Kirill Kalugin: “My Freedom Defends Yours”

On August 2, 2013, Russian Paratroopers Day, Kirill Kalugin, a Petersburg university student, took to the city’s Palace Square alone to protest the country’s new anti-gay laws. He was immediately set upon by reveling paratroopers (or as he himself suggested, by national activists masquerading as paratroopers), an incident captured on video by Petersburg news web site Paper Paper.

Kalugin returned to Palace Square this year on August 2 to protest Russia’s increasing militarism and imperialist misadventures in Ukraine. He was roughly detained by police some fifteen seconds after attempting to unfurl a rainbow flag emblazoned with the slogan, “My freedom defends yours.” Despite the fact that Kalugin held his anniversary protest right next to Manifesta 10’s provocative metallic Xmas tree, his protest has so far gone unremarked by progressive humanity (i.e., the international contemporary arts community) and the foreign press.

The interview below was published in August 2013 on the local Petersburg news web site Rosbalt three weeks after Kalugin’s first protest on Palace Square. Unfortunately, it hasn’t lost any of its timeliness, especially given the total absence of an anti-war movement in Russia and the singularity of Kalugin’s bravery and insight.

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Saint Petersburg State University student Kirill Kalugin is half the age of his eminent opponent, Petersburg Legislative Assembly member Vitaly Milonov, although he is also a redhead. But hair color is not the only thing the outspoken homophobe and outspoken gay have in common. Both claim they love their motherland Russia and will never leave it. 

Rosbalt’s Yevgeny Zubarev met with Kalugin in the city center, on Arts Square. It’s a safe place because it is always chockablock with police. There were also lots of police on Palace Square on August 2, [2013], when Kalugin came there alone and unfurled a rainbow flag, but even a platoon of riot police was not immediately able to wrest him away from an agitated crowd dressed in striped shirts for Russian Paratroopers Day.

 — Why did you do it, Kirill? Weren’t you frightened?

— I was frightened. Actually, there were supposed to be four of us out there, but then I ended up going out alone. If there had been several people, the police could have charged us with holding an unauthorized rally, but this way it was a solo picket, which doesn’t require permission. As soon as I unfurled the rainbow flag, men in [traditional Russian paratrooper] striped shirts grabbed me. But I don’t think they were paratroopers: I had seen many of the assailants earlier at anti-LGBT protests. I think they were nationalist activists masquerading as paratroopers. The police pulled me from the crowd and put me in a car, but we couldn’t leave right away: the crowd blocked the car, demanding that the police give me up. The riot police intervened and cleared a path, and I was taken to the 78th police precinct.

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— What did police charge you with? How were you punished?

— I don’t understand it myself. At first they wouldn’t let me make a phone call. The sergeants behaved rudely, and I couldn’t figure out what my status was, whether I had been detained, arrested or was considered a suspect. Right there at the police station one of the detained paratroopers rushed me: he wanted to beat me up, but the police held him back. Then the brass arrived and everything immediately changed: the police started talking with me politely. It turned out I wasn’t being charged with anything. They even let me file an assault complaint. But how that case has turned out, I don’t know: it has been twenty days, but I have had no word from the police.

— After this incident, Russian Orthodox patriots wrote several petitions to Saint Petersburg State University demanding your expulsion.

— I’m a student in the physics department, specializing in medical physics and bioengineering. It’s a tough department, and there is a lot of studying to do. What matters to the deans is that students take all their exams and tests on time, but they are unconcerned about their private lives. Generally, it is not kosher in the scientific community to tell people how they should behave in the intimate realm. So I’m confident all these petitions are pointless.

— Your family must have seen how you were beaten on Palace Square on the Web or on TV. What was their reaction?

— I was born to an ordinary Russian family in the town of Krasnoturyinsk in the Urals. My father is an officer in the Russian armed forces, my mother, a philologist. After the 2008 crisis, life in our town got really bad and we moved to Petersburg, where I finished high school, enrolled at the university, and began to live separately from my family. It was only then I told my parents I was gay. My parents were upset, especially my father, but they recognized my right to live as I see fit. My brother also said it was my choice. When I went out on Palace Square, they heard about it in the media. They called me and were worried, of course. But I assured them I was not in danger.

— How many times have you been beaten up in Petersburg for being gay?

— Never, except for the incident at Palace Square. My classmates at university and my employers at the restaurant where I work part time as a bartender do not care what I do in bed. Of course, after this incident I could have been recognized on the street and beaten up, but that hasn’t happened yet.

— There are thousands of commentators on the Web who are sure you went out on Palace Square to secure the right to emigrate to the west as a discriminated person.

— I don’t intend to leave Russia. I am sure all these homophobic laws will be repealed sooner or later, and all Russian citizens will be able to live normally regardless of sexual orientation. There were similar laws in Sweden thirty years ago, and gays were persecuted throughout the world the way they now are in Russia. But then the situation changed. I am sure that Russia also has to follow this path, and so I’m not going to leave. But change doesn’t happen by itself—people have to take to the streets and speak out about this problem.

— Why do you act alone? There are lots of public organizations in Russia that support gays. Many of them receive foreign grants. You could get this money to fight for equality and all that, no?

