The Red Book

AppleMarkA Russian environmentalist untangles a “ghost” fishing net. Such nets are deadly to wildlife, including the endangered Russian desman. Photo by V.I. Bulavintsev

The Russian Desman Hangs by a Thread
Yevgenia Volunkova
Takie Dela
November 28, 2019

In Russia, the Red Book of Rare and Endangered Species is about to be reissued almost eight years late. Scientists fear that rare and endangered species of mammals and birds of interest to hunters will not be included. At this very moment (the commission’s final session will be held tomorrow, November 29, 2019), zoologists are fighting for the inclusion of more than a dozen species that are in dire straits. Among them are the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), the greylag goose (Anser anser), the Siberian bighorn sheep (Ovis nivicola), and the killer whale (Orcinus orca).

What Went Wrong
The Red Book of the Russian Federation is supposed to be reissued every ten years, but the most recent edition dates to 2001. An updated version of the Red Book was planned for release in 2017. At the time, scientists had made lists of rare and endangered species for the new edition, and the lists had been approved by the Red Book’s commission, but then everything went wrong.

The Russian Federal Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (Minprirody) suddenly changed the roster of the commission that reviews and approves the book. Zoologists who could stand up for rare animals were, for all practical purposes, removed from the commission. As a result, many species in need of protection vanished from the list. The new commission for some reason decided not to include 23 species of animals that had previously been listed in the Red Book.

Scientists were publicly outraged, and the process of reissuing the Red Book was suspended. In October 2019, Minprirody tweaked the commission’s roster again. Of its 44 members, only 20 scientists have remained. The other 24 members are officials from Minprirody, subordinate agencies and institutions, and regional hunting departments.

“If you remove the scientists from the commission and put hunters and bureaucrats on it, it’s clear how they are going to vote,” says Sofia Rosenfeld, a biologist and member of the commission’s expert panel on geese. “People must be smart and objective in order to evaluate the scientists’ proposals. Hunters cannot be objective. Business interests are obviously trying to delist the species from which they profit. And yet the fact that these species are on the verge of extinction bothers no one.”*

The Leftover Principle
Alexei Zimenko, the director of the Biodiversity Conservation Center, and I are talking in his office. Located in a small old building on Vavilov Street in Moscow, the Center occupies several rooms off a corridor. It has not been remodeled in a long time, but inside it is a cozy as a biology classroom. Zimenko sets the most recent edition of the Red Book on the table. According to him, the book has not been updated for so long because there are “gigantic problems with the protection and study of wildlife” in Russia.

“Since 2000, the country’s main priority has been economic success. But environmental issues and nature conservation are considered obstacles to this success,” Zimenko says. “Biological research is financed on the leftover principle. For example, at one point Barguzin Nature Reserve, on Lake Baikal, had a powerful research base and material support up to and including its own airfield. But in the early 2000s, we gifted the oldest employee three freestanding lamps for lighting, so that he could scrape by somehow. And at another Far Eastern reserve, there is now just one scientist on staff, and three more travel there and stay for a month, at most.”

According to Zimenko, the delay in republishing the Red Book could be due in part to the fact that there are very few or no scientists researching many of the animal species in Russia.

“Due to insufficient data, several species may not make it into the Red Book. But this country has excellent researchers who are ready to work with limited resources. So, we do have information on many species. But, for example, when it comes to the Russian desman (Desmana moschata)—a rare Red Book species—we have three researchers total: two at the Oka Nature Reserve and one in Moscow. And we have just one person in the whole country who researches moles.”

Things Are Bad for the Russian Desman
Using the example of the Russian desman, Zimenko tells me about how scientists research Red Book species.

The small, semi-aquatic creature lives in bodies of water in central Russia and along their banks. Estimating its numbers is a job best done from August to September, when the water is not high. A group of researchers travels to the desman’s habitat and inspects the shoreline meter by meter. They wander the banks and the shallows in search of the animal’s burrows—it is the numbers of these that are counted. In point of fact, a similar “walking” count is made for all animals. Ground squirrels, for example, are counted by the numbers of their burrows, and tigers, by their paw prints. The “heel” of every print is measured with a ruler: it is a different size for every tiger. That way one can grasp how many tigers have passed through an area and whether they were males, females, youngsters, or adults.

There are not enough people for such a colossal amount of work: a small group cannot physically manage to inspect a huge area. So, there is little current data on the state of the Russian desman, as for many other species.

“In the early 2000s, we conducted a nationwide inventory of the desman with the help of hunting researchers who had previously been in charge of doing counts of the wildlife in their districts. Today, there are few such researchers, and their duties have been reduced, along with their funding. Furthermore, the desman is not a commercial species, so counting it basically is of no interest to anyone. Therefore, we can get current data on the state of the desman only after studying several sites and estimating its overall numbers. And it’s the same thing, unfortunately, with many species. How, for example, can we estimate the numbers of the polar bear, if it travels across the ice for half a year, and every trip to the Far North is terribly expensive? Back in the day, my fellow scientists lived right in the nature reserves and were able to make observations without gigantic outlays of money for flights. Today, there are very few scientists who work in the necessary fields.”

Выхухоль
The Russian desman. Photo by V.I. Bulavintsev

According to Zimenko, things are bad for the Russian desman. Compared with Soviet times, the state of the species has deteriorated dramatically. Today, there are approximately 7,500 of them in the wild. For such a tiny animal, that is incredibly low—there should be tens of thousands. In the 1990s, the oversight of bodies of water decreased significantly, and people began fishing in droves, often using nets. If a desman gets caught in a net, it becomes entangled and drowns underwater. Things got even worse when Russian-made nets were replaced with ones made in China from monofilament fishing line. They are impossible to escape, and some of these nets are so cheap that fishermen often simply discard them. The nets are washed away by floodwaters, becoming conveyor belts for destroying aquatic life.

“We tried to ban the import of those fishing nets to Russia. They destroy not only the Russian desman, but fish and birds as well. Even moose were getting killed, as it happened. Consequently, the decision was made to ban the import of equipped (readymade) nets. But importing reels fitted with monofilament line to Russia is still permitted. A great country has been unable to solve a seemingly simple problem. It is shameful! And so the Russian desman is hostage to our troubles with the government management of natural resources and wildlife conservation. Among other things, the Russian desman reacts to climate change—drought and the lack of floods affect its reproduction. The desman is hanging by a thread.”

Cut Out and Shot
But if the Russian desman can at least be found in the Red Book, many other species on verge of extinction risk not even getting into it. For example, the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), whose situation, according to researchers, is catastrophic.

The scientific community has long been in favor putting the Asian (white-chested) black bear in the Red Book. But the hunting community has prevented that in every way possible. At issue are the bear’s paws and bile, which are in great demand in China. The Asian black bear winters in the hollows of large trees. Hunters cut down the tree, chase out the bear sleeping there, and shoot it. Or they cut out an opening in the tree through which they can extract their “trophy.”

Female bears also give birth to their young only in tree hollows while they are hibernating. They give birth and feed their bear cubs in a semi-drowsy state. Hunters do not differentiate whom they kill, but the bear cubs are often left behind and usually die.

In the Maritime Territory (Primorsky Krai), where the white-chested bear lives, large trees are being intensively cut down. And this is the second problem: with every passing year, it becomes harder for the bear to find a place to winter. It is forced to winter among tree roots or burrows in the ground, like the European brown bear (Ursus arctos), but in such conditions it is more vulnerable to predators and hunters. If it does not find a place to winter, a bear cannot even lie down to hibernate. A bald bear in the forest that has not fallen asleep or managed to shed its fur, according to zoologist Nikolai Formozov, is a “heartbreaking sight.”

Formozov has a Ph.D. in biology and is a member of the Red Book commission’s expert group on mammals. He has advocated for the inclusion of the Asian black bear in the Red Book.

“The white-chested bear was in the Red Book of the USSR. Later it was removed, even though things had got worse for it. In the Soviet Union, its population was estimated at 7,000 individuals—fewer than the polar bears in the Arctic. Today, even by the hunters’ inflated numbers, pulled out of thin air, there are only 5,600. In fact, of course, there are fewer than that. And at the same time, the hunters say that it is safe to cross it out of the Red Book. That, in my view, is a crime!”

The Death Throes of a Species
Formozov calls what is happening with the white-chested bear the “death throes of a species.”

“The species is in bad shape, and some not-so-obvious signs make it easy to understand. When a species is on the verge of distinction, it often shows up in inappropriate places. Previously, the basic foodstuffs for the Asian black bear before hibernation were the acorns of the Mongolian oak and pine nuts. When the acorns weren’t ripe, the pine nuts came to the rescue, and vice versa. So, the bear alternated between acorns and pine nuts. But the cedars have been cut down. And now we see hunger driving them into the flood plains, to eat cherry trees. Right next to villages. In that situation we get the reaction ‘Oh, there are so many of them!’ But this is an illusion. It has happened that up to twenty white-chested bears have been killed by poachers during such forays. The same thing was written about Caspian tigers when they began showing up in inappropriate places—that there were a lot of them. But this was the very end of that tiger’s existence. It disappeared completely, remaining only in the form of taxidermic mounts. The same thing happened with the cheetah in Kazakhstan . . . These are its death throes.”

Сафари-парк в Шкотовском районе Приморья
An Asian black bear cub at Safari Park, a park for predatory animals in Shkotovo District, Maritime Territory. Photo by Yuri Smityuk for TASS

Things are nearly as bad for the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica). The saiga antelope lives in Kalmykia and the Astrakhan Region. In good times, there were 800,000 of them. By the early 2000s, only 5,000 remained. Among those 5,000 only about five percent are males, because poachers hunt the animal for its horns: like the paws of the Asiatic black bear, the saiga antelope’s horns are used in Chinese medicine.

