

[Yekaterina:] Our neighborhood has been slated for infill construction. They have slated this place for infill construction, as if it were an empty place. The law on green spaces was passed in 2004. But they slated this little patch—this beautiful, green patch—for infill construction in 2006. Isn’t that a violation [of the law]? It’s a violation. Isn’t it a violation of human rights when we speak out, when we have spoken out against [this project] more than once? They don’t hear us. No one listens to us, no one hears us.

And all the newspapers are silent. We read only articles commissioned [by the authorities or other interested parties]. [We read] that here there is a pitiful bunch of people who have nothing to do with this district. No, we live here. People have lived for forty, fifty years under these trees. How they can ignore this? We plant everything here, we clean the garden up as well as we can, and we have regular volunteer Saturday workdays. Our children ride their bikes here; there’s nowhere else for them to ride. Where should they ride? On the street, on the pavement? Our children play here, parents walk their babies in prams. What kind of demographics will we end up with if our children breathe exhaust fumes and do not see a single green tree their entire childhood?

[Old Woman:] They think they are chopping down trees. They are chopping down our lives. These trees survived the Siege [of Leningrad, during WWII]. Why are trees being felled in the center of the city? Who gave permission to do this?

[Yekaterina:] They included [this neighborhood in the infill construction program] as an empty place, not as a garden, not as a green zone, but as if there were an empty space here. We have a map on which every tree is marked. The city administration has remained totally deaf to our complaints, to our requests. They came and nodded their heads: “Yes, we’ll suspend the project. We’ll put you on the renovation list. Everything’s fine. We’re temporarily suspending construction.”

Now it turns out that [Vice Governor Alexander Vakhimistrov’s] letter ordering a temporary halt in construction was “recalled.” That is, the construction company got the green light to go ahead here. They have already been selling apartments [in the buildings planned for construction on the site of the demolished garden].

[Old Woman:] In Russian, the law is like the shaft on a wagon. They changed their minds [about whether to include our block in the] renovation program three times: first we were in, then we were out. They changed their minds about our park twice: first they included it [in the list of protected green spaces], then they excluded it.

[Yekaterina:] Nevsky Alliance [real estate agency] started selling apartments [in the unbuilt buildings] as soon as the land was sold. In a building that had not been built, apartments have been sold. They have been selling apartments right and left. People have already bought up apartments here.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Sixty apartments have been sold in these buildings. Nevsky Alliance is selling them.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Only eight percent of these apartments will go to the FSB. The rest are up for sale. That is, when they tell people that the block will be renovated, it’s not true. This is a purely commercial project.

[Yekaterina:] When the head of the local council tried to talk with Sergeyev from the FSB, she got five minutes of pure threats in response.

“You’re standing on the FSB’s land. We’re warning you for the last time. We’ll give you the full treatment if you don’t get your residents off our land.”

I am quoting Mister Sergeyev word for word. All of us were standing nearby.

[Irina Dmitriyevna:] Four people were arrested today: they nabbed them. Moreover, they knew whom to go after. They nabbed our leader, Yelena Malysheva. They [also] nabbed three others. They are active [in our struggle], but not so active as to drag them in.

[Yekaterina:] They weren’t doing anything illegal. One guy was simply standing with us on the sidewalk and was trying to prevent them from beating women. He simply grabbed a policeman by the jacket and was trying to pull him off the women. After that, he was beaten up. Yes, we tried to pull them off, and they tossed us around. They kicked our legs and punched us. They twisted our arms. Six or seven guys dragged [Malysheva] across the asphalt and threw her into the police van. Five men against one woman. She had a heart attack: they took her to the hospital.

[Yekaterina:] Maybe we will win [the garden] back and plant new trees… We still have to live here. No one is going to move us anywhere.

When the project was up for discussion, they showed us this project. The project started right from that little road, as if our houses were not there at all. That is, our houses aren’t taken into consideration in this project at all. No one intends to move us out [to new buildings] or repair [our houses]. Our houses shake as it is, and we don’t know what will happen if they start building here. There is quick clay everywhere. Our gas main also lies on top of this quick clay, unless they end up re-laying it. If they begin building here, we don’t know what will happen. That is the geodesic situation. I suspect we will lose everything.

[Woman:] Seryozha wouldn’t hurt a fly.

[Yekaterina:] He wasn’t doing anything. He was just trying to defend [Malysheva]. [They are] impudent men. Look over there at our beauty. [Points to a falling tree.]

[Yekaterina:] How can we hold on? How can you can hold on when strapping guys beat up women and old ladies?

This is what the deputy head of the [local] administration said. “Hold on a little longer. We’ll help you and get to the bottom of this.”

They are still getting to the bottom of this. When all that is left here is a wasteland, and they start building houses on it, that is when they’ll get to the bottom of it.

[Yekaterina:] They almost cut off his arm with those chainsaws. They were just swinging at him with those saws.