— I don’t want to. I’ve had offers to join various organizations like that, but I don’t want to. I’m not a politician. I just don’t want there to be discrimination against people like me. Besides, it is easier for the state to punish organizations than lone individuals. Organizations are more vulnerable. What are they going to do with an ordinary guy like me?

— When you finish university you’ll find that jobs in your scientific specialty are poorly paid and dead ends. This is another reason, aside from sexual orientation, for going abroad.

— I still won’t leave. I know how things are going with financing for science in Russia, but I don’t want to leave. In the end, there are grants given to scientists for in-demand research. And in fact, Russia is changing for the better; the situation is improving in science, too.

— You have the opportunity to address Rosbalt’s thousands of readers. What would say to all these people?

— I would appeal to people like me. Don’t sit quiet as mice. At least come out. Let your loved ones know that you exist.

 — Why can’t you sit quiet and keep a low profile? Why do you come up with these public protests during which you can be beaten or even killed? After all, there is no practical sense to them.

 — Can I quote Goethe? “He alone deserves liberty and life who daily must win them anew.”

— How old are you?

 — Twenty-one.

Originally published, in Russian, by Rosbalt on August 22, 2013. Photo courtesy of Rosbalt

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Explaining his protest [on August 2, 2014], Kalugin said it was directed against both the lack of civil freedoms and the growing militarism in Russia during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

“The suppression of any civil freedoms and the growth of imperial chauvinism in Russia are interconnected, and the issue has one and the same root,” he said.

“As long as there remains at least one group that is seen as ‘second-rate people’ in the country, the rest cannot call themselves free. Even if they enjoy some preferences now, this system can hit them, too, sooner or later.

“All this has grown so much that it has already started spreading into the neighboring states. The same people, who cried ‘Death to gays’ and hailed the laws banning ‘gay propaganda’ and restricting public assemblies, ended up shouting ‘Crimea is ours’ and going to Donetsk and Luhansk.”

Airborne Troops Day in St. Petersburg is known for the large number of airborne veterans gathering in the city center, drinking, swimming in fountains and, at times, getting out of control, with the police usually ignoring any misconduct.

Kalugin said that he chose to stage his protest on that day because he sees the festivities as the “climax of militarism and chauvinism.” He said it was also his reaction to homophobic jokes, where LGBT people were mockingly invited to hold their protests on Airborne Troops Day—the underlying notion being that they would be immediately be beaten by homophobic airborne veterans.

“It’s an old joke from the times when LGBT pride events were held in Moscow, [Moscow’s anti-gay ex-mayor Yury] Luzhkov used to say that he would only agree if it was held on Aug. 2,” Kalugin said.

source: St. Petersburg Times

Sergey Chernov: Grymov’s Hollow War

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A still from Yury Grymov’s Strangers

A Hollow War
Sergey Chernov
St. Petersburg Times
October 17, 2008

Condoleezza Rice, allegedly, has banned Yury Grymov’s new film, but is it all just a cheap, blog-led PR stunt to drum up publicity?

Local channel 100TV opened its evening newscast on Wednesday last week with a report that Moscow director Yury Grymov’s film Strangers (Chuzhiye) had been banned in the U.S. The film is due for release in November, and critics suggest this “news” was part of the publicity campaign for the film, which kicked off last week. The channel itself was hard pressed to name its source, claiming it arrived by e-mail from a news agency.

“Grymov’s film Strangers has been banned in the U.S.,” said the newscast’s presenter. “Condoleezza Rice’s staff has not recommended it for distribution.”

“Most likely, this has something to do with the anti-American mood of the picture, which would be inappropriate in view of the upcoming presidential elections in America.”

It is unlikely that the station’s claims have any real basis. The U.S. Secretary of State’s purview does not include monitoring either new Russian films or, more to the point, giving recommendations to U.S. film distributors.

The report was, however, in tune with anti-American sentiments in the Russian media, which have been on the rise in the aftermath of the war in Georgia. TV100 did not provide any sources for their report.

The report ended with a fragment of a tape-recorded telephone conversation with Grymov, a TV ad maker turned feature-film director. He described the news as a “surprise.”

“I think this is nonsense, but everything is possible. I don’t know anything about it for certain yet,” he said.

The 100TV report also aroused suspicions because, as a Google News search revealed, there was no mention of the subject, or even of Grymov, in the international media.

100TV editor-in-chief Andrei Radin did not respond to an e-mail inquiry sent on Oct. 9, but when called on his cell phone on Thursday he said he “did not know” the source of the information.

Yekaterina Dodzina, 100TV news editor and the evening newscast presenter (whom Radin referred to), said the news came by e-mail from an agency, although she does not remember the name of the agency.

“We were surprised as well, but we checked it with Grymov and his assistant,” she said by phone on Thursday. However, Dodzina said she did not verify the information with anyone in the U.S. or with U.S. officials.

According to the film’s official website, Strangers is set in a war zone in a third-world country. The plot involves doctors from a U.S. charity organization who become responsible for some terrible crimes as the film unfolds.

“Viewers will see how the American nation tries to instill its morals in another world but at the same time it doesn’t understand one simple thing—there is no such thing as one’s ‘own’ morals. Since morals are one and the same for all,” states the film’s English-language press release.

The news was picked up by several publications, most of them web-based. All of them referred to different sources for their information.

Gazeta.ru quotes the RIA Novy Region news agency, which, in turn, refers to “news agencies that quote Condoleezza Rice’s staff.”

Research has revealed that the news originated on Internet forums and was subsequently cross-posted in several blogs.

Russian entertainment website Life.ru refers directly to “Condoleezza Rice’s staff,” adding that “censorship as such does not exist in American film distribution but in this specific case the U.S. State Department recommended that U.S. film companies not distribute Strangers within [the U.S.].” Life.ru is published by OAO News Media, which also publishes the tabloids Zhizn and Tvoi Den.

The website also added that the U.S. Department of State had previously not recommended Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. In reality, Moore’s film had a general release in the United States in June 2004. It became the highest-grossing documentary of all time on its first weekend in release, taking in $21.8 million.

However, at least two publications soon deleted the news from their websites, although they did not publish corrections or disclaimers. The local edition of Argumenty I Fakty newspaper published an article entitled, “Condoleezza Rice Is Unhappy About Grymov’s Film Strangers,” on its website on Oct. 9. When accessed on Saturday, this page was blank. Cinema website Film.ru also later removed its article on the apparently fake controversy.

But it was in the blogosphere where the story gathered real force. There, the news was reposted dozens of times after the initial report on TV100.

The most persistent blogger on this front was Alexander Korsunov, who writes under the nickname “jordan_korsun.” Korsunov uploaded the video link from 100TV to the popular Livejournal.com community “ru_politics,” and he was especially active in responding to the comments and misgivings of other bloggers. In several postings, he corroborated the veracity of the report, claiming that American film distributors obey the recommendations of the U.S. State Department.

Research on the web has shown that Korsunov works in public relations and has himself been involved in the blogosphere advertising campaign for Strangers.

On Livejournal.com, the business offer that Korsunov made to Ruslan Paushu, who blogs under the nickname “goblin-gaga,” was found.

“Do you remember how you and I tried to launch a campaign against Ukraine over the ‘gas war,’” Korsunov wrote to Paushu on Sept. 30.

“I want to invite you to take part in a PR campaign [in the blogosphere]. Grymov is releasing a new film, Strangers, about American doctors, Arabs, and the Russian military. The film is patriotic and ideological, especially in connection with the [war in] South Ossetia. […] If [you’re] interested, please write to [inform me] about your conditions […] and come to the pre-release screening.”

Last year, Paushu was identified by Vedomosti newspaper as one of two bloggers who launched an infamous advertising campaign for Utkonos, a Moscow store chain. Several popular Livejournal.com bloggers almost simultaneously made similar postings advertising the chain.

Dozens of popular bloggers were caught placing Utkonos ads in their postings. According to Vedomosti, Paushu said the postings were commissioned by an advertising agency that he declined to identify. He added that bloggers are usually paid $50 to $300 for covert product placements in their blogs.

In a posting to another blogger (the deleted comment is available in the cache of search engines), Korsunov confessed that there was a budget for advertising Strangers in the blogosphere.

“There is a budget for PR, not especially large, but I think the stance of the film is close to yours and you’ll find it interesting,” he wrote.

Further research showed that the news originated in two places, a Canadian website (where it was later deleted) and an Arabic-language forum. There, the report, which had apparently been translated into Arabic from Russian by a computer program, was still available as of Thursday. In another discussion on Livejournal.com, which took place on the afternoon of Oct. 8, several hours before the 100TV evening newscast, Korsunov referred to the Arabic version as the “original.”

Korsunov first achieved a modicum of fame in 2005, when, as a 22-year-old student, he launched the website Skaji.net. Now defunct, it was described as a source of political news independent from the Kremlin. “Information is the first step toward democracy,” he said in an interview with The Moscow Times at the time.

Film critic Stanislav Zelvensky, who writes for Afisha, arguably Russia’s leading listings magazine, said the news that Grymov’s film had been banned in the U.S. could easily be part of the film’s advertising campaign.

“When I first saw, or rather read this [on the web], I thought it was an advertising campaign,” he said. “It looks like a publicity stunt.”

Zelvensky said film companies occasionally hire bloggers to advertise a movie, but more often their own publicists do the work.

“I’ve read all this, but it’s not clear who was paid and who was not,” he said.

“Actually, they do not pay many people. Usually, it’s someone who works for the film company itself. This person launches a blog, or starts to write to Internet film communities about what a wonderful film it is.

“To put it crudely, there is a girl on salary who sits and types postings to endless numbers of silly [Live Journal] communities. ‘Such-and-such a film is being released, and I would love to see it. Guys, do you know what it’s about?’”

However, such stunts like the one probably used to advertise Strangers help film companies economize on their advertising budgets, according to Zelvensky.

“It’s clear that there’s a certain advertising budget in any case, and a portion of it can go to blogs,” he said.

“But it’s more effective when some copywriters come up with something like this, and it spreads all by itself, and then, when you realize that it’s fake, it’s already all over the place.”