Two Petersburgers on June 22: Yelena Osipova and Mikhail Piotrovsky

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. On 22 June 2022, artist Yelena Osipova held a solo anti-war picket on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg. On 22 June 2022, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official Russian government newspaper, published a lengthy interview with Mikhail Piotrovsky, the longtime director of Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum,, in which he justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of his country’s greater historical and cultural “mission.” Ms. Osipova and Mr. Piotrovsky were born a mere eleven months apart, in November 1945 and December 1944, respectively. If Ms. Osipova’s bravery doesn’t bring honor on her hometown, it’s not for her want of trying. Despite having much greater resources at his disposal and a bigger bully pulpit, Mr. Piotrovsky has definitely brought shame on his city. As long it is run by people like him, Russia’s great “cultural capital” has no future. In any case, Ms. Osipova’s barely audible message makes a jarring juxtaposition with Mr. Piotrovsky’s arrogant, “learned” apology for Russian fascism. ||| TRR


Yelena Osipova, photographed in front of Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt in downtown Petersburg on 22 June 2022. Photo courtesy of Irina Bogdanovskaya, as posted on the public Facebook page Yelena Andreyeevna Osipova. Artist. Citizen. Thanks to Maria Mila for the heads-up. The placard on the left reads, “To the unknown soldier, 1941–1945. He was buried in the earth.” The placard on the right reads, “22 June 1941–1945. In memory of the Patriotic/Second World War. Become a pacifist! Pacifism – pacificus – peaceable. Pacifists condemn all wars and campaign vigorously and publicly to prevent them.” On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Ms. Osipova was born on 11 November 1945, that is, six months after the end of the Great Patriotic War.


Mikhail Piotrovsky. Photo: RIA Novosti via Rossiiskaya Gazeta

[…]

[Elena Yakovleva]: We have all been shocked by the fighting not only on the fronts of the special operation, but also on the cultural front, by all the attempts to cancel Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerts, and the Russian language. What is behind “cancel culture”? Having ourselves escaped from the dictates of ideology, are we now witnessing its return in the West?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: The attack on us in the realm of culture is, of course, a semblance of what we had in Soviet times, when all connections were cut off by command, at a moment’s notice, at the snap of someone’s fingers. I have the sense that the Soviet Union, with its ideological dictates, has spread to the West. I did not expect that I would read in liberal Western newspapers such things as “The Hermitage is an imperial museum that preaches imperial ideology. It should not be allowed anywhere! The Hermitage’s [planned branch] in Barcelona should not be opened under any circumstances!”

I have been inundated with ultimatums. How dare you not speak out against the special operation in Ukraine?! Go out and protest immediately! Why are there no protests in your country?

But in this case we should understand that we have been subjected to such a powerful attack in the field of culture because culture is an area in which we are absolutely competitive.

We have the initiative here. We are trendsetters.

Are we an exporting country?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Yes, and our cultural exports are more important than imports.

Our recent exhibitions abroad are a powerful cultural offensive, a kind of “special operation,” if you wish. Which many people don’t like, but we are advancing. No one can be allowed to thwart our offensive.

In response to calls to cancel Tchaikovsky, smart people in Russia have been saying, “We won’t cancel anything. On the contrary, we will continue to love the Europe that we learned about while studying at universities.” Is the asymmetry fundamentally important in this case?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Of course. Given our cultural advantage, we don’t have to loudly announce that we are reneging on one cultural agreement or another in response to their bans. They can do it unilaterally. There is definitely no need for bilateralism — precisely because we are winning.

I think that under no circumstances should we succumb (and we shall not succumb) to the seductions of “cancel culture.” I believe we are immune to it because we have already been “canceled” six ways to Sunday. First, the entire culture of Tsarist Russia was canceled, and then Soviet culture was canceled. Monuments were demolished dozens of times. But we also know something else: monuments come back, everything is restored. The knowledge that memory and culture come back is in our blood. That is why we are not eager to overdo it when it comes to “cancelations.” Besides, you can’t cancel Tchaikovsky, except, perhaps, performances of Tchaikovsky by Russian orchestras. But this is just unfair competition.

Why is the West so passionate about “cancel culture”? And about the dictates of “public opinion”?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: I would not exaggerate the difference between the dictates of Soviet ideology and “public opinion.” Public opinion is bound up with governments or regulated by them.

As for “cancel culture” in the West, it is part of a large wave that was born amidst BLM, and linked to the culture of guilt and repentance for guilt. It suddenly surged: they began pulling down monuments and not standing for the American flag. They think that Voltaire is bad, and this guy, and that other guy. It’s a little ridiculous. How much can you repent for the terrors of colonialism, which in fact was so entirely categorical? Or for the unfortunate slave trade, which after all began not in Europe, but in Africa?

They seemingly had already begun to sense that this road leads nowhere, but then Russia turned up by chance. So let’s “cancel” Russia, they said. Although the glee with which they have rushed to condemn us, to tear us up and expel us, again speaks to the fact that we are strong in culture.

When the Bizot group boycotts Russian museums, it’s just ridiculous. I was one of the people who founded the group, and I know that we actually created it to help museums do cultural exchanges unencumbered by politics. But now it’s apparently been ideologized on the Soviet model. If this Soviet-style infection has gone so far, let them be sick alone. We don’t need to be sick too. We have historical immunity against this. I think we will spread it to others.

[…]

Since it hasn’t succumbed to the hype of cancellations, has the Hermitage keep its exhibitions abroad going?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Not only the Hermitage. When the special operation in Ukraine began, exhibitions by Russian museums were everywhere. We have a Morozov [Collection] exhibition in Paris and exhibitions in Italy. Our most controversial exhibition, a Fabergé show, was in London. The Russian Museum had an exhibition in Spain.

This was our “special operation,” if you like, a great cultural offensive.

As soon as all the ideological sirens were turned on due to the special operation in Ukraine, we initially announced that we were pulling everything out immediately. But then we thought it over and said that we had been given guarantees. The organizers were quick to confirm them. We organized the Morozov exhibition in Paris in cooperation with the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and suddenly realized that this global commercial company was a much better partner in today’s “Soviet” Europe than government entities were. Having no freedom of maneuver, they were “ordered” to break off relations with us, while the business people who made promises to us did EVERYTHING to fulfill them. It was a matter of honor for them: they promised us that [they would send] everything back on time.

But then people in Russia started yelling, “Why did you take our treasures there? They’re worth so much money!” And all hell broke loss on the other side: “Since they’re worth ‘that much’ money, let’s impound them!” People with tormented mercantilist mindsets could not really understand the essence of the matter, so very provocative things were shouted on both sides. I must say that the provocation by the press was the main complication in this whole special operation. Yesterday, I was sent a copy of the FT featuring a discussion by journalists in their art (!) department on the topic of whether Russian paintings should have been impounded. It was due to such journalistic caterwauling that pieces from our museums were detained at the Finnish border. It was the weekend, and Finnish customs officers had read their fill of newspaper articles about how everything should be confiscated from the Russians. Although before and after that, ten of our truck caravans passed through their border post.

From our side, it was the bloggers shouted more. The journalists have been schooled by you.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Only there are few real journalists left and just a couple of newspapers. Everyone is like a blogger now. And bloggers don’t understand that this is a cultural offensive, that the Shchukin and Morozov exhibition in Paris is like the Russian flag flying over the Bois de Boulogne. Do you know how everyone appreciated it in Italy? They said, “If the Hermitage can leave its paintings with us at a time like this, it means that they know what they are doing over there in Russia.”

It is also very important that the protagonists of our exhibitions were [Sergei] Shchukin and [Ivan] Morozov, Russian businessmen from the Old Believers community who largely defined the evolution of European culture. Matisse was once asked if he would have painted Dance had it not been for Shchukin. “And for whom would I have painted it?” Matisse said. Shchukin suggested things, commissioned things, was capricious, and great works were born. I was recently awarded the Demidov Prize, and it was an occasion to recall how Nikolai Demidov and the great French jeweler Pierre Thomire created this Russian style of malachite with bronze. They had such fights! Thomire said they should do things one way, Demidov said no, it must be done another way. But consequently, there is the Malachite Canopy in the Hermitage.

Does a producer [sic] have the right to interfere in an artist’s plans like that?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: He absolutely has the right. Yes, sometimes such interventions can be bad. But sometimes they can be good. In the case of Shchukin and Morozov, it was a good thing. They were the RIGHT customers.

Let’s not forget that it was the Old Believers who revealed to us the beauty of the old Russian icons. They were the first to clean them and preserve them. And Shchukin brought Russian icons to Matisse, in particular, to reverse the influence of Persian miniatures on him.

At the Morozov exhibition, we presented Russian paintings collected by him and showed art through the collector’s eye. Morozov collected Manet and [Valentin] Serov, and I would hear people say when they were leaving the exhibition, “You look [at their paintings] and you realize that Serov is no worse than Manet.”

The Fabergé exhibition made a very big splash. That is another Russian phenomenon that influenced the West.

So, we in fact did undertake a big cultural offensive. And we came out of it, having done everything we had planned to do.