“There are none of them left to reproduce,” says Formozov. “The situation is simply catastrophic. Alexey Yablokov proposed adding the saiga antelope to the Red Book back in August 2003, but at the time the hunting lobby would not stand for it. The situation for this species continued to worsen, and here we are, sixteen years later: we defended our position and got the saiga antelope listed in the Red Book.”

Now the numbers of the saiga antelope have stabilized somewhat, thanks to two places where they are protected: the Stepnoy Nature Refuge and the Chornye Zemli Nature Reserve. Even so, the species is in a precarious situation.

And then, at its last meeting, the commission did not even review the case of the Manchurian sika deer (Cervus nippon mantchuricus), whose situation is critical. In the 1930s, hardly any of them remained. Today in the Far East, where there is an extremely high level of poaching, the numbers of sika deer and of other hoofed animals are so low that tigers are not able to raise their cubs. There are almost no places where female tigers can catch prey and bring it back to their cubs. Therefore, the numbers of tigers have also been falling.

The Curlew That We Lost
By international standards, in order to be sure that a species has gone extinct, we must wait fifty years from the time it was placed on the endangered species list. However, even now, twenty years later, it is impossible to identify the species that we have nearly lost.

“The spoon-billed sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) is very close to extinction,” says Formozov. “The sociable lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) is also close to disappearing. But the biggest loss in recent years is the slender-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris), which nested in Western Siberia. Nobody has been able to locate it for quite some time now. Its migratory routes and stopover sites are well known. It is a ‘tasty treat’ for birdwatchers, who have been looking for it a long time. In the 1990s, they spotted fifteen specimens, then seven, then three; several years ago, they spotted one. Now there are none.”

Numenius_tenuirostris_GrönvoldThe slender-billed curlew. Drawing by Henrik Grönvold, as published in M.A. Menzbir, Hunted and Commercial Birds of European Russia and the Caucasus (Moscow: I.N. Kushnerev and Co., 1900–1902). Courtesy of Wikipedia

Formozov explains that while the commission argues over mammals and there is a chance to protect some of them, things are practically hopeless when it comes to birds.

“Not one of the birds was put on the endangered list, not even those for which there was impressive data,” laments Formozov. “Such is the situation, for example, with the European turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur). In my childhood, there were lots of them; they were found everywhere in the Moscow Region. Now the numbers of the turtle dove have fallen, at a minimum, by a factor of fifty, at a maximum, by a factor in the hundreds. This is due to the unfortunate situation in their wintering habitats: forest belts have been cut down in the steppe zone, while chemicals are used to fertilize fields. For these and other reasons, there is nowhere for the bird to winter.”

“The hunters, in response to our proposal to put the turtle dove on the list of protected species, say, ‘We’re not to blame for the reduction in numbers. Why do you want to forbid shooting them?’ They say that inclusion in the Red Book would be of no use because they will continue hunting them. Where’s the logic?”

“There is data on the decline in numbers. There are guidelines for compiling the Red Book: when there is a certain decline in numbers, you must put them on the list. Period! But, they say, ‘No, we’re not including them. Next question!’”

Again We Have Achieved Nothing
The commission met on November 1, for the first time since the public outrage of the scientists over their removal from the commission on rare and endangered species. This time it was a “correct” commission: the roster has been changed to include as many scientists as necessary. But even so, much of what happened at the meeting remains a mystery.

“First, the ministry came up with the idea of asking the regions’ opinion about the feasibility of listing the taxa we had proposed in the Russian Red Book,” recounts Sofia Rosenfeld. “We got their answers and were dumbfounded. Their responses show how bad things are in these regions! In the best case, they can write the name of a species without making mistakes; in the worst case, what they write is sheer nonsense.”

“For example, a region has a species in its regional Red Book, but they brag that everything is fine with it and that it is hunted! It’s obvious that they completely fail to understand what’s going on. And now, if one region is against listing a species, and eighty are for it, that’s it, we cannot list it! This is unprecedented. On November 1, we achieved nothing, and not one question was put to a vote. They threw out all of our geese again. We ended up drafting internal memos and petitions.”

The Battle over the Geese
On a Saturday afternoon, Rosenfeld is working at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It is a dilapidated building, with plaster crumbling in spots, exposing the bricks. Inside there are signs of a renovation that took place ages ago.

“It is everything you wanted to know about the attitude towards scientists in Russia,” Rosenfeld says, smiling, in response to my remarks about the ruin.

Rosenfeld’s computer monitor shows an enlarged photograph of geese in flight. She has been counting birds on photos all day, entering the data into a separate spreadsheet.

“I have to examine 20,000 photographs and count up all the geese. And also determine where there is a swan, a brent goose, or a greylag goose,” Rosenfeld comments on her work. “But I’m also constantly monitoring everything that is happening with the Red Book, writing memos and substantiations, and giving interviews. My life is spent dealing with paperwork, and I’m unable to do real work!”

At the last meeting of the rare species commission, Rosenfeld represented geese.

“We proposed listing the greylag goose (Anser anser) in the Red Book: it has been doing poorly in Russia,” she recounts. “When spring hunting for geese was opened (in Soviet times, it was outlawed—Takie Dela), it was a real blow to the greylags, because that is right when the species is nesting. Spring hunting causes huge damage to all our geese. This is a horror and a disgrace for Russia, and no civilized country has it anymore. Imagine: geese fly across fifty regions to breed, and everywhere they are shot! And later the rest of them are shot at their breeding sites. A goose is sitting on her eggs, and hunters are running around the wetlands. A goose flies up from under a hunter’s feet—bang! Or the male tries to lead people away from the nest—bang! And geese are monogamous birds, after all. You kill its mate—that is it, it will no longer breed, at least this season. Or maybe not at all. Geese are like people: some grieve so much for their partner that they won’t form another couple for the rest of their lives. The whole world has understood this, but we in Russia have not! On hunting sites and forums, hunters talk about how cool it is to hunt geese when they are sitting on their eggs or have just flown into breeding sites, having traveled thousands of kilometers! They say things like, ‘They don’t fly off, they try and lead us away,’” explains Rosenfeld.

Rosenfeld recounts that in 2018, the website The Petersburg Hunter posted a photo with the results of the previous year’s spring goose hunting. One of the users reported that their team of three people had bagged 183 geese in a single day. In the Nenets Autonomous District, a group of hunters bagged 700 geese in the spring of 2017. And there are many such examples.

musk-5Autumn migration of birds in the Dvuobje Wetlands. Photo by Sofia Rosenfeld

“I have nearly lost my mind trying to fight this. Personally, I don’t understand how it is possible to have fun murdering another living being, but I am not a crazy Green. I am convinced that hunting has a right to exist as long as it does no harm to what is hunted. But what I am seeing now is terrible. Quick, quick, shoot, before they fly off to a neighboring region, or to Europe, or to China, quick, quick! The main thing is that our neighbor does not get it! It is obvious that current hunting regulations cannot cope: it is essential to make protective measures stronger. And the only way to save the birds that are disappearing right before our eyes is to list them in the Red Book,” Rosenfeld says.

When asked how many greylag geese are left today, Rosenfeld says that it is not a matter of numbers, but of speed. If the population has fallen by half in ten years, that is enough to list the species in the Red Book.

In addition to the greylag goose, scientists have proposed listing three subspecies of the bean goose (Anser fabalis) in the Red Book. In twenty years, the numbers of the taiga bean goose have fallen from 110,000 to 45, and this is a disaster.

“There are motorboats and good equipment nowadays. A motorboat sails by a spot where a female is sitting in her nest, and the male tries to lead the hunter away and is shot. The bean goose remains only in places impassable to boats. But there are no geese left where the rivers are navigable. All these arguments in defense of geese were rejected by the commission. I think that everyone is under the influence of high-ranked oligarchs who hunt. Do you know what birds will definitely be listed in the Red Book? Two subspecies of godwit. Because nobody wants them—they’re not hunted. The battle is over the geese, ducks, sheep, goats, and deer,” Rosenfeld explains.

Yamal Gets It
When Rosenfeld is not doing paperwork, she is doing field work. For many years, she and her colleagues have been doing air counts and ringing Anseriformes on the Yamal Peninsula, in the Nenets District, and on the Taymyr Peninsula. In some places, they go out into the field with telescopes and count birds. Where there are no roads, they use an airplane.

“Across our huge country, all of the data we get is the result of the incredible work of mad scientists,” says Rosenfeld, smiling.

Rosenfeld says that the attitude toward bird monitoring in the country’s northern regions should be an example to other Russian officials.

“In Russia, monitoring has been entrusted to bureaucrats who have no money, gasoline, or concept of what to do and how to do it. It is set up like this: the federal government subsidizes the monitoring of wildlife. Here are three rubles for you to spend on monitoring rare species, and for hunted species, here are three hundred rubles. Next, region, you can do as you like: if you want, you can count geese. Or deer. Or seals. There is no system. A region can spend money on monitoring from its own regional budget, but, in our country, there are few wealthy regions that want to monitor anything. We have established a system only in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District,” Rosenfeld explains.

musk-6Wild reindeer on Shokalsky Island. Photo by Sofia Rosenfeld

This year [2019], Rosenfeld was in the field from April to September. First, she counted moose and deer on the Yamal Peninsula from the air. Next, she did an aerial survey of waterfowl and hoofed mammals on the Yamal and Taymyr peninsulas and in Yakutia (from Taymyr through the Lena River delta). Then she counted waterfowl during their autumn migration in the Nenets Autonomous District.

“When the work is done,” Rosenfeld explains, “we say to the authorities, ‘Here’s where you have geese; there are the deer; here you need to make a nature preserve; forbid hunting here; there, oilmen are a danger.’ And they follow our recommendations. That is how it should be, but only the Yamalo-Nenets District and the Nenets District work with us in this way. They have realized the importance of waterfowl. The officials themselves admit it: ‘But we have no other hunting resources left—all the rest have been knocked out!’ And that is the case: the wild reindeer and moose have been knocked out, and if the geese are knocked out, what will you have left?”

Proper Monitoring and How it Works
When Rosenfeld explains how the work of protecting and monitoring wildlife is done in the west, she rolls her eyes.

“Europe understood long ago that in order to use something, you have to keep track of it. Understand what is happening with the resource—how it is doing, whether it is decreasing or increasing, and how much you can remove without harming the population. This thing was thought up in the U.S. in the 1800s, and ever since they have had the best system for monitoring hunting resources.

“The U.S. and Canada have government-funded fish and wildlife services, and their officials work in every state and province. For the management of waterfowl alone, there are special councils for every migratory route. And how many and which animals can be hunted and how to protect them are decided only after an annual report is submitted. The annual report includes data about the numbers, the success of breeding programs, and other population parameters. It is the result of a colossal amount of work by government teams!”

“If the monitoring data is off, they immediately give scientists the signal: ‘For some reason we have too few of this duck. Figure it out, and here is the funding!’ They spare no expense. In two or three years, the scientists figure it all out and say, ‘Here is what is happening, do this and that.’

“‘Good,’ says the government. ‘We did what the scientists told us, and everything is fine with the duck again.’

“That is what monitoring is for! When we were [in North America], looking at all this, my heart nearly broke!”

Маршруты экспедиций в 2019 г.
Routes of the field trips made by Sofia Rosenfeld and her colleagues in 2019. Image from Rosenfeld’s personal archive

Rosenfeld is sure that something can still be done to protect nature in Russia.

“We can save species that are going extinct and put everything back on track. However, we have to amend the legislation and the hunting rules, and adopt strategies for migratory birds. We need to free ourselves of xenophobia and cooperate with all countries. But the most important rule is not to push things to the point of no return, when a species is slowly dying out and nothing can be done about it,” she says.

At the next meeting of the commission, which will be held tomorrow, November 29, scientists expect a separate vote on “disputed species,” a list that includes the Asian black bear, the Yakutsk bighorn sheep, the Barguzin reindeer, the greylag goose, several types of bean goose, and others.

According to Rosenfeld, the natural resources ministry has been rushing to complete all of the procedures for adopting the final list for the Red Book’s reissue.

“We’re still battling for the geese and others, but I don’t know what will happen. At some point, they can bang their fists on the table and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be!’ Then we will rouse the public again. What do we have to do to save these poor birds and beasts? We will stop fighting only when Russia starts listening to scientists again,” says Rosenfeld.

Translated by Mary Rees. All photos courtesy of Takie Dela

*How the Red Book Works
The Red Book is an annotated list of rare and endangered species of animals and plants in need of total protection. Species listed in the Red Book are withdrawn from economic use: they cannot be hunted, caught, or sold. In Russia, the Red Book has legal force, and criminal or administrative liability is stipulated for causing harm to Red Book species.

In addition to the Red Book of the Russian Federation, each region in the country has its own Red Book. A species listed in a regional Red Book is not necessarily included in the federal Red Book. For example, a species in the Saratov Region may be threatened, but in the Tambov Region it is doing well, and its state nationwide is generally good as well. In this case, it will only be listed in the Saratov Red Book. On the other hand, a species included in the federal Red Book must be listed in all regional Red Books.

In the Red Book, animals and plants are divided into six categories: probably extinct; threatened with extinction; population is rapidly declining; rare species; undefined status; vulnerable species. Listing each species in the Red Book is the result of many years of work by botanists and zoologists across the country. Scientists study the numbers, dynamics, and state of a species to decide whether to include it in the Red Book or not, whether to re-categorize already listed species—for example, if there has been a positive trend over ten years, the species has spread its habitat or increased its numbers, scientists think about whether to change the category from rare species.

Scientists report the results of their research to a special commission, which consists of expert sections on birds, mammals, fish, higher plants, lower plants, fungi, and so on. Experts analyze and discuss the collected data and then submit their proposals for including species in the Red Book to the commission’s bureau, which consists of scientists (who constitute the majority of members) and officials from the hunting, fishing, agriculture,  etc., authorities. Proposals made by scientists to include a particular species in the Red Book had always been approved, but this has not been the case since 2017, when things went awry.

Translated by the Russian Reader. In the spring of 2020, the Red Book of Russian Federation was officially amended and reissued. Forty-three mammals and birds were added to the new Russian federal list of endangered species, including the saiga antelope, the wild reindeer, the greylag goose, the Siberian bighorn sheep, and the bean goose.

Someone Else’s War

75

What’s wrong with this sentence?

“The 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War II triumph is usually marked with jubilant crowds and a parade showing off the full force of Russia’s military might.”

Nothing’s wrong with that sentence. I’d like to blame the Putin regime, which has cynically colonized and misappropriated the “triumph” and tragedy of hundreds of millions of people in the former Soviet Union for its own dubious ends, for confusing the foreign press about the various meanings of Victory Day for the 144,499,999 Russians not named Vladimir V. Putin, but a recent painful conversation with a relative about the war persuaded me once again that western society mostly wants to be confused and ignorant about it, too.

I am not sure what the caption writer at the Washington Post meant by “jubilant crowds.” I lived almost half my life in Russia and saw no such crowds anywhere on Victory Day. What I did see a lot of was people for whom the war continues to mean something that it almost never meant for the parts of the world that emerged from the war triumphant, ascendant, and more prosperous than when they entered it, and were thus able to shrug off “horrors” most of their inhabitants never witnessed.

It is still very much a matter of debate in Russia, however, what it means to remember a war that ended seventy-years ago, that is, before most people in Russia were born, including its president, and how it should be remembered. In the Soviet Union, no family was untouched by the war, so everyone has a “war story” of some kind, if only the stories told to them by parents and grandparents.

This past weekend, one of my favorite purveyors of humanistic, grassroots journalism, Takie Dela, asked its employees (most of whom are in their twenties and thirties) to share some of these family stories of the war and its aftermath, along with photographs from their family archives. The first such story, “Someone Else’s Wife,” which I have translated, below, was told by Alyona Khoperskova.

************

Someone Else’s Wife

The war had started six months earlier, and the death notices were delivered almost simultaneously to Nastya, my great-grandmother, and her girlfriends. The young women, almost girls by today’s standards, clung to each other and howled.

Nastya had two daughters, Alya and Lilya, the oldest of whom had not yet turned three years old. The oldest—Alya, Alenka (short for Albina)—is my grandmother.

Great-Grandmother Nastya at 18, before the war and marriage. Photo from family archive. Courtesy of Takie Dela

Grandmother Albina was two years old when her own father left for the front. She has only one memory of him. Her father had come home tired, washed his hands, and took her on his lap. At first she was embarrassed and scared, but then she grew bolder and reached into his soup plate with her little hands to fish out the fried onions that she adored.

“And he was terribly squeamish!” her mother would later tell my grandmother. “I was frozen, but he was laughing and kissing your hands. How he loved you! It was just something how he doted on you, Alya.”

It was written in that death notice that Nikolai Gorbunov had “died a hero’s death.” He had always put himself in harm’s way. He had always wanted to be first, doing everything conscientiously and thoroughly. Like my grandmother, he was a towhead in childhood, but he had black hair as an adult. My grandmother would learn all this later, after she grew up.

Throughout her childhood she considered another man her father.

Then there were only widows and children left in their large, four-family house. They began living like a single family, and that was how they lasted until the victory in May 1945.

“We four girlfriends,” recalls Grandmother, “had been sitting on the bench from morning like chicks, dressed only in our swimming trunks, looking to see whether Dad would come by. It was raining, but we still sat there, not wanting to leave.”

The soldiers walked by in groups, and only one lagged behind.

“I saw him, jumped off and ran to him, shouting, ‘Dad, Dad!’ I don’t know why— I just saw him and flew. He picked me up, hugged me, and carried me. I still remember how his heart was pounding.”

Grandpa (right) with a war buddy. They each believed the other had been killed and were reunited only fourteen years after the war. Photo from family archive. Courtesy of Takie Dela

My grandmother no longer remembers how her mother reacted when a strange man brought her child to her in his arms. And, of course, she doesn’t know how Nastya felt asshe carried her daughter away screaming and crying, “But it’s Papa. Papa has returned.” She only remembers that the soldier came to that bench every day afterwards to talk, treat her to candy, and read to her aloud.

Vasily was his name, and he stayed in Siberia: his entire family in Ukraine had been murdered by the fascists. He worked at the military garrison with Nastya and must have noticed her: she was strikingly beautiful, as I remember from the photos that my grandmother showed me as a child.

“He liked her very much, but he thought that he was not worthy of her,” my grandmother says. “Everyone knew that she was a widow, that officers of higher rank were ready to marry her. But since we children were attached to him, what could she do?”

All her childhood, my grandmother believed that Vasily was, in fact, her beloved father, who had recognized her on that dusty road. The fact that he was not her real father, she learned only at school. When a schoolteacher was giving her a dressing down, she wounded her by saying, “You are a stranger to him!”

“I don’t even know if I was as happy with my own father as I was with him,” my grandmother says slowly and quietly when I ask her to tell me about Vasily. “He doted on Lily and me: all year long he wore a simple soldier’s uniform, but we girls were dressed, shod, and did well at school. When my mother would chew us out, he always stood up for us: ‘But Nastya, they are just children! When they grow up, they will understand everything.’ He was an extraordinarily soulful man. A man who gave us a second life.”

