Absolutely Horizontal

Olga lived in Mariupol for many years. Until February 24, she worked as a courier, while her husband worked at the Azovstal steel works, and their two children studied at school. Since early March 2022, due to the so-called special operation, Mariupol has been under siege, and fighting has been going on in the city. In the middle of the month, when humanitarian corridors opened up, the family was able to get to Donetsk, and from there they took a bus to Petersburg. Their bus tickets were bought by volunteers — ordinary people who are not connected with government agencies. They also met the Mariupol residents in Petersburg and housed them in their apartment for the night, and then took them to Ivangorod, where Olga and her relatives crossed the Estonian border. The family is now in Finland.

There are many similar stories. In Petersburg, hundreds of residents help transit refugees every day. There are so many people willing to help that all requests — from putting up a family of five people and two dogs to transporting a nursing mother with a baby to Ivangorod — are claimed by volunteers in a matter of minutes. Over the border, in the Estonian city of Narva, Ukrainians are also welcomed by volunteers. This is the story of how ordinary citizens sat and watched the news, feeling powerless, but then found an opportunity to help others and themselves.

How Volunteering Heals Witness Trauma
Alexander from Petersburg is an artist. If it weren’t for [the war], he would now be engaged in art making. “I won’t be getting around to art anytime soon, but there will be food for it,” he says.

In April, Alexander and other volunteers launched a platform on the internet where they coordinate requests for assistance in crossing the border with Estonia and (less often) Finland. For security reasons and at the request of the volunteers, we are not publishing a link to this resource. Currently, there are more people willing to help than requests for help: people span up the requests in minutes.

Here is an example of a typical request: “A family is coming from Mariupol: a grandmother, grandfather, their daughter, grandson (12 years old), and a pregnant cat. You need to meet them at the train station, feed them, provide overnight accommodation, chip the cat and put the family on the bus to Tallinn the next morning.”

“Society has been traumatized. People were watching the news and tortured by a feeling of impotence, so we created a platform where we try to cure this powerlessness. I have the feeling that any problem can be solved en masse. People are competing for the opportunity to help,” says Alexander, “and so [the campaign] has turned out absolutely horizontal. People find the requests on their own and fulfill them  on their own. In the past, I worked on the problems in my neighborhood, and back then it was several activists dragging the whole movement like locomotives, but now the wave rolls on by itself.”

We thought we were going to disappear inside Russia, the refugees tell local volunteers. People travel mostly in groups. Most of them are women, children, and the elderly. There are fewer men. “Many people are traveling with their pets,” says Alexander. In addition to Mariupol and the surrounding area, they come from the Kharkiv region, Donetsk, and Luhansk. They are going to European countries, but some seek to  return to Ukraine as quickly as possible because they have relatives there, they can speak their native language, and they don’t have to deal with the “refugee” label.

It is not only Petersburgers who have been helping them to make the journey to the Russian-Estonian border. There are also hundreds of volunteers in Moscow. The Petersburgers are now establishing contacts in Rostov, Krasnodar, and Belgorod, the [southern] Russian cities through which the refugees travel most often.

“The other day I came to my senses, looked up from the screen, and realized that nothing was hurting inside me. I haven’t watched the news for more than a week and I don’t know what is happening in the political space. I have a specific task, it is very simple and clean. Unlike everything else, I have no doubt that it’s a good thing,” says Alexander. “Everyone wants to do good, and helping refugees certainly satisfies this need.”

How Natalia Got from Mariupol to Vilnius via Petersburg
Natalia got from Ukraine to Lithuania thanks to the internet platform where Alexander volunteers.

Previously, she worked as a cook in the Shchiriy Kum retail chain. She has two daughters: one is a high school student, the other, a university student. On the morning of February 24, Natalia went to work as usual. “I heard that there had been an explosion somewhere. But in Mariupol this is so routine that no one paid it any mind. (Echoes of the fighting have been audible in Mariupol since 2014, and most residents were used to the sounds of distant explosions and shooting — The Village.) When I arrived at work, I realized that things were serious. I finished up by three o’clock, and they let us go home. I didn’t go to work anymore after that.”

Natalia and her family remained in Mariupol until March 23. There was no “serious fighting” in her neighborhood, so she and her daughters stayed in their apartment, not in a basement or a bomb shelter. “But our things were packed to leave at any moment,” she says. The electricity in the city had been turned off, and the water was also turned off, so the family went to a spring to get water. Then the gas was turned off, so they had to cook on a bonfire.