[…]

Europe has long been a cultural model for us. The “RG” had a conversation with the writer Eugene Vodolazkin about attitudes to Europe. With reference to Dostoevsky, we talked about the fact it is almost dearer to us than to the Europeans.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We recently held a round table at the Council of the History of World Culture at the Academy of Sciences, which we were going to call “Is Russia Europe?” but instead called “Is Russia Europe? Is Europe the EU?” The general sense of our debate was this: we are Europe, as much a part of it as France or Germany, and maybe more than the United States. If Europe were not us, Gogol would not have written Dead Souls while living in Italy. We recently held another round table on visual art, at which we recalled that Dostoevsky wrote about the Sistine Madonna.

This is our long-standing choice: we are inseparable from European culture and from Europe itself. The special military operation in Ukraine does not change anything. There have been plenty of disagreements and wars within Europe, from the Thirty Years’ War to the First World War. We are Europe and at some moments more Europe than many of its classic [sic] countries. And certainly more than the EU, which is now turning into the Soviet Union.

Of course, we also have an Asian aspect. But Peter the Great already knew how to balance all this wonderfully. We at the Hermitage understand this like no one else, because our main theme is world culture in the Russian context. I constantly talk about our right to be Europe, because in the south of Russia we have a Classical heritage — Chersonesus, Kerch, Taman. And whoever has a Classical heritage is Europe. In Norway, for example, there is no Classical heritage; there were neither Greek colonies nor Roman legions.

Therefore, it is all ours. We must dispose of it as our own, and not think that we are opposing Europe. Do we have different values? But they all have different values. Do we have special Orthodox values? But there are Orthodox values in Europe as well. In many ways they are consonant with Catholic values and not consonant with various secular ones. As an absolutely full-fledged and equal part of Europe, we will never be isolated. It’s just our sense of self. And the Hermitage is a symbol of this self-awareness. I keep repeating that the Hermitage is an encyclopedia of world culture written in Russian. The Hermitage’s Rembrandts, which have been in Russia for three hundred years, are Russian Rembrandts. The Russian Shakespeare is impossible without [Grigori] Kozintsev and [Innokenty] Smoktunovsky. Other doors — to Asia — are always open. But this does not cancel our presence in Europe.

Since people who value Russian culture have not yet gained the upper hand in Europe, must we now form a European model for ourselves?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We must form this model now. And we are forming it.

Although there seem to be no Shchukins and Morozovs in Russia nowadays.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Shchukin and Morozov shaped tastes. But now we are shaping, for example, international law. For many years, we have been carefully fashioning guarantees for the return of our paintings by changing international laws and creating immunity from impoundment. All this was first elaborated for Soviet exhibitions, and later, already in my own time, we constantly worked on developing it. The descendants of Shchukin and Morozov tried to sue us, so I urgently got the pictures out of Rome by plane. But every year we have strengthened our legal safeguards. We said, “Do you want our exhibitions? Then give us real guarantees. Spell it out in the contract: the exhibition will be returned on time even in case of lawsuits.” Europe accepted all these terms. The Americans didn’t, so we haven’t had any exchanges with the Americans for ten years. Although people who wanted to host exhibitions from Russia introduced a new law in the United States that enabled the government to give us guarantees and immunity. But it was too late; now it’s not enough. But with Europe, all the guarantees worked. In particular, when paintings from our Italian exhibitions were detained at the Finnish border, our diplomats and Italian businessmen helped us. They immediately sent all the paperwork to the Finnish government: “We gave guarantees, how can you not trust them?!”

At the last moment — even amidst the sanctions — our Western partners introduced a clause stating that prohibited luxury items do not include items that are in exhibitions of Russian museums abroad. It was even stipulated that Russian transport companies have the right to transport exhibitions throughout the EU. We didn’t take the risk — we transported [the exhibitions] in foreign vehicles — but this point was specially inserted. So, we not only look at Europe as a model, but also try and shape the international rules ourselves. This is quite important, especially now, when there are disputes about every [piece of art] in the world over who it actually belongs to.

[…]

Has the attitude towards the Hermitage changed among its Western fans?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We’ve been getting stabbed in the back a lot lately. Outside the country, the Khodorkovskys of the world have been slinging mud at us, while here at home, as always, certain people have been calling for draconian audits. On the other hand, we have gotten a better sense of who our friends are and who are our enemies. The “society of friends of the Hermitage” have proved their mettle. In Israel, for example, they comported themselves brilliantly. They immediately spoke out. “How can we be friends of the Hermitage, using this honorary title, and then suddenly severe ties [with the museum]?”

We can see everything now. We see that there are people who break off their relationship [with us], but it makes them suffer and cry. But there are also those who happily took advantage of this opportunity. Apparently, they were friends solely due to the political conjuncture. Now we have a good “blacklist” of journalists and politicians This is very important. The world is not uniform.

Has your “blacklist” gotten a lot longer?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: It changed a lot. But besides those who have been writing maliciously about us, unexpected friends have appeared — for example, those French and Italian businessmen I mentioned.

What should we be doing in the field of culture?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: I think we have to do everything in such a way that we are seen, but we don’t have to travel anywhere at all to do this. After becoming director of the Hermitage, I announced a moratorium on exhibitions inside Russia because it was dangerous to transport things then: there were thieves everywhere, there was no money, no real insurance, either. So we didn’t send exhibitions around Russia for ten years. But now we are announcing a moratorium on exhibitions abroad.

I urge everyone now to look back at the experience of the Siege of Leningrad — at the know-how for saving things in an organized manner that was acquired then, at the understanding that when guns speak, the muses should not be silent. On the contrary, they should speak loudly. The experience of the Siege also taught us to address the world beyond the encirclement. During the Great Patriotic War, the Nizami and Nava’i exhibitions and evenings at the Hermitage were examples of this appeal. They showed the whole Soviet Union and the whole world that we remembered the great poets even in the midst of famine and war. Therefore, we are now, as part of the “Great Hermitage” program, going to be doing everything to make the whole world see us and, roughly speaking, envy us.

Now, for example, we are opening an exhibition of works by one of the most famous Danish artists, [Vigilius] Eriksen. He painted Catherine the Great and her court, and for the tricentennial of his birth he earned an exhibition at the Hermitage. We requested pieces from Denmark for the exhibition, but they were not given to us. Well, we have more of Eriksen’s works than they have in Denmark. So, an excellent exhibition is now opening in the Nicholas Hall featuring huge portraits of Catherine and the Orlov Brothers, accompanied by the amazing stories of how they were created, how they were repainted and the medals on the uniforms were altered. The exhibition is on the internet, including a lecture in English. We are broadcasting a message to Denmark: look, a small but very important piece of European culture is the great portrait painter Eriksen in the Hermitage.

[…]

What do you say to those who demand that you repent for Russian policy?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Our country has now shifted into another time. The first period of the Scythian War is over. We retreated and retreated, now we are not retreating. A pivot has been made. And it is already clear that it’s the final one. Everything began in 2014 in Crimea. Crimea created a situation in which there was no other way, in which we had to pivot.

Our country is making great, comprehensive transformations. And we, respectively, are part of them and with her. Working calmly and normally is our stance.

The Hermitage has done exhibitions about war many times. What can you say about how it’s perceived? For example, a totally pacifist reaction is not something I find congenial. Apparently, I’m a militarist.

Mikhail Piotrovsky: We are all militarists and imperialists. (laughs)

First and most important, it is my country, and I must stand with it. I sometimes repeat the jingoistic formula: this is my country, such as it is. There are situations when it is absolutely clear that a person must stand with his country. In the West they understand that these are all substantive things — that we stand with our country. When a very serious issue is being resolved, there are no options.

I am currently reading Alexei Varlamov’s wonderful book about [Vasily] Rozanov, and [there is a section in it] about 1914 and his hyper-patriotic sentiments. This patriotism at the beginning of the 1914 war is [a phenomenon] known to everyone, but it has not been explained very well. We are somehow dismissive of it, but it was a quite important thing in fact. We, people of culture, must now understand our involvement in everything that is happening. A person involved in history, first of all, must do well what it is that he does [as a vocation], in keeping with the principle that when guns speak, the muses should also speak. And in keeping with the realization that culture, which for us stands above politics and everything else, will later ask us to account for what we did for it. As we were asked after the war, after the Siege: what did you do — on your own?

For me, the attitude to war is established by the great Pushkin in A Journey to Arzrum. Where is he rushing the entire book? To see the demoted Decembrists and then go into battle?

Mikhail Piotrovsky: Arzrum was also the only foreign land Pushkin visited. It expanded the world for him. There is nothing wrong with the fact that a person wants to have the most complete set of sensations. This is especially true when he wants to embody his deep feelings in something, to see and do something new. If he has grounds for it, he throws himself into it. It is an element of self-esteem. I always say that Russian patriotism is a sense of one’s own historical dignity. An individual understands that he must go to war, while another person understands that he must do something else, but which is no less important. Behind this is a sense of one’s own historical dignity, the desire to live up to one’s history and the mission of one’s country. It sounds quite dramatic, but we understand our country’s historical mission. This feeling that our country is changing world history, and that you are involved in it, is crucial now.