[Yekaterina:] They—the entire mainstream press, the radio stations—officially announced that we had started a riot here. There was no riot. We simply surrounded the construction workers and got them off their equipment. None of us struck a single blow.

Half of them left on their own. They just left everything and turned off the compressor they had been using when they were welding the fence together. Everything was calm and peaceful: there was no riot. The riot began when the police showed up and began beating up the old women who were trying to stop the equipment from getting through. That is when the riot—old women versus the police, if you can call that a riot—began.

[Old Woman:] I said to them, “Who are you fighting? Look at me: I’m eighty-one years old.” He grabs me by the arms and tries to drag me away. All we did was stand in front of the crane so that it couldn’t get by us. How they were tossing us away from that crane, our police!

[Yekaterina:] That’s how our police defend us. People from the FSB arrived; they stood around and observed. Anything happens and they come flying in at the drop of a hat. Last time, when we began to push the fence over, a lot of people got taken down to the precinct. Because last time the fence was illegal however you look at it. [The construction company] was told to take it down, but they didn’t take it down. We tried to push it over: half the green activists were arrested for “unlawful actions.” Putting a fence up without a permit, that’s not unlawful. But pushing it over turns out to be unlawful. That is how the law is interpreted in Russia. Whatever is profitable, whatever is sold, that is legal. But what ordinary citizens, poor citizens, the people, pensioners, ordinary workers and clerks want, that is against the law. Because what they want is not in the financial interests of our powers that be. The regime here is antidemocratic [against the people]. Our authorities are antidemocratic. I have become wholly convinced of this. I don’t believe there is any social safety net, I don’t believe they are worried about demographic growth. What kind of demographic growth will there be if children have nowhere to play?

[Old Woman:] We have no authorities: there is a power vacuum in the city. A total absence of authority. And the power of moneybags. The guy who stole a lot of money, he is the power.

[Ykaterina:] We don’t have democracy; we have oligarchic capitalism. And this is real proof of that. This isn’t a democracy; this is antidemocratic. It’s so antidemocratic. This is visible proof that here, on this lot, oligarchic capitalism has triumphed.

[Old Woman:] Matviyenko promised to make the city green. This is how she is making our city green. Vakhmistrov wrote that there were 16.5 square meters of greenery per person, and by the end of 2008 there would be 20 square meters of greenery per person. Vakhmistrov said this: I still have a copy of the newspaper. Is this how he intends to produce 20 square meters per person?

[Yekaterina:] We gathered 1600 signatures against this. 1600 signatures.

[Old Woman:] They took them to the Smolny [city hall] a few days ago. The police barely let them in. Matviyenko didn’t receive them. [Her assistants] gave her the packet with the signatures. And what did we get in reply? Silence and our trees cut down.

[Yelena Fradkina:] As one of the developers put it, “You’re lumpens.”

[Yekaterina:] They told us this outright: “You’re lumpens. You won’t be able to do anything. We bought this land. Go home, you lumpens, and keep your nose out our business.”

[Other Woman:] “We’ll bury you here, and we’ll build here all the same.”

[Yekaterina:] They will bury us. They will bury us under the ruins of our homes, which will collapse when construction begins.

[Old Woman:] This house is forty-three years old. A prefab building, and forty-three years old. It has not once undergone major renovations. It’s barely standing as it is. What will happen when they begin driving piles in the ground? It’s the same with these five-storey houses. We’ll end up homeless.

[Yekaterina:] Even if they drill them in. The railroad is over there, behind the hospital. When a train passes, my windows shake, the outer wall shakes. What if they begin drilling here? The soil here is quaky. There is quick clay here, quick clay there. There is unstable karstic sand here.

[Yelena Fradkina:] There is vegetation here, greenery, but they don’t understand greenery. The only greenery they understand is dollars. Now that is “greenery,” but this?

[Old Woman:] Vakhmistrov came here. He stood over there and looked at all this. He said, “I don’t see any trees: this is an empty lot.” That’s what Vakhmistrov said right to our faces.

[Yelena Fradkina:] One of their ladies was quoted in the papers (in Novaya Gazeta, I think), one of the developers who has been walking around here. “We could spit on your children, your old people, and your trees. We’re going to build.” What is there to say to that?

[Yekaterina:] The first public hearing was about reconstruction, about resettlement. Infill construction wasn’t discussed at all. When they showed us this project they announced that this was the second hearing. [NB. Russian law requires two public hearings before a construction project can go ahead.] Naturally, we didn’t recognize this second hearing as legitimate. We said that there had been no initial hearing on the project, and nothing was decided during the second hearing. We were categorically against any and all projects. We were totally against any construction in our courtyard. When they tried to palm off this document on us—“Are you for or against renovation? Send us your comments” (they simply circulated this document in our buildings)—we explained to everyone that [the authorities] were trying again to foist infill construction on us under the pretext of renovation. Once again we marked “against” [on the forms], and we went around [to residents] and gathered signatures. We gathered statements from people saying they were against the project. Everyone was against it. But the land had already been sold. So what is the use in our being against this? Who is going to listen to us?