I’ve heard this story of how my grandmother brought home the soldier who became her father and the best grandfather in the world for my dad hundreds of times since I was a child. But I never thought about what I’m asking now: “Did your mother love him?”

Great-Grandmother Nastya with her eldest daughter Albina. Photo from family archive. Courtesy of Takie Dela

My grandmother is silent for a long time, and I can hear over the phone how she gasps before answering.

“Mom would joke, ‘If Albina chose Vasily, what could we do?’ To be honest, I think Mom just accepted it. Because of how much he loved us children and took care of us. I think we were very lucky.”

This was in Reshoty, a small village in Krasnoyarsk Territory. All my childhood, my grandmother told me there was a military garrison here. She often recalled the chess set and the wardrobe given her to her mother by the prisoners, who, according to my grandmother, were wonderful, intelligent people and scientists. Now Wikipedia tells me that there was an NKVD prison camp in Reshoty, where “political” prisoners were sent, among others.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Push the Red Button

 

red button-2 “Red Button—human rights protection is always at hand. Red Button protects you from abuses of power by the authorities and quickly informs your friends, relatives, and human rights organizations about what happened. √We automatically locate the police station where you were taken. √We report the incident to the friends and relatives you selected. √We inform human rights organizations about what happened to you.” Screenshot of the Red Button website.

Yekaterinburg Police Suspect Creator of App for Detainees at Protest Rallies of Buying Drugs
Takie Dela
February 23, 2020

Police in Yekaterinburg have detained Alexander Litvreev, an IT specialist, founder of the cyber security firm Vee Security, and creator of an app for people detained at protest rallies. Litvreev’s lawyer Alexei Bushmakov reported the incident to Takie Dela.

According to Bushmakov, his client was detained on February 23 at the entrance to a hotel. Litvreev had come to Yekaterinburg on a visit, but he resides in St. Petersburg, where he was scheduled to speak at a conference in the evening. When police searched Litvreev, they allegedly found less than a gram of ecstasy.

Bushmakov refrained from drawing connections between the arrest and Litvreev’s political activism, but he did stress that the police officers who questioned Litvreev at the police station were aware of his activities and knew who he was.

“Alexander had arrived at the hotel in a car-sharing car. When he and his girlfriend got out, police officers surrounded them. His girlfriend was later questioned as a witness,” Bushmakov said.

Litvreev has been charged with violating Article 228.1 of the Russian Criminal Code (illegal acquisition of drugs) and sent to a temporary detention center until February 24, when his bail hearing will be held. According to Bushmakov, since Litvreev is not registered to live in Yekaterinburg, it is likely that he will be remanded in custody, something the defense attorney would like to avoid.

Thanks to Litvreev’s app Red Button, people detained at protest rallies can inform human rights defenders of their whereabouts.

“Red Button is the first button you’ll want to push when you’ve been illegally thrown into a paddy wagon. Human rights activists will find out immediately and try to help you,” Litvreev told Takie Dela in April 2017.

Vee Security offered users a proxy for bypassing the official blocking of the Telegram messenger service in April 2018. In 2017, Roskomnadzor requested that the Interior Ministry conduct an inquiry into whether Litvreev had organized the “simulated blocking” of websites.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“He Fell on the Knife”: Moscow Jury Acquits Man Who Confessed to Involuntary Manslaughter of Gay

Moscow Jury Acquits Man Who Confessed to Involuntary Manslaughter of Gay Man
Takie Dela
February 7, 2020

A jury at Moscow’s Basmanny District Court acquitted a man accused of murdering homosexual Roman Yedalov, reports the LGBT group Stimul, whose lawyers represented the interests of the victim’s friend and mother in court. The website xgay.ru reports that the assailant’s name is Anton Berezhnoy.

The defendant admitted his guilt in part. He claimed, however, that he had not caused the death deliberately but accidentally: the victim had allegedly “[fallen] on the knife.” On February 6, when asked the question of whether Berezhnoy had caused Yedalov’s death or not, the jury said he had not, thus obviating the following question as to his guilt.

A final verdict will be handed down by the presiding judge in a few days but, according to law, the verdict cannot be a guilty one for the defendant. Stimul’s lawyers have already said they would appeal the court’s decision.

“The evidence and testimony presented in the trial convinced me that the altercation was provoked by the defendant,” said Anton Lapov, a lawyer for the injured party. “I’m convinced that it was this bloody outcome that the defendant envisaged. One person had their life taken, while another person was robbed of their health.”

The murder occurred in the early hours of June 29, 2019, at Kursk Railway Station in Moscow. Berezhnoy assaulted gay couple Roman Yedalov and Yevgeny Yefimov, who were returning to their home in the Moscow Region, and struck them with a knife.

The murder was captured on CCTV. Courtesy of Takie Dela

Yefimov’s wounds were not life-threatening and he survived, but Yedalov died on the spot. According to Yefimov, Berezhnoy shouted insults relating to their sexual orientation during the attack. Yefimov suspects that Berezhnoy followed them from a night club.

The Russian Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation into the murder. Yefimov and the dead man’s mother were named as the injured party, while Berezhnoy was remanded in custody. During the trial, the prosecutor argued that the available evidence proved the defendant’s guilt. Yedalov’s mother told the court that she was proud of her son for defending his friend by stepping between him and the assailant.

In November 2019, Maxim Pankratov, the star of a video on the YouTube channel Real Talk in which children asked him questions about homosexuality, reported that he had been threatened. People on the street recognized him and shouted “Faggot! Pervert” as he walked past. Another group of strangers attempted to attack him at night, but he managed to escape. Pankratov underscored the fact that he had not talked with the children about sex and had not committed violent acts against them.

After the video starring Pankratov was posted, the Moscow police charged the channel’s creators with “promoting homosexualism [sic] among minors,” while the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case into sexual violence against minors. Investigators claimed that the conversations with children were designed to arouse them sexually and induce them to have sexual relations. The video was deleted after the scandal erupted.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Are Homeless People in Moscow “Foreign Agents”?

nochlezhkaNochlezhka staff outside their shelter on Borovaya Street in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Nochlezhka

“It’s Unpleasant, But It Won’t Affect Our Plans”: Nochlezhka on Calls from Begovoy Residents to Declare the Charity a “Foreign Agent”
Lida Timofeyeva
Takie Dela
November 21, 2019

Zoya Andrianova, a member of Begovoy Municipal District Council in Moscow, has requested that authorities check whether the charity Nochlezhka should be declared a “foreign agent.” She pointed out the organization received foreign funding and had “access to a socially vulnerable, dependent and manipulable segment of the population.”

“We must use all methods of fighting the enemy. Nochlezhka should now lose its appetite for Moscow. It will have to spend a long time explaining itself to Center ‘E.’ If it is closed as a result, that will teach it a lesson,” wrote Alexandra Andreyeva, a member of the Lefortovo Municipal District Council.

Takie Dela asked Nochlezhka’s directors to comment on the actions of the activists who oppose the opening of a shelter and a counseling service for homeless people in Begovoy.

______________________________

Grigory Sverdlin, director of the charity organization Nochlezhka

“Nochlezhka has been receiving foreign funding for many years: it makes up around 15% of our overall budget. The aid mainly comes from religious organizations. We appreciate this and have never hidden these donations: people can check the annual reports on our website. Nochlezhka has never been involved in politics, so the ‘foreign agent’ label does not apply to us. We are not afraid of audits: like all other charitable organizations in Russia, Nochlezhka has been audited repeatedly.

“Andrianova and the group of activists recently sent eleven complaints to federal consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, asking them to check a homeless shelter that does not exist yet. Their attempts to kick Nochlezhka out of their neighborhood, as they put it, have continued, although district councilors from Lefortovo and activists from Savelovo are part of the effort for some reason. It’s unpleasant, of course, but it will not affect our plans in any way.”

______________________________

Darya Baybakova, director of Nochlezhka’s Moscow branch

“The opponents [of the future shelter] are few in number, but they are quite active. There are several municipal district councilors in their ranks, in particular, Alexandra Andreyeva and Zoya Andrianova. Andreyeva believes homeless people should not be helped at all, but instead should be transported beyond the 101st kilometer. Andrianova had said the campaign against Nochlezhka’s project is a personal matter for her. In her opinion, such places should not be opened in the Begovoy district.

“Last week, I was at the prosecutor’s office, answering the questions posed by the same municipal district councilors in their complaints. We also received a warning from Rospotrebnadzor [about the inadmissibility of violating health regulations] after they inspected the building where the shelter will be opened. Andrianova has now sent a complaint to the presidential administration. We have not received any letters from them yet, but we are ready to answer any and all questions when they do arrive.”

______________________________

In September, Nochlezhka announced it was planning to open a consulting service and shelter for homeless people in Moscow’s Begovoy district. The charity looked for a space for a year and a half: it needed to be within walking distance of subway and train stations, but at a distance from residential buildings. Nochlezhka conducted a survey of the district’s residents and held a meeting with them. They were unable to stave off a conflict, however: some of the people who came to the meeting refused to listen to Nochlezhka’s arguments and walked out.

In the aftermath of this wave of discontent, Nochlezhka invited the Muscovites to tour its Petersburg facilities. Petersburg officials reported to the Muscovites that no one had ever complained about Nochlezhka’s clients. Nochlezhka launched an online flash mob to support its Moscow branch: people were asked to post messages with the hashtag #ISupportNochlezhkaInMoscow. The Moscow mayor’s office turned down Nochlezhka’s request to provide it with a space for a homeless shelter.

In 2018, Nochlezhka and the Second Breath Foundation announced plans to open a laundry for homeless people in Moscow. They chose a space near the Dynamo subway station in the Savelovo district for the laundry, but were forced to give up the project after local residents protested. The residents threatened to file complaints with all the relevant authorities and set the laundry on fire.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yegor Galkin: “You Look Out and See Everything Is Ugly”

“You Look Out and See Everything Is Ugly”: How a Barnaul Resident Took Charge of the City’s Grassroots Urban Activist Group
Alexandra Romantsova
Takie Dela
October 17, 2019

In a series of monologues entitled “Close to the Heart,” Takie Dela hands the microphone to residents of Russia’s regions whose personal involvement and willingness to act are gradually changing their local communities. The star of our second installment is Barnaul resident Yegor Galkin, head of Spire, a local grassroots group.

How do I want my city to look? How can I change the space in which I live? Five years ago, a schoolboy from Barnaul sought answers to these questions, learned about the work of Spire, and became interested in urban planning.

galkinYegor Galkin. Photo courtesy of Mr. Galkin and Takie Dela

Spire, a grassroots group, emerged in 2013 amid the popularization of urban planning in Russia. Its founder, Sergei Ustinov, is a well-known big data expert: he created a nation-wide map of road accidents in Russia. In 2013, the group established its presence on social networks and started doing walks in the city and making photographs. I joined the project in 2014, which was when we launched a map of grassroots proposals in Barnaul. This has been our group’s main focus.

We developed a large interactive map of Barnaul where any resident could leave his or her proposal for beautifying and improving the city. Any user could vote these proposals up or down. Based on the results of the voting, we would send requests to the authorities. We wanted to interact directly with Barnaul city hall and the government of the Altai Territory, but we were ignored. We had over 500 proposals, for which 3,000 votes were cast on our website. Those were huge numbers for Barnaul. After a while, some of the proposals were implemented. This was due to our written requests, but also because some of them were too obvious to ignore.

We still are not in a direct dialogue with officials. Instead, we have learned how to work through the media: they hear us and react. If we have found an irregularity, they try to fix it. For example, the city had a contract for erecting fences, but they were not erected, although they existed on paper. After we wrote about this, the fences went up the next day. I am against fences, but an irregularity is an irregularity.

Our work can be divided into several categories: planning (like the map of grassroots proposals), fighting for green areas, work on the city’s master plan, and daily work by experts, including environmentalists and urban activists. They find irregularities in the city’s improvement and road repair projects, check them against the official paperwork, and publish their findings. This is all done for free: we have no funding. Our desire to change the city and our initiative drive everything we do.

When urbanism first came to Russia,  people didn’t know what it was and how it could improve their lives. When they went to Europe, people sensed things could be different in Russia. We quickly found a common language with people like this. We would tell them what we could do in Barnaul to make life more comfortable, such as introducing dedicated bus and bike lanes and improving public transport.

At first, many people had a hostile reaction to these ideas. They said we needed to expand roads to accommodate more cars. Every group that tackles urban problems is confronted with this reaction. When we started talking about public spaces, however, we found lots of new allies.

Everything always begins with the individual: how would I like to see the city? Personal comfort is important. That was why it captivated me. I began studying the subject, reading a lot and looking at different proposals and projects. Now it is a scholarly interest because I am studying political science. Urban planning and urban reform are impossible without politics. I am curious about the evolution of cities, demographic processes, and gentrification’s impact on urban development. I’m a grassroots urban activist and I want the city to be better.

We have been fighting for Barnaul’s green areas. In 2015, we did our first big project about city parks, which dealt with their current state. While everyone in Moscow knew what was happening in the city’s parks, people in Barnaul didn’t know anything. In 2016, we did the project again, this time in cooperation with a local news website and professional photographers. We made a video using quadcopters. And we spelled out the problem: nobody was taking care of the parks. Some of them had been subjected to deforestation, while others were so badly neglected it was dangerous to go there.

Barnaul has a population of 700,000, and there used to be six city parks. Now there is one official park that is still open. The other parks lost their official status and no one has been managing them. This is a big problem for Barnaul. We are surrounded by old-growth forests, but there are few green spaces in the city itself.

The bulk of the people who subscribe to our group’s social media pages signed on when we raised these issues. People voiced their support and willingness to engage in joint action. Half of Emerald Park was logged, sparking a lively protest over the fact that the city’s green areas were neglected. Whereas there had been no reaction from the authorities in 2015–2016, the issue has finally been raised at the regional level in 2019. Recently, we had a round table at the Altai Territory Legislative Assembly on the topic of green areas in the city.

We raise the hot-button issues in Barnaul. If they are written about, people know about them, and city officials have to react. Our experts are so good that when city hall officials hear their names they freak out. All of the publications posted on our social media pages are read by the prosecutor’s office and the investigative agencies. If there are irregularities, they conduct inquiries.

We have now been trying to establish relations with the district councils. We are getting ready to present our draft project for a park area, a project we did in keeping with all the canons of urban planning. We did surveys of the area in summer, autumn, winter, and spring, as well as research on how people navigate parks. The project for this park will soon be open to feedback from any and all residents of Barnaul. I think it will be interesting and beneficial. I don’t recall that a grassroots undertaking like this has ever been implemented in the regions.

Judging by polls, people want to see quality. The canons of urbanism and notions of proper improvements to amenities can be captured in the phrase “quality infrastructure,” meaning infrastructure that is sound, convenient, comfortable, and safe. People have the same idea: they want to live in a safe and pleasant green space. There is popular demand for quality urban improvements.

An important thought for all grassroots groups is that you need to do what you do and do it well. If you see a problem you need to make sense of it and talk about it. You have to recruit experts and not be afraid of communicating with the authorities, of building a dialogue with regional parliamentarians, city councilors, and district councilors so everyone has a stake in solving the problem. You have to voice your proposals and, most importantly, spark the interest of groups that can impact decision-making. Merchants, authorities, city councilors, political parties: you need to interact with everyone. An urban activist is a person who thrives on interaction and dialogue.

Translated by the Russian Reader

We Wouldn’t Mind If You Died of AIDS

nutter

HIV Prevention Organization in Altai Territory Closes Due to Inability to Pay Court Fine
Takie Dela
December 4, 2018

Choice (Vybor), a non-profit HIV service organization, has been forced to close its office in Biysk, Altai Territory, due to its inability to pay a court-imposed fine, reports Kommersant. The NGO had been found guilty of refusing to acknowledge it was a “foreign agent.”

The Altai Territorial Court upheld the ruling of the Biysk City Court, which had fined Choice 150,000 rubles [approx. €2,000] for failing to recognize itself as a “foreign agent” and voluntarily place itself on the registry of “foreign agents.”

According to Maxim Olenichev, a lawyer from Attorneys for Equal Rights who represented Choice in court, on November 30, the organization was forced to close its office and cancel its HIV prevention programs in the region, including programs for intravenous drug users and other risk groups.

“HIV-service NGOS have access to ‘closed’ groups of people who are unwilling to turn to state institutions for help,” Olenichev said in an interview with reporters. “Attacking such NGOS reflects a policy of ‘traditional values,’ a policy focused on criminalizing the actions of people who do not comply with these values or ignore them. By using the law on ‘foreign agents’ to destroy NGOs, the state promotes the growth of HIV-infected people, although by joining forces with NGOs the state could halt the epidemic’s growth.”

The court ruled that several of Choice’s campaigns, during which the NGO handed out HIV express tests (41 people tested positive — TD), over 100,000 clean syringes, and 20,000 condoms for free, were “political” in nature. Choice employees noted they worked with the primary vulnerable groups as defined by the Russian state, using the same methods as specified in the official rules for HIV prevention. The court chose to ignore these arguments.

The court also agreed with the Russian Justice Ministry’s claim that Choice had received foreign funding in 2014 and 2016. Choice received 147,000 rubles from ESVERO, a non-profit partnership, and 272,000 rubles from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Olenichev pointed out that ESVERO had been implementing a project of the Global Fund for Fighting AIDs, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which receives funding from the Russian government, in thirty-four Russian regions. The NGO was thus using grants to put the money back into the Russian economy. As for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which sponsored Choice with funding in rubles, Olenichev claimed there was no evidence in the case file that the organization was foreign. Nevertheless, the court refused to reverse the fine.

According to the latest data from the Russian Health Ministry, in 2017, 53.5% of new cases of HIV infection were caused by sexual intercourse, while 43.6% of new infections were caused by the use of intravenous drugs. According to official statistics, the number of HIV-infected people in Russia is 998,525. Eighty-one percent of them know they are infected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized Russia as leading Europe in new cases of HIV infections at 71.1 cases per every 100,000 people. The virus is primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex (59%) and intravenous drug use (30%). The Russian Health Ministry has called these figures “extremely inaccurate.”

In late October, the Saratov Regional Organization of Chronic Diabetes Sufferers announced its closure: a court had also fined it 300,000 rubles for violating the law on “foreign agents.” The expert employed by the prosecutor’s office to audit the organization concluded it had “shape[d] preconditions for discrediting the authorities” and “report[ed] about the region’s so-called sore points to [its] foreign partners.”

Thanks to Alexander Feldberg for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Cabbies Left While the Cossacks Stayed: Rostov-on-Don on the Eve of the World Cup

rostov arena-2Rostov Arena. Photo courtesy of ftbl.ru

The Cabbies Left, The Cossacks Stayed
Gleb Golod
Takie Dela
June 8, 2018

The banks of the Don River in Rostov were always quite different. The right bank was landscaped, featuring bars and restaurants suited to every taste, singing fountains, and amusements. The left bank featured a wild beach chockablock with sand and trees. It was a favorite spot for picnickers and outdoor shish kebab cookouts. People used to swim there until the Don was completely polluted.