Nor are things so simple when it comes to attitudes towards armed hostilities. On the one hand, war is blood and murder, but on the other, it is a means for people, for a nation, to assert themselves. Everyone wants to assert themselves, and in their stances on the war, they undoubtedly assert themselves. We have all been brought up in the imperial tradition, and an empire unites many peoples. It unites people by finding things that are common and important to everyone. It’s very tempting, but it’s one of the good temptations, let’s say. Although we don’t have to succumb to it, ultimately, and we must be able to regulate it within ourselves. Nor should we forget the principle that a person should do what he must do, come what may. For museums, “doing what we must” means preserving and promoting culture. And keeping in mind all the time what is beyond the besieged territory. And speaking not only to people inside it, but also “outside” it.

Source: Elena Yakovleva, “Mikhail Piotrovsky explains why you have to stand with your country when it makes a historical pivot and choice,” Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 22 June 2022 (No. 33/8781). Translated by the Russian Reader, who omitted only the brief introduction and section headings, as printed in the original text. Mr. Piotrovsky, the longtime director of the State Hermitage Museum in Petersburg, located a short walk down the Nevsky from where Ms. Osipova held her anti-war picket on Wednesday, was born on 9 December 1944, that is, five months before the end of the Great Patriotic War.

Farida Kurbangaleyeva: My Personal Denazification

The Russian government and pro-Kremlin media say that the aim of Russia’s current war against its neighboring country is the “denazification” of Ukraine. But Farida Kurbangaleyeva argues that Russia’s government has in fact performed “denazification” earlier as well—on the “non-Russian” peoples living in the Russian Federation.

Farida Kurbangeleyeva

Chukcha tatarskaia—“you Tatar Chukchi”—an unknown woman wrote to me via Facebook. To put it mildly, she had not liked my post about the aftermath of the Russian occupation in Bucha and decided to deliver me the knockout punch with an irrefutable argument. For her, this argument was my ethnicity, and this is understandable: there is nothing more shameful for a member of the “state-forming people” than being a Chukchi, or a Tatar, or a Ukrainian yokel. That is, there is nothing more shameful than not being Russian.

This incident made me think of the “denazification” that Putin has used to justify his military invasion of Ukraine. In spite of his plan, from the start of the full-scale war many people started talking about how about Russia itself needed to be denazified—and I completely agree with this. But this is not the end of the story.

What Putin is calling “denazification” is not a struggle against Nazism, but the desire to destroy national identity, to eliminate the Ukrainians as a people. This is why in the occupied territories, as the Ukrainian authorities report, Ukrainian-language books have been removed from libraries and burned, and the study of Ukrainian has been canceled in schools. Where there is no language, there is no culture, no identity, no people. Meanwhile, in Russia, other peoples have been similarly “denazified” already. With more or less bloodshed, but in any case, quite successfully.

My personal denazification began shortly after my third birthday—when I first went to nursery school. At that age I spoke fluently in my native Tatar. One of my relatives loves to recall me energetically explaining the pictures to her from my book about the surrounding world: Менә бу әшәке гөмбә, ә менә бусы — әйбәте. (Mena bu ashake gumba, a mena buse—aibate: “This is an inedible mushroom, and this one is good.”)

I have to admit that it would be hard for me to repeat the stunt now. The nursery-school teachers had been given strict instructions: Soviet children should only have one language—Russian. Everything else was the devil’s work, forget it.

The denazification worked—by the first grade I still understood Tatar, but already had a hard time speaking it. That’s how I am now: I can understand everything being said to me, but I switch to Russian to reply. Why waste time fumbling for the right words?

For many people, Tatar language was a much-despised subject at school. And it’s not surprising: you knew that there was absolutely no reason to study it. People rarely spoke it at home, and in some places not at all, and it was unlikely to come in handy in the future either. Some of my Tatar classmates didn’t even go to Tatar language classes, preferring to take local history classes with the Russian kids instead. That is, they practically didn’t know their native language at all.

This was the late Soviet period, when the myth of the “friendship of peoples” and equality was still actively promoted. “Look at what a good student Farida is,” my teacher Anna Viktorovna would say to my classmate Roma. “Even though she’s a Tatar girl.”

I suppose that my mother had also encountered the same sort of approving motherly intonation at her first job at a nursery school (when she was just out of school and hadn’t yet entered Kazan University as a physics student). One of the other teachers—a woman from a Russian village—would tenderly refer to my mother as “my little chaplashka.”[The chaplashka is a typical Tatar skullcap, but it can be used as a condescending term for Turkic peoples.] At around the same time you could regularly hear people on the Kazan trams saying, “Hey you there! Quit talking in your language!”

But I digress. These are my memoirs, not my mother’s.

I can say that nearly all of my urban Tatar agemates—people who were kids in the 1980s—are a linguistically handicapped generation. Speaking Tatar was awkward and embarrassing. The primary native speakers at this time were people from the villages. Of course, there was also the urban Tatar intelligentsia, but it was so thin and fragile that one almost never heard Tatar spoken in the cities. Except maybe in the national theater.

Because of this, when the republic declared its “sovereignty” in the 1990s and Tatar became a required subject, the majority of the people who came to teach it in schools and universities were  villagers. Many of them spoke Russian with a strong accent, lacked a certain confidence and even dressed more poorly than their colleagues in physics, algebra, or English. People treated them correspondingly, referring to them condescendingly as “Soviet farm workers” [kolkhozniki].  

It’s hard to imagine anyone yelling at their schoolkid for getting a D in Tatar. What’s more, some parents openly admitted to encouraging their kids not to study it. No one was worried about the final grade report—by the time graduation rolled around, they would get all As and Bs. Who would want to ruin someone’s life over a pointless subject? The same situation held in the technical schools and universities.

The time came for us to become parents ourselves. What could we say to our kids in the “mother tongue”? At best a few primitive phrases. The grandparents would try to make up for lost time, but “lost” is the key word here.

I’ve observed the following scenario several times. At the playground, a group of mothers gangs up on the mother of a “late-speaking” child. “It’s all because you speak two languages at home. That’s not right, you have to pick,” they say. Some of these “instructors” themselves send their kiddos to “early development schools” where the kids are taught English as early as possible—either from the moment the child starts turning over, or maybe when it can lift its head. After all, everyone knows that the earlier you start learning a second language, the better.

Meanwhile, the Russians in Tatarstan are very tolerant Russians. They’re long since used to Tatar names and holidays, and mixed marriages. They know the words isanmesez [исәнмесез] (hello), rakhmat [рәхмәт] (thank you), and sometimes even say Alla birsa [Алла бирсә] (God willing) as a joke. When I left for Moscow, I realized that in other regions the problem isn’t just that Russians don’t want to learn the languages of ethnic minorities. Russia is both a multi-ethnic and a xenophobic country.

My experience working as an anchor on TV channel Rossiya was pretty revealing. It was 2007. Alexandra Buratayeva and Lilya Gildeyeva [who are ethnic Kalmyks and Tatars, respectively] had already made their names on national television, but the negative wow-effect was nevertheless plain to see. Online, I would periodically run into requests like “get rid of that churka” [a racial slur mostly used for people from the Caucasus and Central Asia] or questions like “What, you couldn’t find a Russian woman? Where are the Katyas, Mashas, Natashas?”

My colleagues mostly treated me with decency and goodwill. Well, if you don’t count the entertaining questions like whether I’d been on the Hajj or eaten horsemeat. Or the kinds of questions every member of an ethnic minority gets, like:

“What is your Russian name?”

“This is my only name.”

Rage, negotiation, unwilling acceptance.

I know of many cases when a Fidail has become a Fedya [Ted], a Gulnur., a Gulya, and a Kamil, a Kolya [Nick]. Even closer to home, my grandmother, Khadicha Fazleyevna, lived for fifty years in a communal apartment where she was known as “Auntie Katya.” My friend, an Avar named Maryan, told me that when she was studying at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, she usually told people her name was Marianna. She thought that people would be nicer to her that way. One girl from her circle of university friends would periodically say to her, “Gosh, you’re so normal—just like us.”

I remember that once a Sberbank employee, holding my Russian Federation-issued passport and reading out my full name, asked me what my citizenship was. That the principal of the school my daughter went to wasn’t sure that her intellectual capacity was the same as her Muscovite agemates: “Southern children (!) achieve physical maturity more quickly, but sometimes lag intellectually.” A midwife in a Moscow birth center asked me whether newborns are swaddled in my country.

One time my wallet was stolen in a mall. The first word uttered by the policeman who came to investigate was “Darkies?” [churbany]. I was stunned, because in my understanding no defender of public order has the right to utter this word. I replied, “It was two women of Slavic appearance,” which obviously stunned the policeman in turn.

My second cousin Azamat was unable to rent an apartment in Moscow. As soon as they heard his name over the phone, Muscovites would ask, “What are you, an Uzbek?” and hang up. He didn’t have time to tell them about his excellent job or steady salary at Sberbank. He was able to rent only through people he knew.

To expand my examples beyond my personal life, I called all my non-Russian friends. I didn’t have to make any effort to seek anyone out or ask insistently for comments. These are all stories of just “one degree of separation.”

Ibragim, a Kumyk born in Grozny (Chechnya): “Once I submitted my papers for a foreign-travel passport and couldn’t get it for eight months. I was told repeatedly that it wasn’t ready yet. In the end I just sat down in the office of the passport officer and declared I wouldn’t leave until I got my passport. The man clearly hadn’t expected such audacity. He thought for a while and then took my passport out of his desk.”