There were constantly these sham members of the public at the hearings, people who aren’t registered in this district, who do not live here. They were just alcoholics who hollered louder than everyone else, “I’m for [the project because] I’ll get resettled.” No one is going to be resettled. The only people who are for the project are the ones whom they tricked by telling them they would get apartments [in exchange for their support]. But for the time being no one is resettling us anywhere, and no one intends to give us apartments. In short, people were simply conned. Even the ones who put down their signatures “for” the project and live on this block, they have simply been conned. Conned in the most elementary way.

They conned us and lied right to our faces. “This [building project] will pay for your resettlement.” “What’s with you? Do you not want your district to be improved?” And many people [fell for this] Or rather, most people didn’t. The majority, the people who have been actively participating [in the protests] [are against the project]… But everyone is at work for the most part, from morning to evening, doing twelve-hour shifts. And so not everyone can take part. Not everyone can actively support [our cause].

So now they simply picked the right moment: half [the neighbors] are at their dachas, half are at work, and it is a Monday. And this is the outcome. The police arrested the kids from the youth organizations [anarchists and National Bolsheviks] who have been supporting us, and their trials are today. They are being tried for these [protest] actions. [They are being tried] for our courtyard, for the fact that they came to the defense of our green spaces and, generally, for defending a normal human life. Their court hearings are today, and that is why they could not come. [The construction company and the authorities] chose the moment, on purpose, so that we wouldn’t be able to do anything. And they will say again that this was an empty spot. The police are standing over there smiling impudently. There you have it.

[Old Woman:] 1600 signatures against renovation. 1600. They didn’t let them into [the Smolny]. A woman came out to meet them at the entrance. She took a look [at the petition] and said, “Okay, maybe. We’ll take it into consideration.” But we haven’t got a response to the documents that were delivered to Matviyenko in the Smolny. We have not heard anything from the Smolny, but meanwhile here they’re already [cutting down the trees]. [The builders] know quite well that they have to break through [our resistance] while no clear decision has been made yet [in the Smolny]. And there [in the Smolny] they are waiting for them to break through. We understood this quite clearly, too. [Matviyenko] and Vakhmistrov are on vacation: how is that? Because [the builders] were told, “If you break through [the residents’ resistance], then you will be in the right here.” And now they have broken through.

They made preparations. They were walking around here for a whole week, surveying everything, and checking everything out. They smiled mockingly at us; they greeted us in this insolent way. And today they are executing all the plans they made over the last week.

Why should they wait for Matviyenko’s decision, for the Smolny? Because they know that the Smolny will decide in their favor all the same, not in ours. Nowadays, the city’s inhabitants are just mud that gums up the works. They’ll knock down our buildings and send us God knows where, beyond the city limits.

Most of the people who live here are native Leningraders. They are quite sharp-tongued and have to be sent away from here.

[Off-screen Voice:] Yeah, there are no New Russians here for sure. Everyone here is a local.

[Old Woman:] Everyone is a local, everyone has worked hard for what they have. And now, in our old age, this is what we get.

When we were young, the war hit us. At least then it was the Germans who attacked us. They were foreigners: we understood who it was that wanted to break us. But we defended Leningrad. Half of our families remained here to lie [in this ground]. The trees stood their ground with us, too.

During the Siege we didn’t cut down trees. People were dying of hunger and cold. They burned furniture, they burned their own books. I lived in wooden houses on Krestovsky Island. Later, we were moved into large buildings, and these houses were leveled and the logs were used for fuel. But not a single tree was touched. Do you have any idea how many trees there are on Krestovsky? They all survived the war, and these trees here also survived the war. But now our new rulers [do things this way], with one flourish of Matviyenko’s pen. If she had come here just once. We asked, “Look at what you’re signing. Why are you doing this?”

Vakhmistrov tells her, “It’s an empty lot.” Okay, people are endlessly asking her to sign things, they are trying to get in to see her. One [TV] channel, then another channel show that there is a park here, that people are struggling [to defend it]. Why does she [act this way]? It was easier to get an audience with the czar than it is to get in to see Matviyenko.

[Old Woman:] First it’s one law, then it’s another. First they put [our garden] on the protected list, then they take it off. First they put us in the renovation program, then they take us off. Then they put us back in. What kind of mockery is this? How long can they mock the people? How many little blazes like this are burning all over the city? Are they waiting until this flows together into one [great blaze]?

The Russian people takes its time getting into the harness, but then it travels quickly. Do they understand this or not? Why are they pushing people to extremes?

Okay, we are old. But we have children and grandchildren. They will come home from work now and see this; they’ll hear our stories. Do they really think the people will be silent forever? The people won’t be silent.