The new Rostov Arena has been built on the the left bank. Nine months and 913 million rubles [approx. 123 million euros] turned the wild beach into a landscaped park and river embankment. All that is left of the levberdon, as Rostovians call it, is a pier that extends nearly to the middle of the mighty river.  Over the long years it has been there, it has rusted, and there are holes in its covering here and there. The locals loved it, however. In the evenings, you would always find a couple in love, a photographer and his model, a small group of friends, and an old fisherman who had good luck catching herring in the middle of the Don.

Since May 1, when the park on the left bank officially opened, it has been standing room only on the pier. Locals stroll there with their children, joined by the foreigners who have arrived earlier in Rostov-on-Don. Someone worried about safety decided to limit the number of people on the pier and welded an iron grille to the entrance, but this has not stopped the flood of visitors. Cyclists toss their bikes over it, men help their female companions climb over it, and parents ferry their children from one side of the grille to the other.

Every half hour, an improvised river taxi docks alongside the pier. It charges adults 500 rubles for a ride. Children sail for free.

“Business? What business? The main thing we sell are emotions. River cruises are soothing. Adults can relax while the kids doze,” a man in a sailor’s hat and striped shirt advertises a short cruise on the Don while docking at the pier.

“Business has been good, of course, since so many people started coming here,” he admits. “I would give the embankment a ‘C’ for now. There is not much in the way of infrastructure or development. We’ll see how it looks a year from now.”

The boat pilot does not waste any time. He has struck up a conversation with a young boy, whom he has given a tennis ball. The boy persuades his parents to go for a ride on the boat. They quickly give in. The vessel weighs anchor and speeds off toward the other shore.

The Stadium and the Park
The boat pilot gave the new park a “C,” but the locals like the new sports facilities and playgrounds, and the fact the park is well maintained. But it lacks trees, many of which were cut down during the beautification.

“There is a lot of exercise equipment, and the air is fresh, but I probably won’t be coming here in the summer. There are few trees and little shade. But you know what the heat is like here in July. You could kick the bucket,” says a young woman in workout gear.

The local are not imagining things. There really are many fewer trees. The park was built without consideration of the place’s specific features. Consequently, the “city’s green shield” was left with huge gaps in it, says Alexander Vodyanik, environmentalist and assistant secretary of the Russian Public Chamber.

The “wild” green area on the left bank, which stretched all the way to Bataysk, a suburb of Rostov-on-Don, moistened the winds sweeping in from the Kalmyk steppes, winds that are especially palpable in the spring. It was the primary source of fresh air, supplying it just as ably as a forest, says Vodyanik. The place had to be beautified, but a completely different park should have been built, a wetlands park.

“Historically, this place functioned as a city beach, and it should have been turned into a city beach. People swim at a beach, but the Don has been so badly polluted for so long that swimming was definitely off limits in this part. In that case, swimming pools could have been set up while simultaneously purifying the water. This has been done in Germany on the Rhine, which is much dirtier than the Don, and the project has been a success,” says Vodyankik. “But a park was built here instead. An instant lawn, which has already gone bad, was rolled out. Eighty percent of the poplars were cut down. We had problems with our woodlands as it was, but they were damaged even further.”

The so-called Tourist Police are identified as such on the armbands they wear. A female student from Namibia leads a tour for her friends, who have arrived to enroll at the Don State Technical University. A young man named Aman hopes to get a ticket to the match between Brazil and Switzerland. If it does not work out, however, he will just go for a stroll around the city.

“I really like it here. The city is pretty and has an interesting history. Things are good, the park is good. Everything is terrific and cozy,” he says in English. “By the way, could you tell me where the stadium is? All the signs are in Russian, which I don’t actually understand.”

Rostov Arena was built at a distance from residential areas, so loud fans will not bother locals even on match days. The stadium is accessible by bus and taxi. True, fans will have to walk the last 500 meters to the turnstiles. This decision was made for security reasons.

Cabbies Leave the Fan Zone
Specially accredited taxi drivers will ferry fans from the left bank to the right bank and the fan zone on Theater Square. The most popular taxi services in Rostov-on-Don, Uber and Leader, accessible on the Rutaxi app, will not be working during the World Cup because they are not officially registered as commercial transport services.

Among the major cab companies, Yandex Taxi and Taxi 306 have been accredited to work during the World Cup. Roman Glushchenko, executive director of Taxi 306, told us  a total of 500 cars had been accredited in Rostov-on-Don, but he refused to discuss whether that would be enough cars to handle all comers.

According to gypsy cab driver Leonid, around 150 drivers of the ten thousand drivers affiliated with the company 2-306-306 have been accredited. Cabbies like Leonid mainly work for themselves rather than licensed carriers, which are practically nonexistent in the city, he explains. The gypsy cabbies use Yandex, Uber, Gett, and Leader as dispatchers, either directly or through small intermediary firms. So, when the issue of accreditation for the World Cup arose, it was a problem for drivers, who had to obtain permits, sign a contract with a licensed carrier, and paint their cars yellow or white. The Rostov Regional Transport Ministry issued the full list of requirements for accreditation.

“I’m not going to lift a finger to get accreditation,” Leonid admits. “Why should I give myself a headache by getting permits that would mean I would start making a loss? Licensed cars must be stickered with the taxi company’s ID tag. I don’t want to have this for a number of reasons. I would also have to register as an independent entrepreneur, get a license from the Transport Ministry, which was free until this year, and insure my cab, although premiums are higher than usual. And that’s over and above the 25% cut I give to Yandex. I know lots of gypsy cabbies. Not a single one of them has bothered to get accreditation. It’s just bad business for them.”

To prevent the few accredited taxis from jacking up rates for Rostovians and fans, the Transport Ministry has established a single rate for the entire World Cup.

Leonid plans to spend the World Cup in Sochi. He says the transport system there is better, applying for a license is easier, and the city is generally better prepared after hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“Who wants to sit in traffic jams driving back and forth to the stadium?” he grumbles.

Although the World Cup lasts only four weeks, Theater Square, which will house a fan zone that can accommodate 22,000 fans, was closed to car traffic and public transport on May 13 and will remain closed until July 21. In the mornings and evenings, buses are already stuck in traffic on Sholokhov Avenue. When the World Cup kicks off, share taxis (marshrutki) will be removed from Red Army Street. Officials have promised they will be replaced with new buses.

There are plans to show all the matches on giant screens, organize entertainment for fans, and open food courts on Theater Square. The fan zone is a few hundred meters from the ruins of an entire residential neighborhood, destroyed by fire last year.

The square itself is home of the Gorky Drama Theater, hence the square’s name. It is one of two Russian buildings whose models are exhibited in the Museum of Architecture in London. (The other is St. Basil’s Cathedral.) The late constructivist landmark resembles a stylized caterpillar tractor. Corbusier called it a “gem of Soviet architecture.” Unfortunately, the fan will not be able to see it. The theater could not be cleaned up in time for the World Cup and has been draped with several banners.

Rostov-on-Don-Maxim-Gorky-Drama-TheatreThe Maxim Gorky Drama Theater in Rostov-on-Don. Postcard image courtesy of Colnect

Painted Residents Greet Cossacks
The authorities promised to repair and reconstruct many historic buildings and entire streets in preparation for the 2018 World Cup, but with a few weeks left before the championship, it was clear they would run out time.

Residents of Stanislavsky Street, in the downtown, recount how workers have been laboring outside their houses round the clock, trying to finish their work not by June 1, as city officials had promised, but at least by June 14, when the World Cup kicks off. When you are in a hurry, mistakes are inevitable: a female pensioner was unable to exit her building because the door was blocked by paving slabs. Other houses wound up a meter lower than the newly beautified street, and residents have had to jury-rig stairways to the pavements.

Around fifty buildings in Rostov-on-Don’s historic center have been hung with giant photographs of the buildings or World Cup banners because they could not be repaired in time. Among them is the famous house of Baron Wrangel, where the leader of the Whites during the Russian Civil War spent his childhood and youth. The house is a neoclassical architectural landmark. The mansion was nationalized during the Soviet period and turned into a kindergarten. The kindergarten shut down in the nineties, and the building was abandoned. Over the years, it has become quite dilapidated and has been repeatedly vandalized, so it looks hideous.

But when only a few months remained until the World Cup, no one had any brighter idea than to drape the landmark with a picture.

2010_04_24_domvrangelyaThe Wrangel House in Rostov-on-Don. Photo courtesy of RostovNews.Net

The Rostov branch of the Russian Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks (VOOPIK) tried to persuade city officials a dilapidated Wrangel House would look better than a picture emblazoned on a tarp. They circulated a petition and sent a letter to Governor Vasily Golubev, all to no avail.

“We got a reply less than half a page long. It acknowledged receipt of our letter, but there had been an onsite meeting of a commission chaired by Deputy Governor Sergei Sidash. On the basis of arguments made by commission members, they had decided to drape it in banners,” says Alexander Kozhin, head of VOOPIK’s Rostov branch.

800px-Гостиница__Московская_The Moscow Hotel, in downtown Rostov-on-Don, before the 2007 fire. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The same plight befell the Moscow Hotel, a nineteenth-century eclecticist building. In 2007, it was badly damaged in a fire and has been awaiting reconstruction ever since. The dilapidated Gorky Library (originally the Sagiyev Family Tenement House, an Art Nouveau landmark) is covered in scaffolding. It has been decided to demolish the Pavlenkova Tenement House, on long-suffering Stanislavsky Street, altogether.

sar-htosThe Sagiyev Family Tenement House aka the Gorky Library, in downtown Rostov-on-Don. Photo courtesy of voopiik-don.ru

 

1526621588_pavlenkovoyThe ruins of the Pavlenkova Tenement House, in downtown Rostov-on-Don. Photo courtesy of Rostov.ru

A few weeks before the start of the World Cup, images of a building on Sholokhov Avenue appeared in the news and social media. Happy residents peered from the windows: a fiddler holding his instrument, an artist at an easel, a girl blowing soap bubbles, a football fan wearing a Spartak FC scarf, and patriots with the Russian tricolor draped on their backs. The balconies are adorned with balloons and potted plants.

All of them were painted images on yet another banner covering up unfinished repairs.

The upcoming championship has not changed the life of Rostov-on-Don’s real residents all that much. Schoolchildren and university students started and finished their final exams earlier, so schools and universities would be closed when the World Cup kicked off. The old airport was shut down, replaced by the new Platov Airport outside the city. All political rallies and marches have been prohibited during the World Cup.

The police will not be alone in enforcing this and other prohibitions. In early May, Don Cossacks in Rostov announced that three hundred Cossacks, included mounted Cossacks, would be keeping the peace on the streets as “volunteers.” They have assured the public that, at their own behest, they would not engage in violence and would leave their whips at home. If the police, however, are breaking up a fight, the Cossacks will back them up. The volunteers in papakha hats will pay particular attention to LGBT fans.

TASS_1044980_673“Cossacks.” Photo courtesy of Russia Beyond

“If two men kiss at the World Cup, we will tell the police to check them out,” they said.

The first World Cup match in Rostov-on-Don kicks off on June 17. A total of five matches will be played on the left bank of the Don: four matches in the group stage and one match in the round of sixteen.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Harmacy

DSCN6345.jpg

Back to the World of Me-Too Drugs: How Anti-Sanctions Will Deal a Blow to the Mental Health of Russians
Takie Dela
May 2, 2018

The ban on the import of drugs from the United States and other “unfriendly” western countries, tabled by MPs in the Russian State Duma, will worsen the mental health of Russians. Two psychiatrists discussed the consequences facing people with mental illnesses if brand-name drugs are replaced by domestic lookalikes.

The Big Picture
In early April, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin announced the imminent expansion of countersanctions by Russia towards the US and other western countries opposed to the Russian Federation’s foreign policies. In particular, there are plans to introduce a ban on the import of drugs from the countries on the sanctions lists, but only on those drugs for which there are domestic counterparts. However, many foreign-manufactured psychotropic drugs have domestic counterparts, and they will be banned, therefore.

Russia is not a happy country in terms of psychiatry. Every fourth Russian suffers from mental illness at some point in his or her life, and between three and six percent of the populace needs to take medications regularly.

Due to severe conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, clinical depression, and bipolar disorder, hundreds of thousands of Russians lose the capacity to work and are unable to adapt to society. Many of them commit suicide. Modern drugs are effective enough to let most patients lead full lives. Their well-being depends on drugs, which they must take for many years and, sometimes, their whole lives.

The drugs in question are antidepressants, antipsychotics, tranquillizers (sedatives), and normotics (mood stabilizers). Nearly all the brand-name drugs in the field are produced in Western Europe and the US. If theban is adopted, they will vanish from Russian pharmacies, since nearly all these drugs have counterparts (i.e., generics), with the same active ingredients, that are produced in Russian and Eastern Europe.

When discussing the possbile stop list, experts named two popular antidepressants: Paxil (France) and Cymbalta (USA). Many other drugs popular in Russia, including the antipsychotics Zyprexa (Eli Lilly, UK) and Seroquel (AstraZeneca, UK/Sweden), and the antidepressant Zoloft (Pfizer, USA), could be included in the ban. What would be the consequences for millions of patients?

Increasingly Ineffective Treatment
Mental equilibrium is a delicate matter, and selecting drugs to treat psychiatric conditions can much more complicated than selecting drugs to treat somatic illnesses. The optimal outcome is for the individual not merely to stop experiencing severe symptoms like obsessive suicidal tendencies and hallucinations, but also to remain capable of working and leading a social life, rather than turning into a lifeless vegetable.

People with clinical depression, which can last for years, know well the laborious process of choosing the right drug and the right dosage that will finally let them live a normal life. The process can take weeks and months.

Matters are even more complicated with bipolar disorder. The disease’s two opposite phases require different medications, and an unsuitable drug can even worse the outcome of the illness. Schizophrenia presents such a variety of symptoms that a veritable cocktail of drugs is sometimes needed, and attending physicians have to make sure the side effects do not outweigh the benefits of treatment.

“Current guidelines for pharmacotherapy recommend prescribing the brand-name drug and not substituting a generic without good reason,” says Maria Gantman, a psychiatrist at the Mental Health Center.

Dr. Gantman prescribes her patient brand-name drugs, which have undergone high-quality trials on thousands of patients and have a proven effect. Generics also undergo trials when they are licensed, trials that prove their similarity to brand-name drugs, but the evidentiary base is filled with too many gaps, she notes.

“Generics are usually less expensive, and we start off with them if the patient cannot afford the brand-name drug. The abrupt replacement of one generic with another can produce a change in the effect. Due to the peculiarities of their ingredients, generics may be absorbed at a greater or lesser rate and generate a different concentration of the active ingredient in the blood. The people who suffer most are those forced to switch from a brand-name drug they have been taking for years and that was laboriously selected for them to a generic,” explains Dr. Gantman.

She fears the Russian authorities will approach the issue in a perfunctory manner.

“For example, there is a drug that is effective in treating schizophrenia, Rispolept. There are Russian lookalikes, sold under the generic name risperidone. But if the brand-name drug is banned, it hard to imagine what lies in store for people who survive by taking Rispolept Consta (Belgium), which does not exist in this form as a generic in Russia,” says Dr. Gantman.

“The problem is that theRussian pharmaceutical industry hopelessly lags behind the western pharmaceutical industry. There are certain types of drugs Russia just cannot produce, because it does not have the resources, the equipment or the research,” continues Anatoly Shepenyov, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. “Say, the antidepressant Cipralex (Denmark) cannot be synthesized in Russia. Folic acid is an indispensable drug, too. In Russia, it cannot be produced in the form needed for the synthesis of serotonin, that is, in the form needed for maintaining normal brain function.”

Side Effects
The side effects of psychotropic drugs are numerous and varied. Mental impairment, convulsions, fainting, anemia, and fever are only some of them. Predicting them ahead of them is impossible: they are the individual body’s reactions. A drug that simultaneously provides relief while not producing agonizing side effects is a valuable find for many patients.

Dr. Shepenyov illustrates the circumstances by mentioning the antidepressant Paxil (France). It has generics, for example, Rexetin (Hungary). Rexetin works, but its therapeutic effectiveness is lower. To get the same effect she would get from 20 mg of Paxil, thae patient would need to take at least 30 mg of Rexetin. As dosages increase, so do the side effects.

“The main difficult is not synthesizing the right substance, but isolating it in pure form. I’ll give you an example. The antidepressant must fit the receptor in the brain the way a key fits a lock. When generics are synthesized, a whole slew of impurities emerge, extra ‘keys,’ if you like. If you use this ‘dirty’ molecule, you won’t open the lock, but there will be something jammed in it,” notes Dr. Shepenyov.

The use of generics thus introduces the risk there will be a lack of therapeutic effect coupled with a slew of side effects that would never be produced by brand-name drugs. The liver also suffers more from the constant intake of “dirty” drugs.

“Take the most popular Russian-made antidepressant, Fluoxetine (a generic version of the US-produced Prozac). It is terrible in terms of side effects. Although its benefits are weak, patients suffer from phenomenal absentmindedness,” explains Dr. Shepenyov.

Withdrawal Syndrome
If western-produced drugs one day vanish from Russian pharmacies, thousands of patients will undergo withdrawal syndrome, the body’s physiological reaction to the absence of a substance to which it is accustomed.

“I felt terribly sick within a few days. I had a terrible chill, severe dizziness, nausea, weakness, and insomnia,” a female patient described her withdrawal from Paxil.

It is necessary to gradually reduce the dosage to avoid this effect, which means having a good supply of the drug and then just as gradually increasing the dosage of the new drug. This means weeks of enduring shaky health.

The Anti-Placebo Effect
“The anti-placebo effect is no less frequent and severe than the placebo effect. The patient knows she has taken another drug. This exacerbates her anxiety and could ultimately destabilize her condition. So, if an individual has taken the same drug for years and feels fine, there is no need to give her another drug. It’s risky,” says Dr. Gantman.

Both doctors are agreed that patient health should not be a geopolitical bargaining chip. According to Dr. Gantman, medical issues should be left out of the political games countries play, and she calls the State Duma’s plans to ban the imports of foreign-made drugs “profoundly unethical.”

“If Russian MPs adopt such a law, we should oblige them to be treated solely with Russian-made drugs, drive Russian-made cars, and use Russian-made telephones and computers. Those would be excellent sanctions that would finally force them to use their brains before making radical decisions without having the foggiest notion about either medicine or how the body functions,” concludes Dr. Shepenyov.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Anastasia Plyuto
VK
May 12, 2018

A group picket was held on Saturday, May 12, 2018, in Petersburg’s Ovsyannikov Garden, to protest the Russian State Duma’s tabling of a bill that would ban the purchase of drugs abroad. Yes, we have heard that legislators have suggested removing the word “drugs” from the wording, but we know much freighted the phrase “and other goods” can be.

To increase the chances city authorities would authorize the picket, activists applied for several venues at once. The authorities waited until the last possible moment to render a decision, and so there was no time to inform the public about the planned protest. Around a dozen people were in attendance, including a diabetic who depends on imported insulin, and several people outraged by the politics and statements of our MPs.

One of the placards featured a toy pyramid for little children, which MP Iosif Kobzon gave to a teenaged cancer patient while visiting a hospital in Simferopol in 2015. In our view, the incident reflects the lack of understanding displayed by our bigwigs when it comes to the needs of patients.

There were few visitors in the garden, and nearly none of them had heard of the law bill, but no one, from schoolgirls to a seventy-year-old female pensioner, was left unmoved by the subject. They reacted with surprise, indignation, and complete support for the picketers.

meds-1“You want to ban imported drugs? Start with yourselves. Treat your ailments with oak bark!”

meds-2.jpg“Insulin addict. Bring it on! Deprive us of our doses, assholes. ‘Life in Russia is no picnic: you can survive without insulin.’ Insulin or formaldehyde? Neuroleptics or belladonna? You choose, Russia!”

meds-3“State Duma! By banning the import of drugs, you are killing people!”

meds-4“Ban yourselves from driving Geländewagens! Hands off the drugs!”

meds-5jpg“Viva asymmetrical responses! (Genocide)”

Photos by Mikhail Ryzhov and Anastasia Plyuto. Thanks to Victoria Andreyeva for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Psychoactive

“It’s an Exhibitionist Move to Proclaim You Have an Illness”: Who Marched with the Psychoactivists on May Day
Ilya Panin
Takie Dela
May 2, 2018

At this year’s May Day demo in Moscow, almost three dozen people marched with placards inscribed with slogans on the harm caused by stigmatizing mental illnesses. Police detained the marchers at the head of the Bolshomoskvoretsky Bridge and took them to police stations. Only a few marchers in the group managed to avoid being detained. Takie Dela found out what the psychoactivists wanted to say by marching. 


“I was treated without my knowledge: you have a right to know your diagnosis.” | “People need hope, not neuroleptics.” Psychoactivists at this year’s May Day march in Moscow. Photo by Ilya Panin. Courtesy of Takie Dela

This year, a group of psychoactivists—artists and human rights defenders, researching mental illnesses, mental quirks, and the boundaries between normal and abnormal—brought up the rear of the traditional procession organized by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR). The marches carried placards inscribed slogans like “Antidepressants are a girl’s best friend,” “We’re coming out of the psycho-closet and expect acceptance, not a 100 years of solitude,” “I know my own diagnosis. Do you know yours?” “The affective class,” and “Stop romanticizing and depreciating us.” Ekaterina Nenasheva, an organizer of the Psychoactive Movement, leafleted passersby with flyers detailing how to behave if your loved one suffes from depression, anxiety or panic.

The group had managed to cross the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, from the police checkpoint and the metal detectors to Basil’s Descent, when the activists were detained by regular police and riot police (OMON). As witnesses testified, the police roughed up the activists and ripped their placarads. The law enforcers could not settle on a reason for apprehending the activists. Some of them were told it was because of what written on the placards, while others were told it was because the march had not been authorized.

The detainees were split up, loaded into paddy wagons, and taken to the Basmanny and Tagansky police stations. In the paddy wagons, policemen told the activists they should have vetted their placards with the rally’s organizer, the head of the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions. However, the rally’s website indicated all comers had been welcome to join the demonstration.

“We were asked to write statements and undergo preventive discussions. Each of us was assigned our own personal police officer, who said he was informing us that, by law, it was wrong to be involved in unauthorized rallies,” said Mikhail Levin.

The activists were released several hours later without having been charged with any offenses or fined. The detainees noted they had also been questioned by Center “E” (Extremism Prevention Center) officers, who photographed their placards.

Ekaterina Nenasheva
Artist, activist, organizer of the Psychoactive Movement and the May Day bloc


Katrin Nenasheva. Photo by Ilya Panin. Courtesy of Takie Dela

People who have mental illnesses still have no place to speak out and act. Organizing the May Day bloc was an attempt to create a discursive field for people who have mental illnesses or mental quirks. What does it do for them? According to the people who were with us yesterday, community gives them the important sense that they are not alone. There was a slogan to that effect on one of the placards: “You’re not the only one in the hood.”

It is believed that people with mental disorders can only be consumers of someone’s kindness, charity, tolerance, and pity. But they are completely capable of speaking out for themselves and being a social, political, and cultural force.

Mikhail Levin
Organizer of the Psychoactive Movement and the May Day bloc
It’s a slightly exhibitionist move to proclaim you have an illness. The guys and gals marched with very personal placards about their own quirks. We also want to demand reforms in psychiatric treatment and talk about the need for deinstitutionalizaton and our disagreement with plans to ban the import of certain medicines.

Marching with trade unions, with other workers, was an important statement. We wanted to say we also produce meaning, ideas, and work. This was the first attempt to do something like this, so it is fine that we are not a united fist, that we have different demands and opinions. What we wanted was just this: to bring together people with different mental makeups and show off this polyphony.

Sasha Starost
Artist, psychoactivist, organizer of the Psychoactive May Day bloc


Sasha Starost. Photo by Ilya Panin. Courtesy of Takie Dela

I have paranoid schizophrenia. I have been hospitalized five time; three of those were involuntary. In the psychiatric field, I’m involved on an institutional level as a simultaneous interpreter and translator. Our May Day bloc was conceived as the Russian version of Mad Pride.  On the whole, however, we are more inclusive than Mad Pride, because in recent years they have shifted very hard towards antipsychiatry, and that is not for everyone. Yes, there is the system, and it is really poor organized. It contains neuropsychiatric residential care facilities and neuropsychiatric dispensaries in which nothing goes to plan and the rules are not followed, but this does not discredit the idea of psychiatry, the presence of illnesses, and the possiblity of treating them.

If we have taken the step of vetting our bloc, the demo’s organizers would have found excuses for not letting us march. I’m totally convinced that the cops saw a bloc of young people, some of them had tattoos, and they were carrying placards with slogans too boot. In their minds, there was a clear like with youth rebellions, and their immediate reaction was to remove us right away.

Alyona Agadzhikova
Media artist, journalist, photographer, organizer of the Psychoactive May Day bloc
Since childhood, I have had a few mental illnesses (OCD, agoraphobia accompanied by panic attacks, and  anxiodepressive disorder) and so for a long  time there was nowhere I could go and no one to go with me, because people’s awareness of mental health in Russia is somewhere around nil. So, I write and talk a lot about the visibility of people with similar quicks. I’m not afraid to say I have mental illnesses. I want the people in my life to pay attention to their own states of mind and offer help to people having trouble. I want the hate speech to disappear from the Russian language. People who do dumb or bad things should be not called psychos and schizos, and they do not need psychiatric treatment. All of these things have nothing to do with each other. Fortunately, things have been getting better lately, thanks to psychoactivists, journalists, and blogger doing outreach work on the rights of people with mental quirks and bringing the topic of psychiatry out of the gray zone.

What happened on May 1 was unprecedented, of course. It was the first Mad Pride in Russia, and it did not end the way everyone expected. We had come out to tell people that we people with mental illnesses existed. The people in our midst, the other marchers in the May Day demo, smiled at us, applauded us, and took our pictures. After reading our placards, several people decided to join our bloc. But then, twenty minutes or so later, a mob of riot police (OMON) and Russian National Guardsmen came running at us. They ripped our posters and our banner, confiscated all our placards, and dragged people away. Some people they practically dragged over the pavement, while they took other people by the arm. Many peole had severe panic attacks, including me. Fortunately, I always have my pills along. Otherwise, I simply would have passed out right there on the spot. That is how I react to unexpected, stressful circumstances.

My panic attack continued in the paddy wagon, but it was no longer so intense because I had taken a tranquillizer. But I suffer badly from claustrophobia, so I asked to be released from the cage, which opens from the outside. Fortunately, the riot  police immediately agreed. I think it had something to do with the fact that there have been precedents at the European Court of Human Rights, cases in which transporting claustrophobics in so-called cages and glasses has been deemed torture.

While we drove to the Basmanny police station, the law enforcers were keen to ask me why I was so nervous, what Psychoactive was about, who had diagnosed me, and why we had marched.

When I had described in detail how a panic attack works, one of the riot policemen  said, “Oh that’s nonsense. Try doing a five-kilometer cross-country run. Your heart is pumping so hard, it makes your head spin.”

I replied immediately.

“It’s the same feeling, only imagine you haven’t run five kilometers, that these feelings come on for no reason at all,” I snapped back.

The riot police exchanged glances and said, “Yeah, that’s harsh.”

Miroslava Podlesnykh
Ceramicist, animal rights advocate

Miroslava Podlesnykh. Photo by Ilya Panin. Courtesy of Takie Dela

Mental quirks and mental disorders are a topic means a lot to me, something I tried to live with for a long time without paying attention to it. Ultimately, however, I realized that living a full-fledged life meant accepting myself the way I was. I realized that if I wanted to changed the world I had to get a move on, to be around people who shared my values and views, to be part of a community.

The arrests were particularly hilarious when you could hear the announcers in the background talking about peace, labor, unity, and May, while the police were detaining a group that was just gaining the strength to assert itself, because this was an incredible effort for them. I know what a person who suffers from sociopathic disorders feels like in a crowd. Going on a demo is a huge effort, a big step towards a partial recovery.

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The psychoactivist community emerged in January 2018. Their projects have included Psychoactive, which focused on communication and creativity, and I’m Burnt Out, which dealt with emotional burnout. They also have their own brand of clothing and accessories.

Translated by the Russian Reader