Artur, a Chechen born in Grozny: “We fled Chechnya during the First Chechen War. I went to a bunch of different schools. When I was in the fifth grade, we lived in Cherkessk. One time in class, people started talking about Chechens, and the teacher said, looking right at me, ‘You’re basically all terrorists, you need to be isolated.’ When I started at university, I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t become a waiter at a cafe, a salesman at a store, or someone handing out advertisement flyers [like other university students]. A few years ago, I was barred from entering a Moscow nightclub on New Year’s Eve. The security guy looked at my passport and refused to let me in. When I asked him to explain why, he said, ‘No comment.’”

Alexandra, a Buryat from St. Petersburg: “I never wanted to go down into the subway, where people always gave us dirty looks. One time I was riding with my whole family and heard someone say, ‘They’re breeding up a storm.’ Another time I was walking toward the escalator and a stranger started to shoulder me out of the line. I kept going, so then he shoved me aside roughly and said, ‘You should always let Russians ahead of you! Got it?’”

Alexandra was one of the organizers of the initiative Buryats Against the War in Ukraine. She asked Russia-based subscribers to talk about examples of xenophobia they’d encountered living in Russia. She’s been getting messages for over a month now. Reading them, Alexandra nearly stopped sleeping. One time she wrote me at three in the morning to say she (and many of her respondents) needed a therapist.

But getting back to my Tatars and my denazification. A few years ago, Tatar language was once again made optional as a school subject in Tatarstan. It was happily dropped not only by Russians, whose pressure had largely caused the law to be passed, but also by many Tatars. Why bother? Everyone knows that there’s absolutely no point: almost no one speaks Tatar anywhere, and there’s unlikely to be any need for it in the future. At least at this point in history, speaking Tatar at home isn’t forbidden. The idea was just that: “Speak it at home” and even “How terrible that they used to forbid that.”

Thanks a lot, but “speaking at home” is also a road to nowhere. It also means the loss of language, just dragged out a bit. I can confirm this through the example of some Russians I know who have lived in the Czech Republic for many years.

Here’s a mother who delights in her fifteen-year-old daughter: “You wouldn’t believe it! She wrote a card to her grandma yesterday without making a single mistake!” That is, the girl speaks Russian very well (because they speak it at home), but the grammar is a real problem for her. This girl’s children will speak Russian a bit worse and barely be able to write. The grandchildren will speak in broken Russian and tell their friends that their grandma was Russian. Cool, right?

Without systematic lessons and academic programs, textbooks and teaching aids, courses and constant practice, a language cannot be preserved. All the more so if it’s optional. Imagine if people studied Russian in schools as an elective. Or chemistry, or algebra. Would many students want to take these subjects? Losing a language when it’s “study it if you want to” is just a matter of two or three generations.

No one among my Russian friends who were born and raised in Tatarstan knows Tatar or is planning to learn it. As an illustration, I offer a few sample conversations with my girlfriends. Both are cultured, educated women and highly empathetic. They would never call me a “Tatar Chukchi.”

Dialogue No. 1 (which took place prior to the reversal of the Tatar language requirement in schools):

“Tatar’s on the schedule every day, I’m so sick of it! Katya (her daughter, whose name has been changed) gets so exhausted by it. I wish they’d get rid of it already!”

“And what will you do if they get rid of it?”

“I want them to bring in English, and Italian would be good too. I’d love for her [Katya] to go to university in Italy.”

“But it’s not like all the kids are going to go do that. Many of them will spend their whole lives in Tatarstan.”

“So? What do they need Tatar for?”

“To talk with their friends, for instance. Listen, wouldn’t you like to know Tatar, so you could speak it with me? I speak Russian with you, after all.”

“You got to be kidding! Isn’t that an awfully big sacrifice to make—studying Tatar just so I can talk with you?”

Dialogue No. 2, quoted as a monologue (it was delivered after Tatar was made non-obligatory):

“Thank God, they got rid of Tatar. When I think back on my school days I just shudder (she utters in Tatar the phrase ‘My homeland is the Republic of Tatarstan,’ purposefully mispronouncing the words). They should just make them take local history instead. At work I have a ton of Russian colleagues who used to live in Kazakhstan. They have a hard time getting Russian citizenship here. They have to take a Russian-language exam if you can believe it. But in Kazakhstan they’re really mistreated—they’re forced to learn Kazakh. I even thought lucky my grandparents came here to build the KAMAZ [auto factory] instead of Baikonur [a cosmodrome built in Soviet Kazakhstan]. Otherwise, I’d be suffering—having to learn Kazakh or trying to get Russian citizenship.”

Just a minute! My grandparents didn’t go anywhere to build factories. And my other grandparents didn’t either. They spent their whole lives living on this land. And before that, for centuries, their grandparents lived on the same land. They spoke, read, and wrote in Tatar. Until the moment when someone decided to administer and regulate this process—to denazify the Tatars, you might say.

Yes, Putin started using the term, but he didn’t start the process, of course. The policy of stan “foreigners” was pursued under the Russian Empire as well and hit a high point during Soviet times. Over the past one hundred years, the Tatars have had their alphabet changed twice. Before the Bolshevik coup and for a little while afterwards, Tatars wrote and read in Arabic. This writing system was left alone even when the gate of Lyadsky Garden in downtown Kazan sported a sign saying, “No musicians or Tatars allowed.”

In the late 1920s, Tatar was switched to yañalif—an alphabet based on the Latin one, and then in 1939 to Cyrillic—by the way, easily the most inconvenient option for Tatar phonetics. Consequently, Tatars were cut off from an enormous store of literature, poetry, philosophical and religious works written using the Arabic script. And, by extension, from their own history and culture.

My father, who was born in 1940, spent his childhood and youth in the Old Tatar district—a low-lying part of Kazan where Tatars historically lived. Now this neighborhood has been transformed into a colorful tourist trap with a gaudy ethnic flair. But we have to remember that before 1917 Tatars didn’t have a choice: they did not have the right to live in the prestigious upper part of the city.

According to my papa, when he was growing up in the neighborhood, not a single Russian lived there who didn’t know Tatar. And around mid-century there were quite a few Russians living there. His childhood friends Polina and Katya would switch to Tatar every time they wanted to keep secrets from their mother, who didn’t know Tatar. This means that places spared the denazification process saw wonderful results—a genuine, not sham, friendship of peoples. With true equality, mutual respect, and the preservation of ethnic identity.

Nowadays this tale sounds fantastical, and I can’t find an answer to my question: why did those Russians not mind speaking Tatar, and where did those Russians go? I also have a feeling of guilt for not putting enough effort into developing and preserving the language in my own family. I think I should have hired a tutor. I think I should have bought a self-instruction manual. I think I should speak with my elderly parents more often. At least now, at least a little. And even in a sloppy way, I should still try to speak Tatar with my kids.

So, there is a grain of truth in what the unknown woman on Facebook said. In some sense I really am a “Tatar Chukchi”—an incomprehensible hybrid, a person without kith or kin and without a language, trying to seize hold of her roots before they wither away.

And what will happen later, when Ukraine prevails in the war with Russia, securing both a moral and a physical victory? What will happen when the Ukrainians liberate the occupied territories, when they bring Ukrainian back into the schools, when they publish wonderful new books written in Ukrainian? And when Russia (I really want to believe this) will truly and finally be free? What will happen, not with the Ukrainians, of course, but with us—the denazified Russian-dwelling chebureks? I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think I know what will happen.

I recently stumbled across an openly xenophobic comment on Facebook. The thread was discussing the sanctions that the US government was afraid to implement against Alina Kabaeva. One of the contributors wrote, “What do they expect from her? She’s a typical Tatar woman: husband, kids, family. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to do that.” This comment was liked by someone with whom I share a few dozen friends, someone who’d posted lots of fiery statements against the war in Ukraine.

When I expressed astonishment in response, the Facebook-friend posted a bunch of smile emojis and wrote, “Sorry.” But when I noted that I didn’t find it funny at all, his tone changed abruptly. He wrote repeatedly that he was “speaking with me as an equal” and advised me to “not be stuffy and blow things out of proportion.”

Thus, we non-Russians will go down with this warship. We’ll go where the free Ukrainians—who speak their native language at home, and at school, and at work, and wherever they want—sent it.

We’ll head for the bottom along with our country’s liberal civil society, which will genuinely rejoice over Ukraine’s victory, and then set about building “the beautiful Russia of the future.” But a few things in this new Russia will stay the same. No one there will force anyone to study non-native or pointless languages. After all, this is a violation of rights and freedoms and is basically non-democratic. There will be fewer and fewer people trying to study them on their own. Those who wish to can speak them at home or take elective classes. And not blow anything out of proportion. Those who attempt to get uppity about it will be declared ethnic nationalists and Russophobes.

You’re hearing this from me, the “Tatar Chukchi.”

Source: Farida Kurbangaleyeva, “My Personal Denazification,” Holod, 28 May 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM. Photo (above) courtesy of Wikipedia. Farida Kurbangaleyeva (Фәридә Корбангалиева/Färidä Qorbanğälieva) worked as a presenter of the program “Vesti” (“The News”) on the Rossiya channel until 2014 and, later, as a presenter on the channel Current Time. Now an independent journalist, she lives in Prague.