When the fighting got close, Natalia, her girls, and her eldest daughter’s boyfriend went to the outskirts of city, where “there were buses from the [Donetsk People’s Republic].” They went on one of these buses to her parents who live near Mariupol and stayed there for three weeks. Then all four of them traveled to Taganrog [a Russian city approximately 120 km east of Mariupol]. At the local temporary accommodation point, they were offered a choice: they could go either to Khabarovsk or to Perm. Natalia didn’t want to go to Khabarovsk or Perm. She needed to get to Lithuania, where a friend of hers lives. That was when a Mariupol acquaintance put her in touch with the Petersburg volunteers.

“The vbolunteers bought us tickets to Petersburg. We got to Rostov, where we boarded a train. In Petersburg, we were met by Ivan, who took us home to eat. We washed up and changed clothes, and he took us to get on a minibus to Ivangorod,” Natalia says. The Mariupol residents crossed the Russian-Estonian border on April 23. “At the Russian border, they asked [my daughter’s boyfriend] where he was going and why.” The Petersburg volunteers had put Natalia in touch with Narva volunteers, and so the family immediately boarded a free bus to Riga.

Natalia is currently in Vilnius. She has no plans to leave — she no longer has the strength to travel with suitcases. “We’ve rented a room. We’re going to look for jobs,” she says.

How to Help via Twitter
“It all started with the fact that I felt helpless and useless. I really wanted to do something,” says Katya from Petersburg.

You can find out about helping refugees who are traveling to Europe via Petersburg on various websites. The one on which the artist Alexander volunteers is the largest. There are others. For example, Katya saw such a request on Twitter. In mid-April, a friend of hers asked whether anyone could welcome a family (a mother, son and daughter) and an 18-year-old girl who was traveling with them for a couple of days. Katya responded. The family was put up by her friend, while Katya took in the girl. “She met the family she came with two weeks before [the war]. They went for a walk once with the boy, and he decided to take her with him. Her mother refused to leave, and so now the girl is all alone, without relatives here,” says Katya.

Katya met the girl at the Moscow Railway Station and they traveled the rest of the way to her house. The question arose: how to talk to a person who has country has been invaded by your own country? “Either we were a match, or the girl herself is this way, but it was easy to communicate with her, like with a sister,” says Katya. They sat down to drink tea, and the girl recounted in a calm voice how one day a tank drove up to the nine-story building in Mariupol where she was hiding in a bomb shelter, raised its turret, and began shooting into the distance. “I was bored, and I started counting. It fired seventy shots,” the girl said.

Before the girl left, Katya and her guest hugged tightly. The Mariupol family eventually stayed in Sweden, while the girl ended up in Germany. “I was constantly thinking about what is it like to live when your city is gone, when it has been wiped off the face of the earth,” says Katya.

What Ivangorod, the Transit Point for Refugees Going to Estonia, Looks Like
It takes two hours to drive from Petersburg to Ivangorod. At the outskirts of the city, you need to show the frontier guards a passport or a special pass for entering the border zone. Refugees are allowed through with an internal Ukrainian passport. A kilometer from the checkpoint, on a pole right next to the highway, storks have built a large nest.

Ivangorod is home to around nine thousand people. Its main attraction is a medieval fortress. In the six years that have passed since The Village‘s correspondents last visited the city, it has become prettier. The local public spaces have been beautified under the federal government’s Comfortable Environment program.

Estonia can be seen from the bank of the Narva River. To get to the European Union, you need to walk 162 meters across the Friendship Bridge. At the entrance there is a hut where insurance used to be sold, but now it is abandoned, its windows broken. People walk down the slope carrying bags and plastic sacks stuffed with things. The local children ride scooters. Closer to the shore, the children turn right onto the embankment, which the local authorities attempted to beautify in the 2010s with funding from the EU. The people carrying bags go to the left.

There are several dozen people at the border checkpoint. A heart-rending meow resounds from the middle of the queue. A woman removes a black jacket from a pet carrier: a hairless Sphynx cat stares at her indignantly.

“Maybe I should let him out on the grass?”

The people in the queue say there is no need, that they will get through quickly. But it seems that this forecast is too optimistic.

“Are they all Ukrainians?” a man with a reflector asks loudly. The people in front of him shrug their shoulders. “Are they Maidanovites? Refugees? Are they fleeing from the nationalists?”

Someone argues that the frontier guards should organize two queues — “for people and for refugees” — to make the border crossing go more quickly.

Under the bar at the border restaurant Vityaz hangs a homemade “Peace! Labor! May!” banner and an image of a dove. On the way to the Ivangorod fortress there is a memorial stone dedicated to “the militiamen, volunteers, and civilians who perished and suffered in the crucible of the war in the Donbas.” The Village‘s correspondents did not encounter a single letter Z — the symbol of the “special operation” — in Ivangorod. Nor they did encounter a single pacifist message either.

How Narva Helps Transit Refugees
At the border checkpoint, people are met by numerous volunteers from various associations, including the Friends of Mariupol. “These are all private initiatives,” says Narva volunteer Marina Koreshkova.

“We have been seeing exhausted people,” says Marina. “Many are in rough psychological condition, and they really want to talk. We listen to them for an hour, two, three — we empathize with them and share important information. People say that while they were traveling through Russia, they saw the Z, heard unpleasant messages addressed to Ukrainians, and were forced to put up with it and remain silent just to get to Europe. But I often see examples of Stockholm syndrome. Or maybe people are just afraid to say the wrong thing.”

Six years ago, Marina and her children moved to Narva from Petersburg, because she understood that the situation in Russia was getting worse. In Russia, she was a lawyer, working for ten years in a government committee on social policy, then as an arbitration manager. She started her life from scratch in Narva, and is now studying new professions. She is a member of Art Republic Krenholmia and Narva Meediaklubi, nonprofits engaged in civil society development and social and creative projects.

On April 10, Marina received a call from the manager of the Vaba Lava Theater Center, who said that they had decided to temporarily convert a hostel for actors into an overnight accommodation for refugees. Soon, the Narva Art Residence also let transit refugees into its hostel for artists. Then the Ingria House, located near the train station, equipped a room to accommodate Ukrainians. And on May 1, a Narva businessman temporarily vacated his office, located near the border, for daytime stays.

“For the first week, Sergei [Tsvetkov, another volunteer] and I tried to do everything ourselves. We quickly realized that at this pace we would burn out or get sick. Now about sixty local volunteers are involved, and people have come from Tallinn to help. The number of people helping out has been growing every day. Local residents collect the refugees’ laundry for washing, and bring them food and medicine.”

Almost none of the refugees remain in Narva. “The proximity to the border generates a new sense of uncertainty for them,” Marina argues. In addition, the region’s refugee registration office, which enables Ukrainians to gain a foothold in Estonia, has been closed. The nearest one still in operation is in Tartu [a distance of 180 km from Narva by car].

Narva is also “the most Russian city in NATO.” Only four percent of the city’s population is ethnic Estonian, and thirty-six percent of residents are Russian passport holder. “I don’t have time to read social media, but until April 10, I constantly observed negative comments [from Narva residents] about the refugees, although I have not seen any outward aggression in the city,” says Marina.

She believes that a welcoming station where refugees could get basic information and relax inside in the warmth should be equipped at the border. “It was quite cold in late April. People were freezing on the border outside in the wind, then thawing out for an hour and not taking off their outerwear.”

There is not even a toilet on the Russian side of the border, however.

Source: “‘An absolutely horizontal business’: How residents of Petersburg and Narva are helping Ukrainian refugees going to Europe,” The Village, 5 May 2022. Image (below) courtesy of The Village. Thanks to JG for the story and the link. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Umm Khaled hardly leaves the tent where she lives in northwest Syria, and she says she doesn’t pay attention to the news. But she knows one reason why it is getting harder and harder to feed herself and her children: Ukraine.

“Prices have been going up, and this has been happening to us since the war in Ukraine started,” said the 40-year-old, who has lived in a tent camp for displaced people in the last rebel-held enclave in Syria for the past six years since fleeing a government offensive.

Food prices around the world were already rising, but the war in Ukraine has accelerated the increase since Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24. The impact is worsening the already dangerous situation of millions of Syrians driven from their homes by their country’s now 11-year-old civil war.

The rebel enclave in Syria’s northwest province of Idlib is packed with some 4 million people, most of whom fled there from elsewhere in the country. Most rely on international aid to survive, for everything from food and shelter to medical care and education.

Because of rising prices, some aid agencies are scaling back their food assistance. The biggest provider, the U.N. World Food Program, began this week to cut the size of the monthly rations it gives to 1.35 million people in the territory.

The Ukraine crisis has also created a whole new group of refugees. European nations and the U.S. have rushed to help more than 5.5 million Ukrainians who have fled to neighboring countries, as well as more than 7 million displaced within Ukraine’s borders.

Aid agencies are hoping to draw some of the world’s attention back to Syria in a two-day donor conference for humanitarian aid to Syrians that begins Monday in Brussels, hosted by the U.N. and the European Union. The funding also goes toward aid to the 5.7 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries, particularly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Last year, the EU, the United States and other nations pledged $6.4 billion to help Syrians and neighboring countries hosting refugees. But that fell well short of the $10 billion that the U.N. had sought — and the impact was felt on the ground. In Idlib, 10 of its 50 medical centers lost funding in 2022, forcing them to dramatically cut back services, Amnesty International said in a report released Thursday.

Across Syria, people have been forced to eat less, the Norwegian Refugee Council said. The group surveyed several hundred families around the country and found 87% were skipping meals to meet other living costs.

“While the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine continues to demand world attention, donors and governments meeting in Brussels must not forget about their commitment to Syria,” NRC’s Mideast Regional Director Carsten Hansen said in a report Thursday.

The U.N.’s children’s agency UNICEF said more than 6.5 million children in Syria are in need of assistance calling it the highest recorded since the conflict began. It said that since 2011, over 13,000 children have been confirmed killed or injured.

Meanwhile, UNICEF said funding for humanitarian operations in Syria is dwindling fast, saying it has received less than half of its funding requirements for this year. “We urgently need nearly $20 million for the cross-border operations” in Syria, the agency said in a statement.

Umm Khaled is among those who rely on food aid. With her aid rations reduced, she has gone deeper in debt to feed her family.

Her husband and eldest son were killed in a Syrian government airstrike in their home city of Aleppo in 2016. Soon after, she escaped with her three surviving children to the rebel enclave in Idlib province. Ever since, they have lived in a tent camp with other displaced people on the outskirts of the town of Atmeh near the Turkish border.

Her family lives on two meals a day — a small breakfast and a main meal late in the afternoon that serves as lunch and dinner. Her only income is from picking olives for a few weeks a year, making 20 Turkish liras ($1.35) a day.

“We used to get enough rice, bulgur, lentils and others. Now they keep reducing them,” she said by telephone from the camp. She spoke on condition her full name is not made public, fearing repercussions. She lives with her two daughters, ages six and 16, and 12-year-old son, who suffered head and arm injuries in the strike that killed his brother and father.

The price of essential food items in northwest Syria has already increased by between 22% and 67% since the start of the Ukraine conflict, according to the aid group Mercy Corps. There have also been shortages in sunflower oil, sugar and flour.

Mercy Corps provides cash assistance to displaced Syrians to buy food and other needs and it says it has no plans to reduce the amount.

“Even before the war in Ukraine, bread was already becoming increasingly unaffordable,” said Mercy Corps Syria Country Director, Kieren Barnes. The vast majority of wheat brought into northwest Syria is of Ukrainian origin, and the territory doesn’t produce enough wheat for its own needs.

“The world is witnessing a year of catastrophic hunger with a huge gap between the resources and the needs of the millions of people around the world,” said WFP spokeswoman Abeer Etefa.

In many of its operations around the world, WFP is reducing the size of the rations it provides, she said. Starting this month in northwest Syria, the provisions will go down to 1,177 calories a day, from 1,340. The food basket will continue to provide a mix of commodities, including wheat flour, rice, chickpeas, lentils, bulgur wheat, sugar and oil.

Rising prices have increased the cost of WFP’s food assistance by 51% since 2019 and that cost will likely go even higher as the impact of the Ukraine crisis is felt, Etefa said.

Earlier in the year, before the Ukraine conflict began, a 29% jump in costs prompted the Czech aid agency People in Need to switch from providing food packages to giving food vouchers. The vouchers, worth $60, buy less food than the group’s target level, but it had to take the step to “maximize its coverage of food assistance to the most vulnerable,” a spokesperson told The Associated Press.

As the world turns to other conflicts, “Syria is on the verge of becoming yet another forgotten crisis,” Assistant U.N. Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Joyce Msuya warned in late April.

In northwest Syria, “a staggering 4.1 million people” need humanitarian aid, Msuya said — not just food, but also medicines, blankets, school supplies and shelter. She said almost a million people in the territory, mainly women and children, live in tents, “half of which are beyond their normal lifespan.”

Many fear that the situation could only get worse in July, because Russia may force international aid for the northwest to be delivered through parts of Syria under the control of its ally, President Bashar Assad.

Currently, aid enters the Idlib enclave directly from Turkey via a single border crossing, Bab al-Hawa. The U.N. mandate allowing deliveries through Bab al-Hawa ends on July 9, and Russia has hinted it will veto a Security Council resolution renewing the mandate.

A Russian veto would effectively hand Assad control over the flow of aid to the opposition enclave and the U.S. and EU had warned earlier they will stop funding in that case.

The result will be a severe humanitarian crisis, likely triggering a new flood of Syrian migrants into Turkey and Europe, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs warned in a report.

Umm Khaled said she has no choice but to endure her deteriorating living conditions.

“They keep reducing our food basket,” she said. “May God protect us if they cut it completely.”

Source: Bassem Mroue, “Syrians in desperate need of aid hit hard by Ukraine fallout,” AP News, 8 May 2022. Thanks to Harald Etzbach for the story.

Rospotrebnadzor Axes “Public Refrigerator” in Petersburg

“A Project like This Is Impossible in Russia”: Why the Public Refrigerator Has Closed Forever
The organizer of the first public refrigerator in Russia explains why European know-how did not catch on here
Julia Galkina
The Village
November 16, 2016

Public Refrigerator on Vasilyevsky Island. Photo courtesy of The Village and Svetlana Kholyavchuk/TASS

The first public refrigerator opened on Sunday, November 13, in Petersburg, outside the Thank You! charity shop on Vasilyevsky Island. The organizers had hoped that all comers would put unwanted food in the refrigerator and freely taked it. The refrigerator operated for exactly one day. (Read Greenpeace’s report about what that looked like.) On Monday, November 14, state consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor sealed the refrigerator, explaining, “We welcome charity, but the present case concerns not items for the poor, but food products. With all due respect to the organizers, if food poisoning happens and someone gets hurts, Petersburgers will blame us.” On Tuesday, November 15, the organizers abandoned the idea and removed the refrigerator, remarking that “the project is not compatible with Russian legislation.” Now they “are looking for other forms of foodsharing offline.”

Such public refrigerators exist in Czech Republic, Spain, Germany, Poland, and other countries. Why can Europeans manage it, but we cannot? We talked about this with Alexandra Lyogkaya, founder of the project Foodsharing: I Give Away Food for Free.

“As far as I know, the public refrigerators in European countries also work on the person-to-person system, the same way we wanted to organize it. The authorities there do not interfere with the work of such projects. In Russia, on the contrary, it didn’t take off, unfortunately.

“Thank You! was the only team in the city who agreed to try out the public refrigerator project with us. They made their porch available. We did all the prep work together, printing stickers and distributing adverts. It was a completely joint project. We did not vet anything with officials. We thought about it, but probably we counted on the good experience in western countries.

Queue at the public refrigerator on Vasilyevsky Island. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace
Queue at the public refrigerator on Vasilyevsky Island. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace

“People brought a lot of products—sweets, fruits, and so on—right at opening time. The refrigerator opened at twelve noon on Sunday, and Rospotrebnadzor sealed it on Monday around one-thirty in the afternoon. Even afterwards people came to pick up and bring food. As far as I know, they keep coming even now. They just leave it outside, and someone has picked it up a few minutes later.

“We had no restrictions. Anyone at all could bring and pick up food. Of course, many old women and old men came to get food. By the way, originally, the idea had been that the refrigerator would be used by people who could not get food through our group page on Vkontakte. Yet many old ladies said they were also willing to bring food themselves.

“I was ready for anything. That the refrigerator would be stolen, that it would break down, that the police and regulatory authorities would come. Rosprotrebnadzor’s visit upset me, of course, but I cannot say I was in shock or didn’t expect it. I tried to be mentally prepared for any outcome.

“Rospotrebnadzor told us that a public refrigerator was impossible in Russia. We could organize a cart to feed all comers or a public cafeteria, but not something in which anyone can donate products. So each volunteer would have to have the relevant papers. If you put pasties or jam in the refrigerator, show us your certificates listing the ingredients and how it was made, stored, and transported.

“Because our project is purely nonprofit (no money is involved), we would not be able to organize something big-scale like a cafeteria. For now, unfortunately, we have nopt come up with a way of doing an offline foodsharing project that would be legal and just as simple as the public refrigerator.

