Squealing on Victims of the Great Terror: Who Wants to Tear Down Petersburg’s Last Address Plaques?

досто 25-табличкиThree Last Address plaques on the house at 27 Dostoevsky Street, in downtown Petersburg

Squealing on the Executed: Who Wants to Remove the Last Address Plaques?
Tatyana Voltskaya
Radio Svoboda
December 6, 2018

Alexander Mokhnatkin, a former aide to Russian MP Vitaly Milonov, filed a complaint with the Petersburg authorities, claiming the plaques mounted on houses throughout the city by Last Address had been erected illegally.

досто 25-улица и домThe plaques are barely visible from only ten meters away.

Andrei Pivovarov, co-chair of the Petersburg branch of Open Russia, wrote about the complaint on his Facebook page.

The city’s urban planning and architecture committee has already reacted to the complaint. It said the plaques, which bear the names of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror and have been placed on the walls of the houses where they lived just before their arrests and executions, were illegal.

досто 27-подворотняThere are two more plaques right next door, in the gateway of the house at 27 Dostoevsky Street.

“The informer decided the plaques were illegal advertisements? I wonder what for. The Stalinist Terror? He thinks they should be taken down. The Smolny responds to the snitch by indicating there were no legal grounds for putting the plaques up, and special city services would deal with them. It is difficult to guess when the wheel of the bureaucratic machine will turn, but, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, the country should know its snitches. I introduce you to Alexander Mokhnatkin, a man who has denounced people long ago victimized by the state and executed, and who has denounced the memory of those people,” Pivovarov wrote.

нев 111:полтав 3-3Unaware of the Last Address plaque on the wall next to her, a woman walks down Poltava Street, just off Old Nevsky, on a sunny day in October.

MP Milonov argues his former aide’s opinion is his personal opinion. Milonov, on the contrary, welcomes memorial plaques, but he does not like the fact that, currently, ordinary citizens have taken the lead in putting them up. He believes it would be better to let officials take the lead.

“I don’t think it would be good if there were lot of plaques on every house, as in a cemetery. The right thing to do, probably, would be to adopt a government program. The plaques would be hung according to the rules of the program, and protected by the law and the state,” argues Milonov.

нев 111:полтав 3-5When you step back ten or fifteen meters, the same plaque is nearly invisible to the naked eye.

He argues what matters most is “remembering the grandfathers of the people who now call themselves liberals squealed on our grandfathers and shot our grandfathers. Our grandfathers did not squeal on anyone. They died on the Solovki Islands. They were shot in the Gulag and various other places.”

Milonov admits different people wrote denunciations, but he believes the International Memorial Society has deliberately politicized the topic, using the memory of those shot during the Terror for their own ends. The MP argues that erecting memorial plaques should not be a “political mom-and-pop store.” Milonov fears chaos: that today one group of people will put up plaques, while tomorrow it will be another group of people. To avoid this, he proposes adopting official standards.

разъезжая 36-подъезд.jpgA Last Address plaque in the doorway of the house at 36 Razyezhaya Street, in Petersburg’s Central District.

​On the contrary, Evgeniya Kulakova, an employee of Memorial’s Research and Information Centre in Petersburg, stresses that Last Address is a grassroots undertaking. An important part of Last Address is the fact that the installation of each new plaque is done at the behest of private individuals, who order the plaques, pay for their manufacture, and take part in mounting them. Kulakova regards Milonov’s idea as completely unfeasible, since the municipal authorities have their own program in any case. The program has its own concept for commemorating victims of political terror, and the authorities have the means at their disposals to implement it. Last Address, however, is hugely popular among ordinary people who feel they can make their own contribution to the cause of preserving the memory of the people who perished during the Terror.

соц 6-улицаA Last Address plaque in the archway of the house at 6 Socialist Street, in central Petersburg.

Kulakov thinks it no coincidence Mokhnatkin has brought attention to the Last Address plaques, since previously he had taken an interest in the Solovetsky Stone in Trinity Square. Apparently, his actions are part of a campaign against remembering Soviet state terror and the campaign against Memorial.

Many Memorial branches in Russia have been having lots of trouble lately. In particular, Memorial’s large annual Returning the Names ceremony in Moscow was nearly canceled this autumn, while the Petersburg branch has been informed that the lease on its premises has been terminated. It has been threatened with eviction as of January 6, 2019.