Pimento Mori

Hans Oerlmann, Tram No. 28 on Marat Street in Leningrad, 1987. Courtesy of Vladimir Golbraikh. Our house is a block from where this photo was snapped. It breaks my heart.

I love Facebook Memories, especially in this instance, because just yesterday I got some (more) flak for sharing posts by the Israeli military trainer and friend of Ukraine Yigal Levin.

This is what Mr. Levin posted exactly a year ago today. I reposted it the same day, but it elicited no reactions from anyone. (Forty-three people reacted to Mr. Levin’s original post, by the way.)

Here’s a rough translation:

‘President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said today that, according to the information available to him, Russia intends to work on a plan to capture three Ukrainian cities — Kiev, Odessa and Kharkiv– at the upcoming Zapad-2021 exercises. The President stressed that during the Zapad-2021 exercises, Russia may carry out a number of provocations in order to force Ukraine to react.

‘The Zapad-2021 exercises will be held from September 10 to 16 on the military training grounds of two states, Russia and Belarus. Preparations for the exercises are currently in the strategic planning phase, and a number of operational stages of preparation are expected by September. In total, more than 4,500 different tactical exercises and maneuvers will be conducted.

‘Let me remind you that this spring Russia deployed troops and equipment on the Ukrainian border in addition to those that have already been there since 2014. They were ostensibly there to conduct exercises. But even after [Russian military authorities] said they had been withdrawn, the troops and equipment were not withdrawn from the borders of Ukraine.’

1 Year Ago

Yigal Levin

June 16, 2021

Президент Украины Владимир Зеленский заявил сегодня, что, согласно имеющейся у него информации, на ближайших учениях “Запад-2021” Россия планирует отработать захват трех украинских городов: Киева, Одессы и Харькова. Президент подчеркнул, что во время учений “Запад-2021” Россия может провести ряд провокаций с целью вынудить Украину реагировать.

Учения “Запад-2021” пройдут с 10 по 16 сентября на военных полигонах двух государств – России и Беларуси. Сейчас подготовка к учениям находится на стратегической фазе планирования, и к сентябрю ожидается еще ряд оперативных стадий подготовки. В итоге будет совершенно более 4500 различных учений и маневров на тактическом уровне.

Напомню, что этой весной Россия стянула к украинским границам войска и технику в добавок к тем, которые уже находились там с 2014 года. Якобы для проведения учений. Но даже после заявлении об отводе, стянутые войска и техника от границ Украины так и не были отведены.

Morning in a Pine Forest

A morning in a pine forest is luscious in these comfy slippers.

The number of mentions of the military operation in Ukraine in the Russian media and Russian-language segments of social networks has been falling for the second month in a row, as evidenced by the data gathered by Medialogy.

According to Medialogy, a decrease in the number of publications dealing with the military operation has been observed for the second month in a row. If between March 1 and 15, users of social networks made 3.16 million posts [mentioning the war], then in the first half of April they made only 2.46 million (22% less), according to RBC.

Meanwhile, the mention of the war in social networks from May 1 to May 15 decreased by 52% compared to the same period in March, and amounted to 1.52 million messages, according to Medialogy’s figures.

Medialogy used its own proprietary algorithms to count mentions of the word “special operation” in the Russian-language segments of Telegram, VKontakte, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, OK, Rutube, Likee, Yappy, messengers, blogs, and forums, as well as Instagram and Facebook (which are owned by Meta, a company that has been deemed an extremist organization and banned in Russia) while also excluding other possible synonyms.

Medialogy also recorded a decrease in the number of mentions of the so-called special military operation in the Russian media. In the first half of May, the special operation was the subject of more than 147 thousand pieces. This is 26% less than during the same period in April, and two times less than in March. Between March 1 and 15, more than 305 thousand items [on the war] were published in the media.

In total, in March, journalists dealt with the topic of the military operation in over 572 thousand pieces. In April, this number had dropped to 375 thousand, and from May 1 to May 22, to 214 thousand.

Source: “Military actions in Ukraine mentioned less and less in Russian media,” thinktanks.by, 28 May 2022. Thanks to Paul Goble for the link. Image found in a sponsored ad for Topdrawer on Facebook. Translated by the Russian Reader

Olivier

Olivier Food Market on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles

Russia took aim Sunday at Western military supplies for Ukraine, launching airstrikes on Kyiv that it claimed destroyed tanks donated from abroad, as Vladimir Putin warned that any Western deliveries of longer range rocket systems would prompt Moscow to hit “objects that we haven’t yet struck.”

The Russian leader’s cryptic threat of military escalation did not specify what the new targets might be. It came days after the United States announced plans to deliver $700 million of security assistance for Ukraine that includes four precision-guided, medium-range rocket systems, as well as helicopters, Javelin anti-tank systems, radars, tactical vehicles and more.

Military analysts say Russia hopes to overrun Ukraine’s embattled eastern industrial Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have fought the Ukrainian government since 2014, before any U.S. weapons that might turn the tide arrive. The Pentagon said last week that it will take at least three weeks to get the U.S. weapons onto the battlefield.

Ukraine said the missiles aimed at the capital hit a train repair shop. Elsewhere, Russian airstrikes in the eastern city of Druzhkivka destroyed buildings and left at least one person dead, a Ukrainian official said Sunday. Residents described waking to the sound of missile strikes, with rubble and glass falling down around them.

A detail from Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles. The second inscription is in Yiddish. It reads, “All Jews [united] in the battle against fascism.” Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the translation.

“It was like in a horror movie,” Svitlana Romashkina said.

Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko urged city residents to leave, saying on Facebook that ruined buildings can be restored but “we won’t be able to bring back the lives lost.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said air-launched precision missiles were used to destroy workshops in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, including in Druzhkivka, that were repairing damaged Ukrainian military equipment.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces fired five X-22 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea toward Kyiv, and one was destroyed by air defenses. Four other missiles hit “infrastructure facilities,” but Ukraine said there were no casualties.

Nuclear plant operator Energoatom said one cruise missile buzzed close to the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear plant, 350 kilometers (220 miles) to the south, and warned of the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe if even one missile fragment hit the plant.

On the Telegram app, the Russian Defense Ministry said high-precision, long range air-launched missiles were used on the outskirts of Kyiv, destroying T-72 tanks supplied by Eastern European countries and other armored vehicles in a train car repair shop.

But the head of Ukraine’s railway system rejected the claim that tanks were inside. Oleksandr Kamyshin said four missiles hit the Darnytsia car repair plant, but no military equipment has been stored there. He said the site was used to repair gondolas and carriers for exporting grain.

“Russia has once again lied,” he wrote on Telegram. “Their real goal is the economy and the civilian population. They want to block our ability to export Ukrainian products.”

In a television interview that aired Sunday, Putin lashed out at Western deliveries of weapons to Ukraine, saying they aim to prolong the conflict.

“All this fuss around additional deliveries of weapons, in my opinion, has only one goal: to drag out the armed conflict as much as possible,” Putin said. He insisted such supplies were unlikely to change the military situation for Ukraine’s government, which he said was merely making up for losses of similar rockets.

If Kyiv gets longer-range rockets, he added, Moscow will “draw appropriate conclusions and use our means of destruction, which we have plenty of, in order to strike at those objects that we haven’t yet struck.”

The U.S. has stopped short of offering Ukraine longer-range weapons that could fire deep into Russia. But the four medium range High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems in the security package include launchers on wheels that allow troops to strike a target and then quickly move away — which could be useful against Russian artillery on the battlefield.

The Spanish daily El Pais reported Sunday that Spain planned to supply anti-aircraft missiles and up to 40 Leopard 2 A4 battle tanks to Ukraine. Spain’s Ministry of Defense did not comment on the report.

In Kyiv’s eastern Darnystki district, a pillar of smoke filled the air with an acrid odor over the charred, blackened wreckage of a warehouse-type structure. Soldiers blocked off a nearby road leading toward a large railway yard.

Before Sunday’s early morning attack, Kyiv had not faced any such Russian airstrikes since the April 28 visit of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. The attack triggered air raid alarms and showed that Russia still had the capability and willingness to hit at Ukraine’s heart, despite refocusing its efforts to capture Ukrainian territory in the east.

When I arrived at the Great Wall of Los Angeles, I was thrilled to see so many other people there taking it in. I soon realized that they were glued to their smart phones, playing some kind of game. It was such a serious game that many of them were playing on two or three devices at the same time. None of them was paying any mind to the magnificent Great Wall of Los Angeles.

In recent days, Russian forces have focused on capturing Ukraine’s eastern cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. On Sunday they continued their push, with missile and airstrikes on cities and villages in the Donbas.

In the cities of Sloviansk and Bakhmut, cars and military vehicles were seen speeding into town Sunday from the direction of the front line. Dozens of military doctors and paramedic ambulances worked to evacuate civilians and Ukrainian servicemen, and a hospital was busy treating the injured, many hurt by artillery shelling.

The U.K. military said in its daily intelligence update that Ukrainian counterattacks in Sieverodonetsk were “likely blunting the operational momentum Russian forces previously gained through concentrating combat units and firepower.” Russian forces previously had been making a string of advances in the city, but Ukrainian fighters have pushed back in recent days.