“I really liked the way people reacted well to the refrigerator. I think that matters more than what happened later. If the authorities had allowed us to put it there, but people had not understood the idea and been against it, it would have been much worse.  So we just need to find the right form. People both young and old are ready for such a project.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

“We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Ekaterina Schulman

Ekaterina Schulman. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

Political Scientist Ekaterina Schulman on Why You Should Vote
Anya Chesova and Natasha Fedorenko
The Village
September 16, 2016

This Sunday, September 18, the country will vote for a new State Duma, the seventh since the fall of the Soviet Union. The peculiarity of this vote is that it will take place under a mixed electoral system for the first time since 2003. 225 MPs will be elected to five-year tears from party lists, while the other 225 MPs will be elected from single-mandate districts. Several days before the elections, The Village met with Ekaterina Schulman, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). We talked with her about why you should vote if United Russia is going to win in any case, as well as about the changes in store for the Russian political system in the coming years.


The Upcoming Elections

The Village: On Sunday, the country will hold the first elections to the State Duma since 2011. The social climate in the city and the country as a whole has changed completely since that time. Protests erupted in 2011, and the people who protested on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue believed they could impact the political situation. Nowadays, few people have held on to such hopes. What should we expect from the upcoming elections? And why should we bother with them?

Ekaterina Schulman: Everything happening now with the State Duma election is a consequence of the 2011–2012 protests, including changes in the laws, the introduction of the mixed system, the return of single-mandate MPs, the lowering of the threshold for parties to be seated in the Duma from seven to five percent, and the increased number of parties on the ballot. These are the political reforms outlined by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as a response to the events of December 2011. Later, we got a new head of state, but it was already impossible to take back these promises. The entire political reality we observe now has grown to one degree or another out of the 2011–2012 protest campaign, whether as rejection, reaction or consequence. It is the most important thing to happen in the Russian political arena in recent years.

The statements made by Vyacheslav Volodin, the president’s deputy chief of staff, on the need to hold honest elections, Vladimir Churov’s replacement by Ella Pamfilova as head of the Central Electoral Commission, the departure of someone more important than Churov from the CEC, deputy chair Leonid Ivlev, and the vigorous sacking of chairs of regional electoral commissions are all consequences of the protests. If they had not taken place, nothing would have changed. We would still have the same proportional voting system, the same seven-percent threshold, the same old Churov or Churov 2.0. Continue reading ““We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Ekaterina Schulman”

Sixteen Blue

“Putin Has Been in Power My Whole Life”
On the occasion of International Children’s Defense Day, The Village spoke with 16-year-olds about Vladimir Putin, social networks, and future plans
Lena Vereshchagina
The Village
June 1, 2016

Vladimir Putin has been in power, as president and prime minister, for over sixteen years. During this long period, a whole generation of people has come of age who never lived in the “pre-tandem” era and have a faint idea of what political succession is and why it is necessary. On the occasion of International Children’s Defense Day, the Village met with four 16-year-old schoolchildren and talked with them not only about politics and the permanent leader but also about social networks, the Soviet Union, and their priorities in life.

Vasya, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin
Vasya, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin

I am in the tenth grade at a French-language magnet school. I studied for six months in the US in the ninth grade. Things are definitely different there. I wound up at a private school where everything revolves around providing a full-fledged education. There was virtually no free time, and the schedule was quite hard. Under those circumstances, it is probably easier to find yourself. I remember I was invited to attend charcoal drawing lessons. They had everything to make them happen: a wonderful studio with huge windows and an unlimited supply of charcoal pencils. The atmosphere at my school in Russia is less creative.

Now I am in the physics and mathematics stream. Mom influenced my choice of specialization. She said the hard sciences were a good occupation for men. I am interested in programming. I would like my job to jibe wholly with my personal interests, for my profession to be my mission in life. At the same time, Mom has advised me to seek work abroad. Russia is going to stay put, after all, and working abroad can be a very rewarding experience.

We have not had a TV at home since 2006. When wired Internet became available, we immediately began using it alone. I try and spend as little time on the web as possible. I am aware that the flow of information from the social networks is unlimited. You read one thing, you get distracted by another thing, and you look through something else. You can fritter away your whole life like that. I try and be on the Internet for short periods of times. Sometimes, when I am riding the subway to practice, I get on the web and look at something.

I read voraciously. When I have free time and want to read a book, I read it without stopping. I can not pick up a book for two weeks, but then come home from school and blaze through the entire second volume of War and Peace in three hours. It took me two or three hours to read it. I read fairly quickly. I read it when I was ill, and then I immediately grabbed the third volume. Besides what is in the school curriculum, I read books Mom recommends. She gave me, for example, Yuri Lotman’s Conversations on Russian Culture and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature.

I imagine the Soviet Union as a strict regime. I know that people could not just go abroad in those days. You could not just pick up and go to England or France. People had fewer opportunities.

The main principle I saw abroad was that power must change hands. But we have had the same president for sixteen years. Vladimir Putin has personally done nothing bad to me, and I wish him all the best.  But I realize it is beneficial for him to hold this office, and profitable for his friends. Power does not change hands, and accordingly society makes no progress in any direction. I think it is good when there is at least elementary competition. Some people in my class do not care about this. They are happy about the annexation of Crimea and believe it was legal. Some have never been abroad, but think the US and Europe have been behaving aggressively towards Russia, and now we are going to get up off our knees and show them all. Due to this, I have no desire to socialize a lot with my classmates.

My grandmother and grandfather live in Smolensk. They watch a lot of TV, and everything shown on TV is the unquestionable truth to them. It is really hard to talk with them about politics, so we have agreed not to touch the topic. Mom and I do not discuss politics, because we get home late and try and talk about peaceful topics.

Nika, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin

I am a pupil in the Higher School of Economic’s magnet school in the liberal arts stream. I study literature, philosophy, cognition theory, and subjects related to philology. In the future, I plan on applying to the HSE and majoring in philology.

I read everything I can get my hands on, because for now I am only learning to distinguish good literature from bad. For example, I read the stories for teenagers Mom buys me, the things on the reading list at school, and beyond that. Right now, I am reading Leo Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness. I also love Iain Banks and Richard Bach. I read about four books a month.

In my free time, I hang out and watch movies. What kind of movies? Everything under the sun. I like something simple. I watch a lot of TV series, even more than movies. They are somehow easier to process. My favorites include The Big Bang Theory, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and Game of Thrones. I never watch TV. Only occasionally do I watch morning cartoons with my little brother.

My friends and I often discuss plans for the future, important world events, life at school, and other kids. I think the life of modern schoolchildren would be impossible without social networks. Many of our teachers also have accounts on them, and they often put our homework assignments on VKontakte to simplify things. I don’t spend more time on the social networks than anyone else: a few hours a day.

Some of the classes in my school are taught by teachers who are only twenty-five or so. In fact, we are not so different from them. They also spend time on social networks and socialize with their friends in a similar way.

I imagine the Soviet Union the way it is shown in old movies, meaning there are jolly schoolchildren and ice cream, it is always a beautiful time of year, and there are lots of tyrannical adults who tell the young people what to do. The 1990s, in my opinion, were really cool. You could easily get what you wanted without hassle. Without making any effort, you could make a fortune.

I don’t understand anything about Russian politics. I just know that Vladimir Putin runs the country, and some reforms should be implemented, but they are not being implemented. Or they are being implemented, but not in the way many people would like. But I cannot make heads or tails of it. At home, we do not touch on the topic, because my mom is not interested in politics. At school, if someone talks about it, I just listen and draw my own conclusions.

Putin has been in power my whole life. It is funny. I just don’t how it could be otherwise. I think everything is okay, and there have been no visible changes in my life over the past ten years. I think Putin has done a good job as president: no wonder he has been in power for such a long time. Meaning he has experience and knowledge that he can draw on. He is fairly influential, and the whole nation listens to him, so I think he is okay.  The other politicians whose names come to mind are Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergei Shoigu, and Vitali Klitschko.

Arina, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin
Arina, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin

I go to an English-language magnet school and am in the engineering stream. My favorite subjects are English, Russian, mathematics, and probably physics.

In the second grade, we went on a tour, and the guide asked us, “Who wants to be president?” No one replied, but I thought, “Why not?” I said out loud I wanted to be president. Since then the idea has stuck in my head. Now I am involved in youth politics and am a member of the Young Guard of United Russia. I have learned a lot of things about politics there. I have been growing personally, and meeting and socializing with lots of interesting people from this area. I don’t know what way life will turn, but maybe in the future I will be able to join the party, and if I don’t become president, I can simply be involved in politics. Politics attracts me, because I feel I can change things. I like situations in which there are business-like relationships, turns of events, excitement and competition, socializing with interesting people, and the possibility of taking responsibility and making important decisions.

I communicate with people on social networks, but I cannot say I hang out there. Sometimes, I make a point of not going on Vkontakte to read the news so I can get more done in real life, not in virtual life. I think life was more interesting before the advent of the Internet. Children were more focused, more interesting in learning and growing. But now the Internet does everything for them.

I don’t have much time to read. We are assigned a lot in school, so mainly I have to study the literature in the curriculum. My favorite Russian writer is Alexander Pushkin.

We are different from the generation of 25-year-olds. We have more technology, information, and stress. I look at children younger than me, remember what I was like at their age, and realize I didn’t know the words they know and couldn’t do the things they are able to do. I think 25-year-olds think the same thing about us.

It is a pity the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a good time. I cannot say that people lived very badly then. After all, the country was developing its industries, and the factories were working. But now, when practically none of it is left, it is hard to recover.

If you believe the stories, films, and history lessons, the 1990s were a time of bandits. Money and connections reigned then, and there were many murders. I have nothing more to add.

My classmates and I mainly take about our classes at school and the events we have there. I discuss politics with Dad. He enjoys talking about it.

I am fine with the fact that Vladimir Putin has been in power so long. After all, for anything to change, something like fifteen to twenty years have to pass. If any reforms are taking place, they include plans for the future. Such reforms are taking place right now. Of course, there are downsides to Vladimir Vladimirovich’s policies, but they are not overwhelming.

Putin is a strong and worthy president for our country. In the current circumstances, another leader would have done worse or would have been crushed. But not Vladimir Vladimirovich. I respect him.

Masha, 16. Photography by Ivan Vanyutin
Masha, 16. Photograph by Ivan Vanyutin

I go to the Physical and Mathematical Lyceum, but I am in the socio-economic stream. I love social studies, history, and English, and mathematics, too. I hate physics and computer science.

I have also been studying German so that in the future I can go to university in Germany, a plan my parents have really been encouraging. I would not even think about leaving Russia were it not for them. I think students suffer in our country, and lecturers are not at all amenable to them. In Europe, on the contrary, they try to help and support students, and if they don’t get something, they explain it to them. I would like to work in the social sphere, for example, as a psychologist in some company, but for the time being it is just a dream.

My classmates and I often discuss the news, but not political news. Rather, we gab about what is happening in the world. And of course we gossip.

Throughout the day, I periodically log onto the social networks to reply to messages and read what friends have posted.  But now I have been conducting an experiment. I deleted my page on VKontakte, and I try to use the phone only in cases of real need. Then I started reading a book, and real life became more dynamic.

I read a lot, but I am rarely manage to read what I want. I spend a lot of time reading what is in the school curriculum. I have very little free time: every day there are tutoring sessions, extra classes, and evening courses. But when I get a free minute, I spend time with friends or alone, read, watch movies or play the guitar.

My parents and I have a tradition: we often watch TV series in the evening together, sometimes Russian series, sometimes American. But I don’t watch TV at all. There is simply no time for it.

I think people who lived in the Soviet Union had it very hard, simply because there was no freedom of choice. There were things you had to do, and things you could not do. Joseph Stalin was a very controversial person. Although maybe he was doing the best he could. I can believe this was what he thought.

I know that there was perestroika in the 1990s. According to Dad, things were very hard, because there lots of bandits.

I know quite a lot about current politics. My parents are ardently in the opposition. Since I was little, I have been hearing from them how bad Vladimir Putin is and how horrible Russia is.  Of course, I discount half of what they say, and I keep track of events in the country myself. I don’t like everything, of course, but I try to be nonjudgemental.

The accession of Crimea is one of the most significant political changes of recent times, of course. I think everything in Russia changed dramatically in the aftermath. Those two viewpoints: Crimea is ours or Crimea is not ours; I think everything went wrong then. One also immediately recalls Nemtsov’s murder. It is unclear why a leader of the Russian opposition was murdered on the street.

I have lots of thoughts about Putin. I said that Stalin, perhaps, had good intentions, but for some reason I am certain that Putin doesn’t have them. He says one thing, and then does the complete opposite, at least when it comes to fighting corruption. Corruption is well developed in Russia, but Putin tries not to do anything about it. There have also been reports (I don’t know whether they have been confirmed or not) that he has bought houses in Italy and Spain.

It is hard to imagine anyone else in Putin’s place, because he has been president my whole life. I even get a bit scared that he will never resign. Things are also complicated by the fact that I don’t see any other candidates for the job.

I am not sure that things will be better if someone takes his place. I think it depends not on the government, but on society itself. He has not just been sitting there for so many years. People have voted for him.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of The Village. See my previous posts in this occasional series on young people in Russia today and the moral panics generated around them by the media, politicians, and the public.

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