черняховского 69-домThree Last Address plaques, barely visible from the middle of the street, on the house at 69 Chernyakhovsky Street, near the Moscow Station in Petersburg.

Historian Anatoly Razumov, head of the Returned Names Center, supports the concept of memorial plaques. He stressed they are installed only with the consent of building residents and apartment owners, and ordinary people welcome the undertaking. Moreover, people often put up the plaques not only to commemorate their own relatives but also to honor complete strangers whose lives have touched them. Razumov says people often find someone’s name in the Leningrad Martyrology. They then get written confirmation the person lived in a particular house. Only after collecting information about the person and obtaining the consent of the building’s residents do they erect a plaque.

“In Europe, such things are always under the protection of municipal authorities. I think we should also be going in the other direction: local district councils should do more to protect the plaques instead of saying they don’t meet the standards and they’re going to tear them down,” the historian argues.

Razumov argues that inquiries like the inquiry about the legality of the memorial plaques are served up under various attractive pretexts, but they are always based on the same thing: the fight against remembering the Terror. Some people want to preserve this memory forever, while others do everything they can to eradicate it by concocting hybrid or counter memories.

черняховского-все таблички.jpgThe plaques at 69 Chernyakhovsky Street commemorate Vasily Lagun, an electrician; Solomon Mayzel, a historian of the Arab world; and Irma Barsh. They were executed in 1937–1938 and exonerated of all charges in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, argues that Last Address and Immortal Regiment are the most important popular undertakings of recent years. He is outraged by attempts of officials to encroach on them. He says he has written an appeal to the city’s urban planning and architecture committee.

Translation and photos by the Russian Reader

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A Toilet for the Investigator
Tatyana Voltskaya
Radio Svoboda
November 30, 2016

Inside the Café Beirut. Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL

Criminal charges have been brought against the co-owner of the Café Beirut in Petersburg; on November 29, police searched her home. In September and October, the café was searched on several occasions by Investigative Committee, Rospotrebnadzor, and Emergencies Ministry officers.

The café believes the only cause of its woes is a casual patron who tried to use the establishment’s toilet last summer, but was turned away.

There is generally nothing wrong about popping into a café to use the toilet. The employees of the Café Beirut say they would never turn away polite, friendly visitors. But when an individual makes noise, swears, and might make a less than pleasant impression on diners, they do not see fit to let him in. Thus, this past July, they turned away a young man who, they say, behaved just this way.

On September 7, investigators, Rospotrebnadzor inspectors, and Emergencies Ministry officers raided the café and searched it. An employee recognized the young investigator leading the raid as the same young man who had unsuccessfully tried to use the Beirut’s toilet in summer.

Another search took place on September 23, resulting in the completely undocumented confiscation of the establishment’s cash register, computer server, order terminal, and charter documents, meaning everything they needed to stay in business. The café was closed for a whole week, but then it opened again, having suffered considerable losses, of course.

But that was not the end of the matter. On November 29, police searched the home of the café’s co-owner Elizaveta Izvozchikova, who has been charged with violating Article 238 of the Criminal Code (“Production, storage, transport or sale of goods and products, works or services that do not meet safety requirements”). According to Izvozchikova, the female investigator who led the search rang at her apartment at seven in the morning.

“She came to my apartment accompanied by an officer of the economic crimes department district office and two official witnesses. They served me with a search warrant, which made it clear to me that criminal charges had been filed against me under Article 238. The article says nothing about harming anyone, only about providing poor-quality services. To file charges under this article, it is sufficient to record violations of some kind, say, sanitation rules. We quickly fixed all the violations for which we had been cited and submitted a report to the Investigative Committee. After all, we opened just recently, in late February of this year. We did a major overhaul and replaced all the plumbing, sewerage, and electrical wires. The basement was in bad shape. Then we restored the historic storefront, made high-quality repairs inside, and installed new equipment in the kitchen. We wanted to do something good for people, feed them tasty food and give them good service. I am a designer by education, and I really wanted to make the café pretty. I am a responsibe person, so I tried to make sure everything was in order: that the fire extinguisher was certified, that the kitchen was clean, that we followed all the rules. But on September 7 we had our first inspection. The investigator from the Investigative Committee forced everyone outside and demanded we sign papers of some of kind without reading them. Otherwise, he threatened us with immediate closure and put a lot of pressure on my manager, who is fairly young.”

Café Beirut co-owner Elizaveta Izvozchikova. Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL

I asked what the reason for the first inspection was.

“My internal investigation revealed that our manager had seen the young man who turned out to be an investigator: he had not let him use our toilet. We had guests, he had demanded to use the toilet in a rude way, waving his arms and cursing, so he was not allowed to use the toilet. The second inspection, headed by this investigator, took place on September 23. He confiscated the cash register and a bunch of other things. The investigation was then terminated. Later, however, the decision to terminate the investigation was annulled, the case file was submitted for an additional investigation, and another inspection was organized. Rospotrebnadzor and the Emergencies Ministry cited us for four violations. We immediately fixed two of the problems: we installed a missing washbasin and a germicidal lamp. But the other two violations were simply nonexistent. We were told our doors had to be at least one meter wide, and we had to have a second emergency exit. According to fire safety rules, however, wide doors and a second exit are obligatory only for premises larger than one hundred square meters, and if there are over fifty evacuees, but our place seats only thirty people. We explained everything to them and attached documents to our reports, including the cadastral passport, which shows we have only sixty-three square meters of space. We also requested that everything they had confiscated be returned to us, as they had nothing to do with the inspection. Instead of a response, however, criminal charges have been filed. The charges are based on those same two violations, turned up by the Emergencies Ministry, but I do not believe that the Emergencies Ministry officer was unfamiliar with the rules in question. The third violation consisted in the fact that, according to Rospotrebnadzor, we had no right to worked with unpeeled root vegetables; this requires a separate bath or even a whole room. So we ordered peeled root vegetables, meaning we started using prepared food, which we immediately reported to the authorities. But it made no difference at all. I was summoned for interrogation on November 29, but I refused to answer the questions in order to better familiarize myself with the charge sheet. So I will be going to the Investigative Committee on Monday, December 5. While the inspections were going on, we made huge losses. We were closed for an entire week, and many of our clients even now think we are still closed. Nothing like this has ever happened to any of my colleagues, and I continue to hope for justice. We have not violated any law. We are conscientious taxpayers and entrepreneurs who are trying to run a small business, and we do no harm to anyone,” says Elizaveta Izvozchikova.

Restored historical storefront at the Café Beirut (right). Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL 

Lawyer Boris Gruzd argues that criminal prosecution has not been used for its intended purpose in this case.

“I think that criminal charges are sometimes filed on insufficient grounds and used for other purposes, as a means of revenge, for dealing with undesirable persons. I think this is one of those cases. It often happens that, even when criminal law has seemingly been violated, it is extremely hard to file criminal charges. An enormous amount of effort is made to turn even obvious crimes into criminal cases. But here criminal charges have been filed out of thin air, so to speak. Because, when criminal charges are filed, aside from violation of the law, another important element is danger to the public. In this case, however, they have found fault with a telegraph pole, as the saying goes. I am sure you could find a dozen such violations in any small business and major state company. What public good has been violated that it is necessary to resort to criminal prosecution? It is a last resort that should be used very selectively and carefully, when other tools do not work. This is a classic case of ‘nightmarizing business.'”

I asked Gruzd whether there was any hope of punishing those who spin such cases out of thin air.

“It is necessary to take steps in this direction. It produces a particularly sharp contrast with the notorious case of the women who was murdered although she called the police because her [ex-]partner had threatened her. But the dispatcher, the best beat cop in the city, told her that if and when she was killed, they would come and describe her corpse. Here, the Investigative Committee, whose remit is grave and especially grave crimes, has pounced on a café. So they have the time and the energy to deal with this nonsense?” notes Gruzd.

Alexander Kobrinsky, a member of the fifth convocation of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, says the persecution of the Café Beirut’s co-owner is not something out of the ordinary in Russia.

“Recently, everyone watched the video in which security guards tried to keep a drunk man, who turned out to be a police officer, from entering a café. A while later, the riot cops arrived and detained the security guards, who were just doing their jobs. But the situation is understandable, because law enforcement officers consider themselves a superior caste, endowed with special rights, including the right to cook up criminal cases as a means of personal revenge. It is quite widespread, since the law allows them to file criminal charges, suspend business operations, and confiscate tools, computers, whatever. Maybe the charges will be dropped a year from now, but getting a business back up on its feet after such shocks is not always possible. That is why, by the way, prohibiting the detention of people involved in commerce and seizure of their property has now been actively discussed. What point have we reached to openly admit that the vast majority of criminal charges filed against businessmen in Russia is based on mercenary motives and revenge! Clearly there are thieves and con men, but it turns out that they constitute the minority of defendants in such cases. Such is the system and such is the law. We see that a completely peculiar set of circumstances has been established in Russia. I don’t know, maybe Putin was speaking sincerely about the investment climate, but there is no longer any way of manually managing hundreds of thousands of these minor strongmen. In Russia, every police capitan, assistant investigator, and junior assistanct prosecutor is a low-level power broker. They are used to living this way: they have been living this way for a quarter of a century. And they do not want to live any other way, no matter what Putin has said,” argues Kobrinsky.

According to Kobrinsky, this mindset—that I am a landlord, and you are my slaves—is very difficult to eradicate. One has the impression that the head of state seemingly has no leverage over Russia’s law enforcement system, that it must be completely dismantled and reassembled anew.

On November 29, Elizaveta Izvozchikova was released on her own recognizance.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yelena Osipova: “Russia Is a Bird, Not a Bear”

 

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Russia wants to be a bird: peaceful, honest, kind.  Russia: kind and hardworking. 2011: The bear can no longer be cured. Vote for the bird. Although it is wounded, if it is treated well, it can fly high. Vote for the hardworking bird

“Russia is a bird, not a bear”
Tatyana Voltskaya
November 21, 2015
Radio Svoboda

Yelena Osipova’s “naïve” posters remind us of the link between politics and street protests

A cozy basement with uncomfortable pictures: that is how one might describe in a nutshell the exhibition of paintings and posters by Petersburg artist Yelena Osipova currently underway in the Petersburg office of Open Russia, which shares the space with the Petersburg office of the Parnas party.

Elena Osipova
Yelena Osipova

The exhibition marks a milestone—Osipova has turned seventy—but it is her debut exhibition. She has never been a member of any artist unions and groups, but she has stood outside in the rain, frost, and heat at nearly all the protest rallies that have taken place in Petersburg in recent years. The striking posters that Osipova holds at these rallies expose the latest injustices or crimes, warn of dangers, and empathize with the plight of others, whether they have been victims of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, dishonest elections or civil rights violations.

The exhibition was not easy to put together. The organizers set out to show not only Osipova’s best political posters but also her paintings, mainly portraits and landscapes. The show also includes two large genre scenes, the first featuring an ordinary Soviet beer hall, the second, a group of punks. Perhaps they are the link to the posters, which call to mind not only the tradition of political satire but also primitivist painting.

We are all hostages of violent, provocative imperialist politics.
We are all hostages of violent, provocative imperialist politics

“This exhibition is the first in my life,” says Yelena Osipova. “And I love the room and these vaulted ceilings and the fact you can see how my paintings segue into the posters. The latest poster, showing a mother with a dead infant, is about the dead Tajik boy Umarali Nazarov, while the first was prompted by the Nord-Ost tragedy in 2002. Then I went to the Mariinsky Palace [seat of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly] with a simple lettered poster, handwritten on a sheet of wove paper. I just could not understand why no one took to the streets then, why everyone was silent. On the fortieth day after the deaths of the hostages, I made a poster in which I painted a picture in acrylics on fabric.

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In an Andersen story, a girl sold matches in Denmark in the nineteenth century: matches. (Read Andersen’s fairytales to children.) 2012, the twenty-first century. Children are commodities. This is the end of the world. Adoption should be free. Foster care should be free. In Russia, children sell narcotics: narcotics.

You are a professional artist. Where did you study?

“I graduated from an art school. It was then called the Tauride Art School, now it is the Roerich Art School. Marc Chagall had studied there in his day, though not for long. I had then wanted to apply to the monumental painting program at the Mukhina Academy. I had been influenced by the frescoes of Andrei Rublev and Dionisius, by the size of their figures and their schematic manner. But young women were just not admitted to the monumental painting program, and I have no regrets about it now. What would I have done? Painted murals in the subway? I am an artist and educator. I taught for over thirty years. We organized three art schools from scratch.”

Umarali
Umarali

So you mostly painted landscapes and posters, then Nord-Ost happened and you turned to posters. What exactly happened after Nord-Ost?

“An ever more horrible event: Beslan. No conclusions had been drawn! I had two posters: one was lost, while the other version is exhibited here. The lost version was two-sided. On the reverse side, the slogan “Moms of the world, give birth to little princes. They will save the world!” was written on a blue background. I made the next poster, “Don’t believe in the justice of war!” when the war in Iraq began. I stood outside the American consulate, the British consulate, outside the consulates of all the governments who had supported sending troops into Iraq. There was no reaction. When it was the anniversary of the Beslan tragedy, the mothers of the dead came to Petersburg and wanted to walk down Nevsky Prospect to the Russian Museum holding icons and candles. Ultimately, no one joined them. Just one other woman went with the Beslan moms, plus me with my poster. So we marched alone, amidst the general indifference.”

Anti-war-0089
Artist Yelena Osipova holds a poster that reads, “Don’t believe in the justice of war,” during an unauthorized anti-war protest outside Kazan Cathedral in Petersburg on March 15, 2014. Photo by Sergey Chernov

But this indifference has continued. Look how many people came to the rally protesting the death of the Tajik baby Umarali Nazarov, who was taken away from his mother.

“Yes, but more people are coming than before. Civil society is slowly emerging. We have had the Marches for Peace, and certain rallies have drawn a good number of people. It used to be that no one came to these things at all.”

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Yelena Osipova, Portrait of an Artist, 1975. Oil on canvas

Have you been detained at protests?

“Of course I have been detained. There was a G20 summit here one summer. I went there with two posters: Don’t believe in the justice of war! and another one about the disposal of nuclear waste. The police detained me then, and I have been detained many times since, sometimes quite roughly. There were unpleasant incidents outside the Mariinsky Palace on St. Isaac’s Square when the war with Ukraine began. Yet the people who go to these events think like you do, and that is quite important. You feel you are not alone with your thoughts, that there are other people who think the same way. Okay, so there are not so many of them, but they are out there.

Free political prisoners!
Free political prisoners!

“Now, perhaps, it will become more difficult, and people will retreat to their apartments, as they did in Soviet times. The laws that have been passed [restricting public protests] are tough to deal with even financially. It used to be that the biggest fine I got was five thousand rubles. People collected the money on the web, and later I sent it on to the Bolotnaya Square prisoners. But the fines now are so high that you cannot pay them. It is too bad that society resigned itself from the outset and did not oppose these laws. After all, they could have resisted and taken to the streets, but, unfortunately, when people have begun to live better, they become indifferent.”

Are there any landmark works, works important to you at this exhibition?

“Yes, for example, Theater Entrance. I painted it during my fourth year at art school. I was really into the theater then, and my thesis painting had a theatrical motif. There are also three paintings here from my Vologda series, pictures of fields in Vologda. There is a landscape painting of Gurzuf, in Crimea. The big painting shows a beer hall that was behind the Nekrasov Market. It had these big round arches, and the beer was poured straight from a tap. You could meet professors and students and artists there. I have painted Russia there with a halo, looking sad. It was the nineties, a very complicated time. And my other painting on this subject is Punks in the Subway. I knew all those kids.

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The musical Nord-Ost, October 25, 2002. Stop the war, people! Learn the truth!

And what is Oh mania, oh mummy of war…, featuring two crows?

“It’s an anti-war poster. I drew it after Boris Nemtsov’s murder. I used a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva. She wrote it in Germany, and I saw the resemblance with our circumstances. The poster Not everyone who is naked is needy is about the death of Berezovsky. I play on the birch motif [Berezovsky’s name is derived from the Russian word for birch tree, berëza], and there are funereal crows.

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Artist Yelena Osipova at the opening of her exhibition on November 14, 2015. She stands next to posters that read, “August 6, 1945. August 9, 1945. Moms of the world against atomic energy,” and “Ukraine, forgive us: we let it happen.”

Do you appreciate some of your posters more than others?

Maybe this one, Don’t believe in the justice of war!, and the Beslan poster. In fact, the political posters about tragedies I always rendered in the three colors of the Russian flag.”

Will you continue to make new posters and freeze on the streets?

“At one point I though that maybe there was no need for this and I wanted to quit, but people said I should do it and told me I gave them hope.”

At the entrance to the exhibition is a small poster, Vote for the bird. At the bottom of the poster is a heavy United Russia, pumped full of oil; on the top is a bird.

“The bird has always been the symbol of Russia,” argues Yelena Osipova.

Syria. Russia
Syria, Russia, Russia (2015)

And to her mind, Russia’s color is blue, as in a certain painting by her beloved Wassily Kandinsky. True, Osipova now sees less and less of the color in her homeland’s plumage.

Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos by the Russian Reader except where otherwise indicated. Yelena Osipova’s work will be on view at 19 Fontanka Embankment until November 25, 2015.