Source: John Leicester, “Russia hits Kyiv with missiles,” Associated Press, 5 June 2022. Photos by the Russian Reader

Selling Eclairs at the Gates of Auschwitz

I am subscribed to a number of email newsletters from theaters, publishers, and clubs, including Russian ones.

And until recently, I myself came up with advertising for the books that we released.

But certain things have changed, haven’t they? Many, of course, have stopped sending newsletters, but some continue. Here is a letter from the International Baltic House Theater Festival [in Petersburg], summoning people to its performances as if nothing has happened. And the venerable publishers Ad Marginem fervently invite people to their tent at the Red Square Book Festival. It’s right on Red Square, where the earth is the roundest!

Hello, friends, have you lost your fucking minds by any chance? I don’t know how it looks in Moscow or Petersburg, but from where I’m sitting, it looks as appropriate as selling eclairs at the gates of Auschwitz.

Source: Dmitry Volchek, Facebook, 2 June 2022. Screenshot and translation by the Russian Reader


Approaching the 100-day mark in a war that he refuses to call by its name, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a man intent on conveying the impression of business as usual.

As his army fought its way into the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk this week, Putin was making awkward small talk in a televised ceremony to honor parents of exceptionally large families.

Since the start of May, he has met – mostly online – with educators, oil and transport bosses, officials responsible for tackling forest fires, and the heads of at least a dozen Russian regions, many of them thousands of miles from Ukraine.

Along with several sessions of his Security Council and a series of calls with foreign leaders, he found time for a video address to players, trainers and spectators of the All-Russian Night Hockey League.

The appearance of solid, even boring routine is consistent with the Kremlin’s narrative that it is not fighting a war – merely waging a “special military operation” to bring a troublesome neighbor to heel.

For a man whose army has heavily underperformed in Ukraine and been beaten back from its two biggest cities, suffering untold thousands of casualties, Putin shows no visible sign of stress.

In contrast with the run-up to the Feb. 24 invasion, when he denounced Ukraine and the West in bitter, angry speeches, his rhetoric is restrained. The 69-year-old appears calm, focused and fully in command of data and details.

While acknowledging the impact of Western sanctions, he tells Russians their economy will emerge stronger and more self-sufficient, while the West will suffer a boomerang effect from spiraling food and fuel prices.

[…]

But as the war grinds on with no end in sight, Putin faces an increasing challenge to maintain the semblance of normality.

Economically, the situation will worsen as sanctions bite harder and Russia heads towards recession.

[…]

The words “war” and “Ukraine” were never spoken during Putin’s 40-minute video encounter on Wednesday with the prolific families, including Vadim and Larisa Kadzayev with their 15 children from Beslan in the North Caucasus region.

Wearing their best dresses and suits, the families sat stiffly at tables laden with flowers and food as Putin called on them in turn to introduce themselves. On the same day, eight empty school buses pulled into the main square of Lviv in western Ukraine to serve as a reminder of 243 Ukrainian children killed since the start of Putin’s invasion.

The closest he came to acknowledging the war was in a pair of references to the plight of children in Donbas and the “extraordinary situation” there.

Russia had many problems but that was always the case, he said as he wrapped up the online meeting. “Nothing unusual is actually happening here.”

Source: Mark Trevelyan, “Putin clings to semblance of normality as his war grinds on,” Reuters, 2 June 2022


Simon Pirani:

‘At least as bad as Russia itself are the areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian armed forces in 2014 – Crimea and the so called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk – and the small amount of territory Russia has taken this year. In Crimea, all civic activism, especially by the Tatar community, has been savagely punished. People are being sent to jail for many years for something they posted on line. The “republics” are ruled by lawless, quasi-state administrations. The list of human rights abuses – torture, illegal imprisonment, forced labour, terrorism against political opponents – is long. Most of the population of the “republics” left, years ago. Industry has collapsed. As for Kherson and other areas occupied this year, local government and civil society has been assaulted, opponents of Russian rule assassinated and kidnapped, and demonstrations broken up. Putin forecast that Ukrainians would welcome his army with open arms; I literally do not know of one single example of that happening. If people are looking for explanations about Ukrainians’ heightened sense of nationalism, part of it may be in the horrendous conditions in the parts of their country occupied by Russia. Who would welcome being ruled by a bunch of cynical, lawless thugs?’

Source: “In Quillversation: A Russian Imperial Project (Simon Pirani and Anthony McIntyre Discuss the Russian War on Ukraine),” The Pensive Quill, 1 June 2022

Bir sum, bir som, bir manat

They brandish sabers and dig themselves trenches in the Caucasus,
they stride out on the balcony half-naked to admire the sunset,
they are lermontovs duelling on mount mashuks
and putins trading rubles for soms and manats,
they are an endless mishmash of Dostoevsky and ant, fancying themselves the universe’s biggest riddle,
they are a plague posing as a wacky mixup and a joke,
they are you, they are them, they are all of you, and — may you croak, you reptiles

Source: Yuri Leiderman, Facebook, 30 May 2022. Thanks to him for his kind permission to translate and publish his poem, which he says was inspired by this Facebook post, an “explainer” for Russians traveling to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to secure non-Russian bank cards (and thus be able to pay for services outside of Russia, whose payments and bank system has mostly been severed from the rest of the world). The author includes recommendations for “cultural fun” along with detailed advice on how to secure the desiderata. Images courtesy of Wikipedia. A commenter (on Mr. Leiderman’s Facebook page) wrote that the explainer “reeked of cannibalism.” Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexander Yegorov’s Funeral

On May 26, Kirishi bid farewell to Alexander Yegorov, a contract-service marine who was killed in Ukraine. Our correspondent describes Alexander’s funeral and what his loved ones say about his military service and the circumstances of his death.

Alexander Yegorov. Photo courtesy of VKontakte and Bumaga

Groups of people gather outside the Sunrise Youth and Leisure Center in Kirishi. Almost everyone is holding red carnations — they have come to a civil memorial service for guards marine Alexander Yegorov. One of the deceased man’s twenty-year-old friends has brought black roses. Yegorov’s friends and classmates are followed by a group of distant relatives and teachers. Russian National Guardsmen and military servicemen stand each in their separate groups. Gradually, people converge in a long queue. The queue is headed by a boy of about ten years old in a camouflage uniform, combat boots, and beret, along with an old woman wearing a headscarf.

A military band greets those entering the funeral hall. People lay flowers on a table near the coffin, which is upholstered in red cloth. A Russian flag has been draped over the coffin. Yegorov’s father, mother, and twelve-year-old sister are seated near the coffin. People go up to them, express their condolences, and hug them.

Opposite Yegorov’s close relatives stand medal-bedecked military men, solemnly holding their caps in their hands. The ten-year-old boy in camouflage uniform stands in the center of the hall. Like the adults, he holds his beret in his hand. Two young guards armed with machine guns stand on honor duty near the coffin.

Photo: Pavel K. for Bumaga

A local councilman in a suit jacket ushers the father of the deceased to the microphone. It is hard for him to talk. He cries, barely able to stand on his feet.

“He wanted this himself. He went on his own accord — a real man. As they said, he saved a comrade… I have also been in combat, I know what it is like. Our friend, our son, is no longer with us. I can’t say anything more.”

Yegorov’s father is followed by members of the Kirishi district council. The words “demilitarization” and “denazification” crop up often in their speeches. “We watch TV, we know everything,” one of them says. Another ends his speech by repeating the president’s quote from the Gospel: “There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.”

A minute of silence follows. Then a vocational college teacher recalls that Alexander was “not a hooligan” as a student. He says that Alexander would have been an excellent welder.

One of the military men haltingly recounts Yegorov’s act of heroism. Alexander “personally knocked out two enemy tanks” and went to provide first aid to a comrade, but died on the battlefield “as a result of hostile artillery fire.” The military man announces that Alexander has been awarded the Order of Courage posthumously by presidential decree for his courage and heroism.

Anton, a close friend of the deceased, is the last to speak. He is wearing an overcoat and black gloves. It was he who brought the black roses.

Alexander Yegorov’s childhood friend Anton. Photo: Pavel K. for Bumaga

Alexander’s friend Anton:

“Sasha loved style and was well-groomed. He always wore black gloves, chains, and watches, and loved expensive whiskey. He was quite pretentious and finicky. He was obsessed with business. He was an unusual guy. Since he was charismatic and handsome, many girls fell in love with him, almost all of them. He should have worked as a model. We’ve known each other for fourteen years, we went to the same school. Then we went to vocational college. Sasha studied to be a welder, while I studied to be an auto mechanic, but we saw each other often. He was really into personal growth. He was interested in relationship psychology, business, and marketing, and was an excellent binary options trader. He was always on the lookout for information and constantly learning things. He liked to read books. He really liked the books The Richest Man in Babylon and Personal Development for Smart People. And he gave me relationship advice and helped me find girls, like a personal psychologist.”

Photo: Pavel K. for Bumaga

In his eulogy, Anton admits that he had a falling out with the deceased a year ago, that he would like to ask him for forgiveness and hopes that all his friends will forgive Alexander and that Alexander will forgive all of them.

Someone in the audience shouts, “What are you talking about, you fucking idiot!?”