[Vladimir Dmitriyev, deputy in the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation:] [I was just at Vice Governor Alexander Polukeyev’s office, because Vakhmistrov isn’t here, he’s on vacation. Polukeyev called Roman Filimonov, chairman of the city construction committee, into his office and told him that they had cut down around twenty trees here. [Filimonov] says to me, “Vladimir Yakovlevich, they’re cutting down only old, rotten poplars.”

[Residents:] Go there and look for yourself. Those are birches, maples. . .

[Dmitriyev:] . . . And he says that last week he met with the residents, that he carefully explained everything to them, that people understood everything. . .

[Residents:] Scoundrel.

[Dmitriyev:] . . . true, there were a few individuals who didn’t quite get it.

[Residents:] What a liar. What impudent lies. What an impudent liar. We were promised renovation, but what is that, “renovation”? We were against renovation, we signed a petition against it. 1600 signatures were submitted to Matviyenko in the Smolny.

[Dmitriyev:] I now asked Polukeyev—they went to Pushkin to do an inspection with Matviyenko—I asked him to personally report to her about what is happening here: three people were detained, arrested. . .

[Residents:] Four people. None of them has been released yet. One woman’s heart started acting up, but they are holding her at the police precinct.

[Dmitriyev:] Which precinct?

[Residents:] The 61st Precinct. [The police fought with us.] They dragged her on her back through a puddle. Six guys beat her up and threw her in a police van. We are all witnesses. The boy got a concussion: what do you call that?

The important thing is to stop this somehow: they will destroy our entire courtyard. Can you stop this? Do you have the power to stop this?

[Dmitriyev:] No, of course not.

[Dmitriyev:] [At the moment, it looks as if they have badly] deceived us. Vakhmistrov said, “Include this block in the renovation zone. At the very first session [of the city government?] I’ll raise the issue of”—they’re planning to build not one building, but two buildings for the FSB; for the time being we are talking about two buildings—“We will table this issue then: the administration’s decision to permit construction of these two buildings is declared null and void, and this entire block goes into the renovation zone.”

This is what you were also talking about now. First, there is a search for investors, and then a project proposal. Before a proposal is made, each resident is surveyed and everyone comes to a common denominator. When everything suits everyone, only then do people move from the blueprints to working directly on the lot. And that is what Vakhmistrov [said] to us about this. . . I’ve just come from the Smolny. I sat there for an hour and half waiting for the small cabinet meeting to end.

[Residents:] Stop this before they have cut down all the trees. Can it be stopped?

[Dmitriyev:] I’ll say it again: no one is going to stop this. The highest-ranking official in the city right now is Polukeyev. He said to me, “Vladimir Yakovlevich, you know that this isn’t my issue. It’s Vakhmistrov’s issue, and he is on vacation now. I’m taking care of some of his affairs, but I don’t have a total handle on this issue.”

I said to him, “Then inform Valentina Ivanovna [Matviyenko] right now, when you’re on the bus (they’re going to Pushkin). Lawlessness has broken out again. They’re grabbing people, beating people, and this is happening in plain view.” He said, “Okay, fine.” Then he summoned Filimonov. Filimonov told me that after lunch (he has a meeting now, and people have been called in), right after lunch he will come here himself and have a look.

[Residents:] There is no longer anything to look at. Everything will be chopped down [by the time he gets here].

[Old Woman (looks at the square being destroyed):] Accursed bandits. Bandits. The park stood here for sixty some years. It survived the Siege. And these scumbags. . . A band of thieves.

P.S. A quick glance at the website of the Nevsky Alliance real estate agency confirms many of the fears and arguments of the residents of Submariners Garden. The colored illustration of the future apartment blocks does not include the houses currently on the site. More amazingly, this is how the agency describes the location:

“Compared to other northern districts, the Kalinin District has a quite well-developed social infrastructure. It is characterized by a satisfactory ecological climate [and] a sufficient number of parks and green spaces. The Piskarevka-Polyustrovo micro-district, where the new house is situated [note the use of the present tense: the house has not even been built], is not far from Pioneer Park and Academic [Andrei!] Sakharov Park.”

And, we should add, at 60,400 rubles (1,648.38 euros) per square meter, it’s a steal.

___________

This past winter, Sanoma Independent Media closed the St. Petersburg Times, the city’s only English-language newspaper, which had been published for over twenty years. Sanoma Independent Media also switched off the newspaper’s website, so its invaluable online archives have gone invisible as well. I am thus extremely grateful to reporter Sergey Chernov for providing me with the copy of his July 22, 2008, article on the conflict in Submariners Garden.

Disputed Submariners Garden Hit By Police, Demolition Begins
By Sergey Chernov
STAFF WRITER
The St. Petersburg Times
July 22, 2008 (page 2)

Backed by dozens of policemen and hired guards, a construction company invaded Submariners Garden (Skver Podvodnikov) on Monday to fell trees and install a concrete fence around the perimeter. A number of the area’s defenders were beaten and arrested, according to residents.

Located at the Block 43 Polyustrovo in the north of the city, the garden was named to commemorate Russian submariners who died in non-combat operations after World War II. When visited early afternoon on Monday it had already been partially demolished.

Old women cried as another massive tree trunk fell under the chainsaws and axes of the workers, who were encircled by the policemen and guards. “I planted these trees during the war,” said one. “During WWII, we defended the city, but then it was from foreigners, so it was more clear-cut; it’s worse now,” said another. The defenders said the company’s representatives failed to present any documents showing they had permission to perform the work.

Earlier in the day, four activists who tried to protect the trees, including Yelena Malysheva, leader of the local residents group, were detained by the police and taken to Precinct 61, the residents said, adding that the detainees had also been beaten.

“We tried to stop it, but the police started to beat us,” said local resident Yekaterina, who only gave her first name.

“We were also beaten by some strange men, allegedly from a private security firm. They didn’t identify themselves or show us any papers.” One defender was hospitalized with concussion, while another experienced heart problems, according to the residents.

The latter was also later hospitalized.

“Courageous women have been on watch here every day from morning to evening,” said Yelena Fradkina, a translator and local resident.

“We stopped them before, but today they brought so many men that we couldn’t do anything. Since 8 a.m. we’ve just been standing here, watching [the destruction] and crying.”

Listed in the city’s official register of public parks and green spaces, Submariners Garden, which includes a monument, a memorial oak lane, a playground, and hundreds of trees, has been under threat since 2006, when it became known that developers had plans to build two to four apartment buildings on the site. The apartment buildings have been ordered by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, according to the construction company, Stroikompleks XXI.

Direct confrontation with the authorities and developers began on May 23, when Stroikompleks XXI attempted to erect a fence around the garden. Since then, residents have been guarding the area and on several occasions have tried to stop the workers, who were escorted by guards and the police. Multiple protests and rallies have been held.

Arrests and beatings were reported on several occasions in June when the company attempted to resume work.

Then, on June 17, Vice Governor Alexander Vakhmistrov asked the company to stop any work in the area “due to heightened social tension.” Last week, the residents were promised by the authorities that no work would be undertaken at least until September, when a “renovation” plan would be put into action, instead of the infill construction attempted by developers.

“They deceived us,” said Vladimir Dmitriyev, a Communist Party deputy in the Legislative Assembly, who arrived at the scene on Monday.

According to Dmitriyev, Vakhmistrov was on vacation while Governor Valentina Matviyenko was scheduled to inspect Pushkin, in the south of the city, in the afternoon. He said his faction would appeal to the Prosecutor’s Office to inquire into the construction company’s “unlawful” activities.

The works in the former garden continued, as this issue went to press, with virtually all the trees cut down and the workers surrounding the area with a concrete fence, according to a telephone report from a local resident.

“Of course, it all comes from Matviyenko. [What happened today] means she gave the go-ahead, despite the law protecting parks and gardens, and in violation of our human rights,” said Yekaterina, adding that the garden was the residents’ only protection from the poisonous smoke emitted by local factories.

The residents also worry that construction will adversely affect their fragile Khrushchev-era houses (many of which were built hastily in 1961), as well as gas and sewage works that were designed to serve only a limited number of buildings.

__________

Editor’s Note. I have reprinted this post from seven years ago (which was originally published on Chtodelat News, a blog I edited for a little over five years, and cross-posted the same day on this blog) for a few reasons. First, because I think it is the best thing I ever did on a blog, despite myself, and despite the disparaging remarks I will make about it, below.

However, it never got the attention it deserved, neither then nor since, although it tells you everything about the Putin regime in a nutshell and what many perfectly invisible, ordinary Russians thought about the regime and still think about it now.

I suggested to the nominal publishers of Chtodelat News that they reproduce the post in an anthology of their own written work they were compiling for a big show at an important art institution in London, but was told it “didn’t fit the format” of the planned publication. Although, at the time, the vigorous efforts being made by grassroots groups in Petersburg, Moscow, and all over Russia to push back against things like infill construction and “neighborhood revitalization” (but not only these things) were the biggest story in Russia, and should have got a lot more coverage everywhere else, and a lot more solidarity from leftist intellectuals and creatives back here at home.

But it was not until the much sexier, endlessly self-enamored (and virtually nonexistent) “Snow Revolution” of 2011–2012 that the international media big guns started cranking their rusty turrets in the direction of Moscow (although not anywhere else in Russia, really) because the “revolutionaries” feebly taking to the streets to oppose Putin’s return to the Kremlin and faked election results were supposedly “middle class people just like us and our readers.”

As you can gather from the videos shakily shot by me with a crappy camera, the resisters at Submariners Square were not sexy or middle-classy enough to warrant such top-flight coverage, although the story got (more or less biased) coverage from local media, especially then, because stories of corrupt city officials allied with greedy developers versus folks from all walks of life defending Petrograd’s historic built environment, whether tsarist, modernist, Stalinist or post-Stalinist, from the wrecking balls, was the hot button topic in town at the time.

All the Submariners got “internationally,” however, was my half-assed blog post and an excellent article, also reproduced here, by the stalwart chronicler of alternative culture and the political grassroots in Petersburg, veteran reporter and photographer Sergey Chernov, most of whose efforts from that period have been reduced to naught, as I have already mentioned, by Sanoma Independent Media’s decision to turn off the website of the St. Petersburg Times and thus kill off at least ten or fifteen years of the city’s political, social, and culture history for people who do not read Russian.

By republishing this post, I do not want to suggest that the ultimately futile defense of Submariners Garden was a revolutionary or utopian moment, or a historical bifurcation point, where the wrong turn was taken by society at large, because, first, there have been zillions of such turning points over the past twenty-five years, and the wrong turn has been taken, collectively, at nearly all of them, and second, the mood at the time was black as pitch in any case, not upbeat.

Who knew that it would only get blacker? I think I did. If only because if you are the powers that be, you cannot continuously lie to ordinary people and grind them into the dirt time after time without it finally going to your head and making you think you can get away with anything. Which is what is happening right now.

And if you are the “vanguard of the proletariat” (the anti-Putin intelligentsia, whether leftist or liberal) you cannot continually opt out of such little skirmishes because you have a conference in Budapest to prepare for or an article to write for a Marxist journal published in Chapel Hill, because, in the end, you will wind up in a totally different moral and mental universe from that of the “lumpens” whose testimony we see and hear in this post. Not, of course, that all local leftists and liberals took such an escape route then. To their credit, many still have not.

But the most compelling reason for republishing this post is to show the world at large that ordinary Russians (i.e., “Putin’s base”) are well aware of how things are done in their country, are perfectly capable of puzzling out who profits and who gets shafted by this state of affairs, and even, God forbid, of sometimes organizing themselves and putting up a fight without some newfangled twenty-first-century Lenin leading them into the fray.

That is, they are hardly “lumpens.”

What is strange to me is that the powers that be and the so-called intelligentsia (liberal and leftist) either do not know this or pretend not to know it. And yet they chatter endlessly about these mostly fictional creatures, “the folk” (narod), either in their supposed defense or, on the contrary, to blame their fabled benightedness for all their country’s woes.

What is most amazing is that all this chatter and flagrant manipulation is thought, by the powers that be and the intelligentsia, to constitute “politics,” “political discourse,” and “populism” in Russia.

Woe is them.

P.S. According to an acquaintance who went to school in the neighborhood, those FSB residential buildings did finally get built. This is borne out by Wikimapia, which shows two buildings, euphemistically entitled the Family Residential Complex, occupying the spot where Submariners Garden once flourished, which Wikimapia does mention, to its credit. It also correctly identifies the developer as the Leningrad Regional Directorate of the Federal Security Service.

The original text of my introduction and the testimony of the residents have been lightly edited to make them more readable.

“Are We Still Alive?”: Olga Serebryanaya on Russia’s New Ideology

Are We Still Alive? Why the Thirty- and Forty-Something Generation Has Retreated into Political Oblivion
Olga Serebryanaya
October 2, 2014
Snob.ru

Ten years ago or so, the current thirty- and fortysomethings would often have to ask the question, Is he (or she) really still alive? Sometimes this led to amusing blitz investigations. I remember how my friends and I checked whether Soviet crooner Eduard Hill was still alive while sitting on the far terrace of a restaurant where a wedding was being celebrated with a live performance of Hill’s songs. After listening for an hour, we hazarded the guess that only Hill himself could perform Hill’s entire repertoire. The Internet was slow back then, and we three liberal arts people stared spellbound for a long time at the tiny screen of a mobile telephone to ascertain that Hill was indeed alive. It was a good learning experience: when “Trololo” rang out, we were no longer asking the embarrassing question. But it didn’t prevent me, some time later, from saying with genuine surprise to a regular contributor to the literary journal Novy Mir, “Novy Mir still comes out?!” People continue to recall journalist Oleg Kashin’s reaction to a news item about writer Vladimir Voinovich: “What, he’s still alive?”

That was an elegiac sketch about bygone days. Nowadays, one wouldn’t ask whether poet Yunna Moritz were alive, whether theater director Yuri Lyubimov* were well, whether children’s writer Eduard Uspensky were still with us, and whether writer and Literary Gazette editor Yuri Polyakov still walked the face of the earth, not to mention Voinovich. Nowadays, it is easier to doubt in one’s own existence than ask the reasonable question about the relevance of the political commentary given by all these mentioned and unmentioned elders. But since thirty- and forty-somethings have retreated into political oblivion at present, we can ask (from the viewpoint of eternity as it were) why this is so.

The answer is obvious: there is nothing genuine in current Russian reality. Only antiques are “genuine” in our country. People in Kharkov topple a statue of Lenin—and then people in Russia discuss Lenin’s role in Russian history for a week. Russia annexes Crimea, and anyone capable of writing in this country spends the following six months compiling a chronicle of various annexations. We know what all the cultural greats of the stagnation era think about Ukraine. If one of them hasn’t spoken out yet, it just means he or she has already died.

However, the lack of genuineness in the realm of public opinion, just like this realm’s spectral existence itself, does not mean that nothing happens or is accomplished in Russia. On the contrary, things happen and are accomplished, and quite quickly. Exactly one week passed between the news that Arkady Rotenberg’s villas in Italy had been seized by the authorities there and the Russian cabinet’s positive appraisal of the bill for the so-called Rotenberg law. The government’s decision did not even need to be discussed or simply justified; it was sufficient to refer to the urgency. “What seemed to be not so urgent only four months ago, now, given the increased risk of miscarriages of justice, appears differently,” Vedomosti quoted a source on the Russian White House staff as saying.

As soon as the question arises as to where in the budget the money will come from to compensate seized villas and loss of profits, solutions are found just like that: abolish the “maternity capital” program, make cuts here, here, and there, raise this and that. Justifications do not matter: one can safely say that the maternity capital program “does not increase the number of children, but merely shifts the calendars of births” without giving a thought to the fact that pensions, basically, merely shift the “calendar of deaths,” but do not abolish them. We are faced with a situation in which what really happens is successfully accomplished without being enunciated, whereas enunciation revolves around an unreal past. But how is this reality possible? Why does Rotenberg manage to break into reality, while this is such a daunting task for the public?  There should be solid foundations for this, no?

And there are. For all their seeming lack of principle, the current Russian authorities have one firm principle, a symbol of faith, one might even say. It consists in the fact that they never abandon their own kind. The principle has even graced a billboard: “It is important to use every opportunity to help concrete people.” “Concrete people” really means concrete people, and we even know how many of these concrete people there are in Russia.

ozero2

List of founders of the Ozera dacha cooperative

The fundamental difference between Putin and the public, which is choking on the fumes of the past, does not consist in the fact that he holds all the power, while the public is disempowered. The real difference is that the authorities firmly believe in their principle of protecting their own, whereas the public believes in nothing. For the public, civil liberties, democratic elections of public officials, and the equality of all before the law are phrases that have repeatedly figured in history, rather than basic principles of social organization with which reality should be brought into line.

Principles, objectives, and ideals have their own reality, which in some sense is more solid than what we usually denote with the term “current events.” It is principles, objectives, and ideals that pull history into a line directed towards the future. When they are absent, time coils into a loop, and the only point of national history is to preserve Rotenberg’s wealth. No one would ever think to ask about him, “What, he’s still alive?”

* Editor’s Note. Renowned Russian theater director Yuri Lyubimov died a few days after this column was published.

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“Helping Concrete People,” like Arkady Rotenberg
Olga Serebryanaya
October 9, 2014
online812.ru

In late September, the newspapers wrote about the seizure of real estate owned by Russian businessman and Putin ally Arkady Rotenberg: the sanctions imposed by the US and EU had started to work. The real estate in question included an apartment and three villas in Sardinia, and a hotel in Rome. (Good Lord, why did he need three villas? the Net groaned in unison.)

The topic would have been good only for a half a day’s worth of jokes along the lines of “soon he’ll be darning stockings” if the next day the Net had not learned about the rapid resuscitation in the State Duma of a bill from last year guaranteeing compensation from the federal budget for Russian citizens and companies who fall victim to “unjust decisions by foreign courts.”

As Georgy Alburov wrote, “Now the budget will pay for Rotenberg’s villas twice—when they are purchased and when compensation for them is paid out.” And when the cabinet announced its unconditional approval of the draft law, and the Economic Development Ministry hinted it would be inexpedient to continue the “maternity capital” program, everyone got it. “All the maternity capital will be paid out to Rotenberg’s mother as a reward for having such a wonderful son,” wrote Anton Semakin. (In fact, she has two such sons.)

And it does not matter that the law would not help the Rotenbergs, because their properties are registered with foreign companies. What matters are the openness and shamelessness with which the bill has been submitted for consideration.

Nobody doubted the federal budget would compensate the Rotenbergs even without such a law being passed, and that if necessary, the compensation would even be shipped to them in white Kamaz trucks with masked license plates. Openly discussed, the law compensating people who do not have it all that bad at the expense of the poorest people has been a kind of watershed. Even morons have realized that now Russian citizens are required not just to silently tolerate rampant theft but to loudly voice their approval of it.

The most active among them have already begun to do this. In a column on the web site Pravoslavie.ru entitled “In Defense of Crooks and Thieves,” Dmitry Sokolov-Mitrich wrote, “You can award me second place in a moron contest, but I really do believe that an alliance of crooks, thieves, and our perpetually underrated technical intelligentsia is a force still capable of pulling Russia out of the hole in which we wound up twenty years ago. Yes, these people act slowly and clumsily, and they constantly try and exceed the bounds of legality, but act they do, and that is why I find them sympathetic.”

This is the voice, so to speak, of the new conscious Russian. Ivan Davydov has vividly described the methods of coercion that will be applied to everyone else.

“There is a crowd outside Christ the Punisher Cathedral, a flock of beggars. Or maybe they are not beggars. After all, you cannot tell nowadays who is a beggar, and who a victim of inhuman sanctions. There is a podium in front of the cathedral, and people are making the right speeches. […] And here is an old woman who really is a beggar. The poor thing is completely hunched over. She holds out her hand. ‘Dear, I am not asking for myself. Everything we collect today is for Little Arkady. That is what the capo from the cathedral said, you know, the one who confiscates our daily take. Today it’s all for darling Little Arkady. What a squeeze they’ve put on him over there! He is the one who is in real misery. We’ll muddle through, we will, but that little darling…’ The old woman is crying. I give her a ten-ruble coin.”

This only seems like a parody. The new Russian ideology, for which people searched in vain during the 1990s, has finally been found. Putin formulated it: “It is important to use every opportunity to help concrete people.” This phrase refers not only to Rotenberg; it is the indisputable principle of the new national mindset. Just as earlier everyone had to believe in communism’s inevitable triumph, now the entire politically trustworthy segment of the populace must sincerely believe in this principle’s inerrancy and omnipotence. True, the horizons of state ideology have narrowed markedly. But its totalizing nature remains the same.

“In the Breast of Mother Russia Speaks a Kind and Loving Heart”

Rich white Americans have so much fun. Here they are thrilling to the duo of Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner in Nantucket this past spring.

This is Russian soft-powerism of the highest order. It is strange (or is it?) that Pozner somehow thinks (or does he?) that he went from being a Soviet “propagandist” (as he admits in this conversation) to being a real “journalist” in the post-Soviet era.

And it is amazing that the otherwise skeptical and cranky Donahue has bought into this self-flattery. It is one thing to be more critical of the actions and policies of one’s own government: that is how it should be for any intelligent person anywhere, and especially for Americans, whose country bears more responsibility than most other countries for the world’s current saggy, miserable, often vicious shape. But here Donahue plays second fiddle to the virtuoso Pozner, who by the end of the talk seemingly has everyone in the tent convinced, especially his old TV buddy and the event’s moderator, that the US also bears sole responsibility for the current hyper-reactionary regime in Russia. Pozner accomplishes this with a spiel seamlessly woven from home truths, sentimental journeyings, and charmingly delivered lies or fudges: for example, about how everyone in the Soviet Union were true believers except for a miniscule and thus meaningless dissident movement or that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US and the West engaged only in relentless humiliation of the new “democractic” Russia under Yeltsin.

As Russia’s hook-line-and-sinker self-submersion into extreme right-wing nationalist hysteria continues, expect more of this kind of song and dance from certain Russian liberal and leftist intellectuals. The thought that Putinism 3.0 is entirely their own fault (if only because they have signally omitted to do almost anything about it) or that not all societies in the world today are equally bleak pits of the blackest political reaction, is nearly unbearable to them. Hence, their frantic need to revive the Cold War paradigm or, via Brahminical critiques of its alleged illicit and opportunistic resurgence on both sides of the old divide, their equally frantic attempts to imagine that the choice between the “free” West and the “internationalist” Soviet bloc back then, during the real Cold War, is somehow comparable to a choice nowadays between a bloody mess with occasional breaks in the clouds and a system that already long ago had no redeeming features whatsoever and seems hell-bent on getting much, much worse very quickly.

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The first “spacebridge” or “citizens summit,” between Leningrad and Seattle in 1985, moderated by Vladimir Pozner and Phil Donahue:


Alexander Sokurov on “Victory Day”

Alexander Sokurov Plants a Tree Outside Echo Petersburg Studios with Members of the Green Wave Movement (9 May 2008)

Natalia Kostitsina: And what worries you nowadays?
Alexander Sokurov: There are so many things that I don’t even want to talk about them because I don’t know where to begin and where to finish.
NK: Begin from the beginning.
AS: To begin with [I’m worried by] the very low cultural level of the population—social culture, personal culture. A very low level…The politicization of life, which at times leaves me at a loss. The “party-mindedness” of life and the tendency towards this “partyzation,” if you can call it that: [the tendency] to make all of life the concern of the party worries me in the extreme. The participation of the intelligentsia in the life of the party sometimes leaves me dumbstruck. Continue reading “Alexander Sokurov on “Victory Day””