The speeches are over. The military band plays. One of the council members invites everyone to travel to the Meryatino cemetery.

Alexander’s friend Anton:

“He wanted to dodge the draft at first, to not join the army, but last year he decided to go. I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe it was quarrels with friends that incited him. He had begun to behave very rudely and disrespectfully towards me and often had arguments with others. He and I communicated less often — he was a high-maintenance guy.

“In the army, he wrote that he felt abandoned. I would guess that he joined the army for the money, and he needed the money to implement his big plans. He wanted to create his own clothing brand, launch a business of some kind, and get rich himself to help others get rich.

“It is possible that his father urged him to serve in the army, like, ‘it’ll make you a man,’ and his father was an authority figure to him. Not that he actually said, “Go into the army, you need to become a man,” but Sasha took his words to heart. He was always independent. He hadn’t wanted to join the army until the last moment, but either his father said something to him, or he just wanted to avoid the difficulties that could arise when applying for a job [for failing to perform his mandatory military service].

Photo: Pavel K. for Bumaga

On the way to the cemetery, a military UAZ off-road vehicle with an open top, the letters Z and V pasted on its sides and flying three flags, cruises behind the van carrying the coffin. In the car, among people in military uniform, sits the father of the deceased in civilian clothes, his face turned into the wind.

Photo: Pavel K. for Bumaga

At the cemetery, the zinc coffin’s lid is removed. There is a small aperture around the deceased’s face, and a photo of Alexander in military uniform has been placed on the center of the coffin. We are seemingly given the chance to compare the person before he went into the army and afterwards. People stand by the coffin for a long time, peering at it and saying their farewells.

“Mom, this is our little son!” the father of the deceased screams, turning to his wife. Both of them fall on the coffin, hugging the zinc.

Photo: Pavel K. for Bumaga

The burial rites begin. The father becomes faint and falls over. People prop him up and put him in the military vehicle, where he sits with his eyes half closed. Two girls sing “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by dying.” Some people cross themselves. Nearby, a group of military men discuss the circumstances of Alexander’s death in a low voice. One of them has served in Ukraine, apparently.

“A large piece of shrapnel got under his helmet, and small pieces, minor stuff, struck his bulletproof vest. They broke his ribs.”

“And the one he saved, did he survive?”

“I don’t know, he’s in the hospital. They [Ukrainians] were prepared. Everything there is dug up, crisscrossed with trenches. There was preparation.”

The knowledgeable young man continues.

“Not that there are no connections. Using phones is forbidden. There are cellular connections only in certain places. If they [soldiers] go up to a cell tower [to get a better connection], sooner or later [the Ukrainians] get a fix on them, just like our guys get a fix on them.”

Alexander’s friend Anton:

“As I was told, Alexander at first served in Kaliningrad in the motorized infantry, but then he was sent to a repair battalion when they found out that he was a welder. While he was doing his [obligatory] service, he signed a contract [to continue his service as a paid volunteer serviceman], thinking that he would go to Syria. Who knew that the war would begin? He had signed a contract. The war began and [instead of] Syria, he was sent to Ukraine.

“We did not communicate when he was serving in the army, but four months later he called me and apologized for everything. He seemed to have said goodbye to everyone in advance, saying that he would soon be gone. He wrote me big congratulatory ‘poems,’ and said he missed me. And he wrote messages to everyone about how he wanted to see them take off. He told me that he hoped I would become a hotshot masseur. He told a friend that she would be able to become a streamer, and told another friend to find himself. That’s what he is like — a spiritual mentor. Shortly before his death, he wrote a very heartfelt letter to his parents, but no one read it except his father. It was probably quite personal.”

Photo: Pavel K. for Bumaga

The burial rites end, the funeral march plays. The father of the deceased has come to his senses. He approaches the coffin again and hugs his wife. At this moment, everyone shudders as shots are fired. The honor guard is concealed from Yegorov’s relatives and friends by the funeral home van — no one expected the shots. People instinctively duck, and the father covers his ears with his hands.

The coffin is lowered into the grave.

“The Snickers! They forgot to put in the Snickers!” he screams.

People reassure that the Snickers have been put in the coffin, but the father rushes at the grave anyway.

“Forgive me, son, I didn’t want to get you…”

Two comrades try to hold him back by force. The people around him admonish him.

“Your son is a hero, but you…”

Three gravediggers begin filling in the hole. The father escapes and runs up to it again. One of the gravediggers roughly pushes him away. The father falls.

“Someone give him smelling salts.”

Alexander’s friend Anton:

“[Alexander] told me that a phone had been found on someone in his unit. They wanted to arrest the guy, because phones are banned in their unit. But Sasha made an agreement with the person who wanted to arrest him, and gave him his own phone so that there would be no problems for the other guy. Sasha always stood up for his friends. He gave a lot of things away and protected his friends — friends were very important to him. He sacrificed a lot and shared a lot, whether it was money or knowledge. He wanted his friends to be successful too. He wanted to help them grow up and achieve something, to find themselves, to help them start doing something. I told him quite often during his lifetime that I loved him. Many people loved him, and he loved them too.”

Photo: Pavel K. for Bumaga

The gravediggers cover the mound of dirt with fir branches, and then people come up and lay flowers atop the branches. Having calmed down, the father holds his own tiny, intimate ceremony involving church candles. Then he turns to the young people in the crowd, his son’s classmates, and invites them to the wake.

“Aren’t you friends of Sasha? Come with us to the Eden.”

As you leave the town of Kirishi, on the left side of the highway, you see the ruins of a building that has not been completely demolished. Coming closer, you realize that this is the Echo of War monument: the ruins of a pre-war factory boiler room. The description says that the monument serves as a reminder to future generations of war’s horrific consequences.


Source: Pavel K., “‘He said goodbye to everyone in advance, saying that he would soon be gone’: how Kirishi buried Alexander Yegorov, killed in Ukraine,” Bumaga, 28 May 2022. The article’s author (and photographer) is identified here by a pseudonym for reasons of personal safety. Thanks to JG for the heads-up and KA for the encouragement. Translated by Thomas Campbell, who has edited this website for the last fifteen years and has no reason to be afraid of identifying himself, something that he mostly avoided doing during this website’s first twelve years, when it was produced in Petersburg, Russia.


The Echo of War monument in Kirishi, Leningrad Region, Russia. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, which notes: “During the war, the front line passed through the city of Kirishi. The fiercest battles took place in Kirishi in December 1941, during which most of the town’s buildings were destroyed. The front line constantly passed through Kirishi for about two years.”

Primorsky Partisans

Communist Deputy Leonid Vasyukevich’s anti-war speech and the ensuing controversy begins at approximately the 1:59:40 mark in the video, above. The Newsbox.24 dispatch, cited below, contains a different, much shorter video, shot from behind Deputy Vasyukevich while he was reading out his group’s statement. Because it is embedded in a Telegram post I was unable to embed it here. The title of this post refers to the famous group of anti-police guerrillas from the Maritime Territory. || TRR

A group of deputies in the Legislative Assembly of the Maritime Territory [Primorsky Krai] has drafted an appeal to President Vladimir Putin demanding that he stop the so-called special military operation and withdraw troops from Ukrainian territory. The appeal by four deputies from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was read aloud by Deputy Leonid Vasyukevich at the regional parliament’s [May 27th] session, Newsbox.24 reports.

According to Vasyukevich, given their significant losses, Russian troops would not be able to achieve military success. “We understand that if our country does not stop the military operation, there will be more orphans in our country. Young men who could have been of great benefit to our country have been killed and disabled during the special operation,” the deputy said.

Maritime Territory Governor Oleg Kozhemyako, who was delivering a report on his activities for the past year, demanded that Vasyukevich and Gennady Shulga, who supported his party caucus colleague, be removed from the chamber. “These actions discredit the Russian army and our defenders who stand in the fight against Nazism. [He is] a traitor,” Kommersant quotes Kozhemyako as saying.

Legislative Assembly deputies voted to strip Vasyukevich and Shulga of their right to vote during the session. Anatoly Dolgachev, the head of the Communist Party caucus, called the actions of his fellow party members a “stunt,” and also said that “they defame the honor of the Communist Party with such statements.” He promised to evaluate their actions and take “the toughest measures.”

Maritime Territory Legislative Assembly deputies Leonid Vasyukevich, Gennady Shulga and Natalia Kochugova did not respond to our request for comment as this story went to press. Deputy Alexander Sustov declined to comment.

Source: “A group of KPRF deputies in Primorye speaks out against the war,” Radio Svoboda, 27 May 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader. I translated and published this post before checking to see whether other Anglophone had reported the incident. They have, apparently, including Radio Svoboda’s parent agency, RFE/RL.

“To Become White in the Eyes of Whites”: Astrakhan Kazakhs and the War in Ukraine

Monument to the Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly in Astrakhan. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

According to official statistics, ethnic Kazakhs [so-called Astrakhan Kazakhs] make up 16% of population of the Astrakhan Region. At the same time, 80% of the region’s residents who have been killed in the war in Ukraine and whose deaths have been publicly acknowledged by relatives or the authorities, are members of this particular ethnic group. Idel.Realii talked to several Astrakhan residents to understand why this is the case and what reaction it causes in the local community.

The situation is similar in regions without the status of “republics” — the Astrakhan Region is sending mainly ethnic Kazakhs, not ethnic Russians, to war. According to our figures, the regional and municipal authorities of the Lower Volga have acknowledged, as of today, the deaths of twenty-six natives of the region in the war in Ukraine. Based on the names of the victims and their places of birth, it is possible to say with a high degree of probability that twenty-one of them are ethnic Kazakhs.

Kazakhs are the second largest ethnic group in the Lower Volga after Russians. The 2010 census revealed that around 150 thousand Kazakhs live in the Astrakhan Region. Thus, the ethnic Kazakh population makes up 16% of the region’s residents who indicated their ethnicity. But Kazakhs are in the majority among the acknowledged war dead. Twenty-one out of twenty-six is 80% — that is, the disparity is fivefold.

Fragmentary reports coming from Astrakhan’s rural areas in the early days of the war suggest that the number of the region’s residents killed in Ukraine may be significantly higher than the official data admits. The ethnic imbalance is also noticeable in unconfirmed cases. Reports of war dead appeared mainly in the chats of residents of the Volodarsky District, the only part of the Astrakhan Region where Kazakhs make up the absolute majority of the population.

Idel.Realii talked to several residents of the Astrakhan Region to understand the possible causes of this imbalance and what people in the region think about it. The names of the interviewees have been changed for their safety.

“THE ONLY WAY TO FEED A FAMILY”

“This is not a new story: Kazakhs have always been represented in the uniformed services more than other Astrakhan residents,” says Aisulu from the Volodarsky District. “If you walk around the regional center, you will notice that almost half of the police officers are Kazakh in appearance — which is also much more than the proportion of Kazakhs in the entire population. You see the same picture among contract soldiers in the military.”

She believes that this is due to the fact that Astrakhan Kazakhs have traditionally been settled in small villages in rural areas.

“Many of them are located far from the city. They do not have permanent transport links with the outside world. They are separated from the main roads via one or more ferry crossings,” she says. “There is a high unemployment rate in such areas, and if you have bigger ambitions than working in agriculture, the main ways are rotation work or service in law enforcement and the military. The second option, of course, is regarded as more stable (not to mention respectable), so young guys from villages go en masse into the army and the police. This is often the only way for them to feed their families.”

According Aisulu, Kazakhs also choose to serve in law enforcement and the military more often than ethnic Russians because they have fewer job prospects in large cities: due to xenophobia, many employers prefer to hire a person of Slavic appearance, automatically considering them more competent and presentable. According to Aisulu, this further narrows career choices, motivating Astrakhan Kazakhs to go into voluntary [contract] military service, where ethnicity does not play such a huge role.

“WE DO NOT AND CANNOT HAVE INTERESTS IN UKRAINE”

“In the context of the current war, there may be another factor — ideology. Yes, there are an unusually large number of Kazakhs among Astrakhan military personnel, but they are clearly not the absolute majority. Why do we hear almost only about their deaths? We can assume that the command deliberately sends soldiers of non-Russian appearance to the front line to emphasize the formal justification for the attack on Ukraine: ‘the multi-ethnic people of the Russian Federation’ are fighting ‘fascism,'” says Adilbek, a native of the Narimanov District.

In his opinion, this is ironic.

“This is, allegedly, a campaign by a multi-ethnic people, in which there are Kazakhs, among others, and Putin says, ‘I am Lak, Jewish, Mordvin, Ossetian,’ but this campaign is aimed at expanding the ethnic Russian world and promoting Russian ethnic interests. It has nothing to do with the interests of Laks, Ossetians, or Kazakhs. We do not and cannot have interests in Ukraine at all, we have nothing to do with it. I see a sad irony in this. Russian fascists are waging an aggressive war, leading minorities into battle and taking cover behind fictional anti-fascism. Consequently, our guys are dying for people who actually despise them and are just using them.”

“WE DON’T WANT OUR CHILDREN TO DIE”

Rufina, a relative of an Astrakhan Kazakh who has died in the war in Ukraine, and a native of the Astrakhan Region’s Kamyzyak District, says that many residents of her village have gone to fight. Two other relatives of her parents are currently in Ukraine.

“My mother, grandmother, and other women who remain in the village are rather apolitical people with no coherent system of views. They are, in fact, now opposed to the war, but in their own way: ‘We don;’t want our children to die god knows where and god knows for whom.’ This does not prevent them from chewing out Ukraine and making fun of Zelensky, but they also chew out Putin. The only thing they really want is for all of it to stop and for their children to come home. The men are a little different: my uncle wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a Z, and some people in the village dress up children in these symbols. But I don’t consider this a direct endorsement of the war. In my opinion, their motivation, rather, is just to support their brothers, since they are [in Ukraine],” explains Rufina.

She actively opposes the war and puts up anti-war leaflets in the courtyards of residential areas in Astrakhan, but admits that this stance is not very popular even among her peers — people of high school age.

“Propaganda, unfortunately, does a bang-up job in these parts: many people believe in the ‘special operation’ and despise all Ukrainians. Our Russian-language teacher told us in class about ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ and went to a rally celebrating the ‘reunification’ of Crimea and Russia. I don’t see much opposition from schoolchildren,” says Rufina.

“On the other hand, I met some like-minded women who helped me with leaflets. We made small handwritten posters featuring slogans like ‘Silence is consent,’ ‘No death, no war,’ and ‘Bring flowers, not destruction,’ and pasted them on poles and bulletin boards. They were quickly torn down, however — whether by janitors or ordinary people who didn’t agree with [our message], I don’t know,” says Rufina.

“THE SENSELESSNESS IS STUNNING”

Kanat, who lives in Astrakhan, believes that the region’s residents are gradually losing interest in the events in Ukraine.

“War, like any other topic, cannot grip people’s attention for a long time. During the first month, I heard condemnation and discontent from the people around me and noticed that they were depressed. Now everyone is immersed in their daily problems again,” says Kanat. “There are more of these problems, but for some reason people no longer link them to what the army has been doing at the behest of the authorities. At the same time, it is clear that there is no freedom of speech, there is no criticism of the government and its actions, and we are thinking about how to live with what we have at the moment.”

“A colleague of mine says that when a war is on you must not condemn your country’s army. You can figure things out afterwards, but for now you can only support them. I don’t understand this. If this were a war to defend our own territory, to defend our rights and freedoms, then yes, we could say that, for the moment, we could close our eyes to certain crimes committed by the army or by individuals, and we would get to the bottom of them later. But now the exact opposite — a war of aggression — is happening,” claims Kanat.

According to him, he finds it “strange to see the posthumous medals for Kazakhs.”

“Maybe Kazakhs are not the only soldiers from Astrakhan Region who are getting killed, but I don’t really remember the others, to be honest. The senselessness is stunning. If you believe the rhetoric of the authorities, ethnics Russians are not loved in Ukraine, but ethnic Kazakhs from the Volodarsky District are dying for their interests. But I think that protests in Kazakhstan are more important to them than the rights of Russian-speaking residents of Odesa,” Kanat argues.

“TO BECOME WHITE IN THE EYES OF WHITES”

“Why are Kazakhs and other non-ethnic Russian Russian Federation nationals fighting? I would like to say that it is impossible to explain, but in fact I understand it,” says Rasul, a Kazakhstani national who moved to Russia to study at university. “First of all, these are people from poor regions, for whom the army is a way to move up in life, to become white in the eyes of whites, to become ethnic Russian in the eyes of ethnic Russians, to join something big and supposedly majestic. Secondly, Russian propaganda has this amazing property — it takes all imperial narratives that have existed in this country and fascistizes them to the limit. If you love the Russian Empire, here’s Christ for you. If you love the USSR, here’s the red banner. If you love Russia, here’s the tricolor. Are you a Tuvan who speaks Russian poorly? Here’s the opinion that [Russian defense minister Sergei] Shoigu is the reincarnation of Subutai. Are you a Kadyrovite? Here’s jihad for you. It all affects you, staying somewhere in your head, and when you are sent off to war, you easily find a moral justification for what you are doing.”

Rasul notes that he, perhaps, “would like to denounce ethnic Kazakhs involved in the war, to ‘discharge’ them from the Kazakh people, to say that they are all traitors.”

“From the viewpoint of sharia, they actually are traitors: all muftis, except the pro-Putin ones, have condemned this war. At the Last Judgment, these soldiers will be asked, ‘What did you die for? For Putin and his yacht? Well, then go to hell with them.’ But, to be honest, I feel more sorry for them on the purely human level than for the ethnic Russian guys, because after three years of living in Russia I understood how this propaganda works, how this society as a whole is organized, what the dynamics of interethnic relations are. I myself have many questions for our government, many problems with ethnic Kazakh and Kazakhstani identity, but over these two months I have repeatedly discussed Ukraine with my friends from Kazakhstan — with ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Russians, ethnic Uyghurs, ethnic Dungans, ethnic Germans, and ethnic Poles — and we have always agreed that if Russia invaded us, we would go to war and shoot at the occupiers. We may speak Russian perfectly and have an excellent grasp of Russian literature, but this is our land, and we don’t need any ‘Russian world’ in it,” the Kazakhstani concludes.

Source: Idel.Realii (Radio Svoboda), 18 May 2022. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader