Kirill Rogov on Why You Shouldn’t Trust Russian “Public Opinion” Polls

One of my hobbies in recent years has been closely observing the development of Russia’s “pollocracy”—the proliferation of “public opinion” polling, media discussions of poll results, and the obvious ways in which this “mirror” has been held up to the actual Russian public to con it into believing it supports the country’s authoritarian regime and its policies with ever increasing wildness and fervor, even as other democratic venues for it to voice its opinion, such as free elections, grassroots organizations, and protest rallies, have been whittled away, hacked at or more or less outlawed (depending on the season and the concrete causes) by the regime, its security services, and the loyalist media. 

So I was amused, the other day, to read about yet another such “public opinion” poll. This one “showed” that over seventy-two percent of Petersburgers support Georgy Poltavchenko, the Putin-appointed nonentity currently warming the chair, in the city’s upcoming gubernatorial elections. Even more hilariously, this same poll claimed to have discovered that the “majority of respondents rated the campaign as calm, and not interfering with the usual lifestyle” of Petersburgers.

When I sent the “news” article about this goofy, cynical poll I had found to a local journalist friend of mine, he responded by complaining that he had been having a hard time explaining to colleagues and acquaintances in the West that “public opinion” polls attesting to the Russian public’s allegedly overwhelming support for Putin and his aggressive policies vis-a-vis Ukraine should be treated with a grain of salt, at very least. Why, he had asked, do people who otherwise think that Russia is not a free country have an almost religious faith in Kremlin-directed polls alleging fantastic levels of support for Putin? Doesn’t it occur to any of these otherwise skeptical people that there might be something fishy about the polls, how they are conducted, and the conditions (of unfreedom, rampant propaganda, fear-mongering, and coercion) in which they are conducted?

He also wondered whether I had translated anything on this topic, something he could use in his arguments with Western friends. I said that I hadn’t, but I immediately recalled the following column by liberal political analyst Kirill Rogov, published in December 2013 in Novaya Gazeta. Sadly, it has become only more relevant and timely over the intervening nine months.

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The Fiction of the “Backwards Man in the Street”
Kirill Rogov
December 3, 2013
www.novayagazeta.ru

Not a week goes by without a dreary discussion in the media of the results of yet another opinion poll showing the narrow-mindedness and conservatism of the majority of the Russian people.

The week before last, the discussion focused on a survey showing that most Russians support the repressive decrees of the “enraged printer”—the self-styled Russian Duma. Last week, poll results showing that around eighty percent of Russians believe enemies surround our country were eagerly paraphrased.

Week after week, like cold raindrops falling on the heads of the educated class, these surveys persuade it of the futility of striving for something better. They demoralize the opposition and plunge business and the liberal elite into depression. Pack your bags and turn out the lights!

In general, the past year of Russian history has been an excellent case study for political scientists, showing how authoritarian regimes buy time by tearing it, so to speak, from the clutches of history.

An explosive mixture of revolving political (and not only political) crackdowns, unbridled propaganda, and a series of skillfully organized public hysterias have spread the dark pollen of proto-fascism in the air, which has settled as a deep depression in the souls of the educated class. And those people who a year and a half ago were confident in their strength and rightness (“Who is the power here?”) walk around with heads sunk down to their collars and their pretty tails tucked between their legs.

Polls are an important part of the picture. They are the “naked sociological truth,” after all, and have a powerful effect on just those people who are able to resist the onslaught of fear, hysteria, and propaganda. It is not so easy to understand how sociological surveys are turned into a weapon of authoritarianism in its fight against society’s desire for progress.

But let us turn to facts no less naked than the polls themselves. The experience of the elections of 2011–2013 definitely implies that data about the political preferences of Russians, as reflected in the polls conducted by two of our leading pollsters, FOM and Levada Center, are regularly biased in favor of the authoritarian regime by at least ten to twelve percentage points. When purged of falsifications, voting results show that not sixty-five percent, but a little over fifty percent voted for Putin in the 2012 presidential election; not sixty percent, as the pollsters had it, but around forty-eight percent voted for Sobyanin in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race; and not fifty percent, but a little over thirty-five percent voted for United Russia in the 2011 parliamentary elections. This follows from both statistical calculations and the data collected from a fairly broad sample of monitored polling stations.

We will leave the conspiracy theories as to why this is so to the lowbrows. The non-conspiracy theories are more interesting. We can assume that the regular shift in the data comes from the fact that everyone involved in the process has a solid understanding of the “correct” result.

Simply put, they know that the majority is for Putin, Sobyanin, United Russia, and “everything bad.” As a result, people who do not support “everything bad” will be on average more likely to shy away from contact with sociologists.

Of course, there are firm “supporters” and “opponents” who express their opinions, regardless. There are, say, from fifteen to twenty percent of such people on each side. But between them is the “majority,” those people for whom politics is not a matter of daily reflection. For them, the most important thing is not even fear, as is sometimes suggested, but ordinary self-doubt and discomfort from the fact that their feelings do not coincide with the views of the “majority,” views of which they are aware in advance.

It is logical these people will be more likely to refrain from participating in polls. (The quasi-Duma, after all, has not yet issued regulations stipulating fines, suspension of driving licenses, and corrective labor for such evasiveness.) We can assume, as is likely, that they participate half as often as those whose opinion coincides with the “correct” view. (Such escapism, by the way, is quite typical not only of the uneducated but also of many educated people, whose awareness of the gap between their opinion and the “common” opinion provokes an irritated rejection of the entire public sphere and social scientists as well.) On average, this will mean, for example, that of twenty people “for Putin” and twenty “against” him, ten of those who are “for” him will agree to respond to sociologists, while only five of those who are “against” him will respond. Sociologists will come to the depressing and mathematically precise conclusion that two thirds of respondents support Putin.

Let me say it again. The majority of people, who are not very politically motivated and do not think a lot about politics, find it extremely uncomfortable to express an opinion that is not supported by “public esteem” and does not coincide with the opinion of the “majority.” This can be defined as the indirect effect of propaganda. The direct effect is when people reproduce what they have heard on TV. The indirect effect is when they do not express opinions that differ from those they hear from “authoritative sources.”

In polls on “hot” topics, this distorting effect should be even stronger. People are asked whether they think Pussy Riot should be punished, whether adoptions of Russian children by foreigners should be allowed, and whether we should feud with our enemies. But the truth is that the majority does not think anything at all about these topics. The values conflicts behind these questions are remote from these people’s lives, and all they can say about them is what they have heard from the same authoritative sources. Or they can avoid answering the questions.

This does not mean we should give up on sociology. On the contrary, we need more of it. Personally, polls are like bread, water, and air to me. We just need to understand that what sociology measures are not “thoughts” and “opinions,” but the echoes of thoughts and opinions. It finds out what clichés and ideologemes people use. Under pluralism, quantitative sociology usually works as follows: the mass media, politicians, and experts actively discuss two viewpoints on a topic, and sociologists go out into the “field” and measure which way the scales are tipping. Under authoritarianism, in which channels of public communications are monopolized, this mechanism stops working or, rather, its meaning changes. In this case, polls reflect not the balance of opinions, but the imbalance in communications—authoritarianism’s informational superiority in quantitative terms.

However, we should remember that the “common people” do not always “obey” the TV. Thus, on the issue of corruption and lawlessness, the opinion of seventy to eighty percent of respondents radically diverges from the TV’s opinion.

That is because this problem lies within the scope of their daily experiences. But the admissibility of self-expression on church altars, the international situation, and adoption regulations are complete abstractions, and the man in the street can only repeat what he has heard in passing. And we know what he has heard in passing. But this does not mean that the average person is willing to put up with all the other outrages of the regime.

The image of the “backwards man in the street” who supports “everything bad” is a fiction created by authoritarianism and is meant to justify its existence by suppressing the will of “dissenters” to resist. Not that this “backwardness” does not exist, but authoritarianism amplifies it several times over, simultaneously suppressing other overtones of public perceptions. The success of this technique, on the one hand, extends the life of authoritarianism, but on the other hand, it generates the mechanism of unpredictability that plays a key role in its subsequent downfall.

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 Photos courtesy of The Telegraph and Business Insider.

Victoria Lomasko: A Trip to Kyrgyzstan

A Trip to Kyrgyzstan
Victoria Lomasko
August 25, 2014
soglyadatay.livejournal.com

Kyrygzstan/Kirghizia

I had come to visit Bishkek Feminist Сollective SQ.

“Are there really feminists in Kirghizia?” my mom had wondered before I left.

On the way from the airport to Bishkek the collective’s leader, Selbi, corrected my speech several times.

“It’s not Kirghizia, but Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyz, not Kirghiz.”

In fact, the local Russians speak the way they are used to, and no one pays any mind to their use of “Kirghiz.” But when a Kyrgyz says it, it is insulting and even offensive. It means someone who is Russified and has forgotten the traditions of their people. Besides, the word “kirghiz” means “forbidden to enter.”

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Gusya, a member of Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ: “My parents told me that at school they were forbidden to speak Kyrgyz.”

“You don’t live in Kirghizia, but in the Soviet Union, one country for everyone,” Russian teachers would explain.

The majority of people in the capital of Kyrgyzstan still speak Russian. While I was in Bishkek, I heard from several Kyrgyz that Russians had symbolic capital, because they were seen as more cultured and educated. The local Russians I met said they were not the titular nation, and a glass ceiling inevitably awaited them in the civil service, for example. But they had not encountered serious harassment in daily life.

The Problem of Migration

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“How can you develop the country when half its population doesn’t live in it?”

I was invited to draw at the Mekendeshter Forum (“Compatriots” Forum), organized by the ex-President of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayeva. The forum dealt with the issue of emigration from the country. It was held in the spacious, beautifully designed Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University, which the Turks opened in Bishkek in 1997. On one side of the stage hung a large portrait of Ataturk; on the other side, an image of Manas, the Kyrgyz epic hero. The forum program included a separate discussion on cooperation between the “fraternal countries” of Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. Many Kyrgyz have in recent years preferred to go to work in Turkey. Several speakers emphasized that in Turkey, compared to Russia, there was much more respect for the Kyrgyz diaspora. The Islamization of Kyrgyzstan has accompanied Turkey’s growing influence.

Almost half the speakers at the forum spoke in Russian. There wasn’t a separate panel on cooperation with Russia, but the subject constantly came up, first of all, in connection with Kyrgyzstan’s possible accession to the Eurasian Customs Union.

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Woman on left: “Our government is promoting the interests of a foreign country and is prepared to restrict the freedoms of its own citizens.” Kyrgyz Prime Minister (at lectern): “It’s only an economic union.”

Many speakers criticized the decision.

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(in Kyrgyz) “The borders of the Customs Union are the borders of the Iron Curtain. Will we be turning our back on other countries?”

Will accession to the Customs Union impact the country’s domestic policies? Members of the Kyrgyz parliament are already pushing through bad imitations of Russian laws, for example, a law on “foreign agents,” almost identical to the Russian law, or introduction of criminal liability for disseminating information about LGBT. Moreover, the law would cover not only “propaganda among minors,” as in the Russia “18 and over” law.

During my stay in Bishkek, there was a scandal at a contemporary art show. In his Spider-Man series, the artist Chingiz had depicted a spider in Kyrgyz national headdress. He was immediately summoned to the GKNB (the State Committee on National Security, the local version of the FSB) and bombarded with threats on the Internet.

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Chingiz: “I’m threatened with violence for insulting the national heritage.”

Joining the Customs Union will make it easier to travel to Russia to work and increase emigration many times over. However, speakers at the forum said that Kyrgyzstan already suffered from a lack of specialists and, in some areas, just plain laborers.

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Ex-President Roza Otunbayeva: “There has been and will continue to be a growing demand for Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia.” 

You can find what Russian citizens have to say about Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Customs Union by doing a Google search. Most often, they are predictably outraged by “parasite wogs” or happy about “reunification of the Russian lands.” There are also a few liberal comments to the effect of “but somebody has to do the dirty work for us.”

Toi

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“The money earned by migrant workers is not spent on their children’s educations.”

Most often, the money earned by migrant workers is not spent on their own education, healthcare, buying real estate or starting a small business. Money earned over several years can be spent in a single month on a toi.

A toi is a celebration with plenty of refreshments. Its main difference from an ordinary holiday feast is that there must be so much food that the guests will not be able to eat it all and will take food home with them. When a circumcision is celebrated, guests come for a month. To do a toi at a wedding, a loan is taken out which is then paid back for years on end.

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The closing of the forum was held at the Supara Ethno Complex in the outskirts of Bishkek. The refreshments and alcohol never once ran low. The party ended around midnight. Guests took the leftover food home in special toi bags.

Feminism Kyrgyz Style

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Baktygul, Daria, and Meerim

These are Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan. Members of the group are between thirteen and seventeen years old. They are preparing to apply for a grant to the FRIDA Young Feminist Fund. If they get the grant, they will hold a manaschi contest for girls.

Manaschis are male reciters of the Epic of Manas. However, female reciters have recently emerged.

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Baktygul (reciting the Manas) and Daria

Baktygul, a member of the Girl Activists, is a manaschi. According to her, boys are specially trained, and their teachers serve as judges on reciting contest juries. Girls study on their own, and they have virtually no chance of winning at general competitions.

I asked the girls about ala kachuu, bride kidnapping. Two of them said their mothers had been kidnapped.

“It was a schooltime romance. My mom wanted to study, but she had to get married,” one of them said.

“My cousins in the twenty-first century kidnapped brides,” said Daria. “Four guys tried to kidnap my female cousin. She is very big, and she tried to fight them off. They could barely handle her.”

“Aren’t you afraid of being kidnapped?” I asked.

“No. There is a law. We’ll tell them, ‘Articles 154 and 155 of the Criminal Code. Do you want to get sent up for ten years?'”

The punishment was toughened in 2013. Previously, kidnappers of underage “brides” had faced three to five years in prison, but only a fine if the girl had turned seventeen. Two years of advocacy by the Women’s Support Center and Open Line, as well as the activism of women’s groups around the country, had led to the law’s amendment. Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ held one of the biggest protest actions in the campaign in downtown Bishkek. They planted 19,300 little flags. 9,800 flags stood for the number of women abducted in a single year. 2,000 white flags stood for the number of women raped during abduction, while 7,500 purple flags stood for the number of women who had reported domestic violence.

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Selbi (left) and Farida: “Girls stop being taken to Eid celebrations from the age of nine.”

This is Farida, a Dungan and a member of Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ. I visited her home during the Muslim festival of Eid, which takes place after Ramadan. Families stop taking girls along for holiday visits, because they begin serving at the celebrations by cooking and cleaning up after the numerous guests.

Dungan families are very large: several generations live together, and there is rigid hierarchy among members. The lives of girls and women are subordinated to the household. As a child, Farida was used to getting up at six in the morning to work in the house. She was not allowed to play with other children.

“The house was my only space,” she said.

Farida had to fight for the right to go to school. When she met the feminists and took up activism herself, pressure from family members was so strong she had to run away from home. Farida had been one of the main organizers of the flags rally.

After a year of living in the feminist community, Farida returned home. Influenced by her daughter, Farida’s mother, Sofia, had become interested in women’s rights and was able to change how things were done in their home.

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Farida’s younger sister Maria has free time. She can play with other children, draw, and go to school. Maria: “If a cat looks at someone who is eating, it can take his life.”

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“A week after giving birth, Dungan women go back to work in the fields.”

Young Kyrgyz women made the following comments about the drawing above.

“They have too much time off!”

“My grandmother gave birth in the field and just went on working.”

“Kyrgyz women are hardier!”

Hard female and child labor still persists in Kyrgyz villages.

“When they are six, children must think about providing for themselves. When they are nine, they have to earn money for textbooks and school uniforms. Teenagers are hired to pick raspberries and other berries. They work every day for ten hours.”

LGBT

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Officially, there are no LGBT in Kyrgyzstan. Homosexuality is permissible for Russians, but certainly not for Kyrgyz.

I visited the only LGBT club in Bishkek and, probably, in Kyrgyzstan. Nearly all the patrons were Kyrgyz. There were only a few female couples: lesbians are even more closeted in Kyrgyzstan than gays.

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As in Russia, beatings, rapes, and murders of gays, lesbians, and transgenders are widespread in Kyrgyzstan. After passage of the homophobic law in Russia, attacks on LGBT activists have become more frequent.

I talked to several patrons at the club, but I won’t write anything about them. Bishkek is a small city, and mentioning any particulars could be dangerous.

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“We are constantly faced with humiliation and insults. We can’t imagine how to go on living. How do we find a partner? How do we tell our parents? Or how do we make sure our parents don’t find out? How do we leave the club safely?

During debates about the law bill proposing criminal liability for “promoting” homosexuality, Kyrgyz MPs claimed they were standing together with Russia to protect the Eastern world against the Western world. Many middlebrows probably appreciate this stance. They don’t follow events in Russia and don’t know that if we allow the state to infringe on the rights of one social group, we are no longer able to stop the flood of laws censoring all areas of our lives. It would be sad if the same future awaits Kyrgyzstan’s nascent civil society.

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Recent publications in English by and about Victoria Lomasko:

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Victoria Lomasko (center) at a drawing workshop in Bishkek earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ Facebook page.

Why Is There No Anti-War Movement in Russia, or, What Craft Beer Would You Like with Your Kansas City Burger?

Russian leftist activist Ilya Budraitskis has given a quite eloquent answer to the first question, which you can (and should) read here. But these recent, seemingly irrelevant items from Russian urban lifestyle web site The Village seem more to the point.

beergeek

Beer Geek, a craft beer store, has opened in the courtyard at Rubinstein Street, 2/45 [in central Petersburg]. Both Russian and foreign beverages are sold there, including beverages from small experimental breweries.

The selection includes very bitter American-style ales, sour Belgian specialities, cherry beer, and much more. Twelve taps have been installed right in the wall to save bar space. The beer is predominantly poured for takeaway, but you can drink it right in the store if you like. Most of the varieties will cost 200 rubles per half liter [approx. 4 euros].

The owners of the place are Pyotr Gordeyev and Dmitry Evmenov. They have installed steps, rising towards the ceiling, on which you can sit or even lie down on the store’s small premises. Another interior design element is a cupboard with sliding drawers in which the bottles have been arranged as in a filing cabinet.

Source: The Village

[Petersburg's] third City Grill Express recently began operating at Rubinstein Street, 4. The owners had long intended to open the new place near Nevsky Prospect, and over the next few years they plan on launching four more burgernayas with the same name.

The menu feature around three dozen burgers, french fries, Idaho fries, and several kinds of beer, including cherry beer and house beer. City Grill has beef, pork, veal, chicken and turkey burgers, as well as a Kansas City Burger with mushroom filling. All dishes are cooked to order in the open kitchen. The average check is 300 rubles [approx. 6 euros].

The first City Grill Express opened at Griboyedov Canal, 20, in 2012. Previously, City Grill cooked and sold burgers in street carts for six years. The second diner has operated for more than a year at Vosstaniia, 1. The chain’s owner, Yevgeny Arkhipov, comes up with the recipes and names of the burgers and the interior designs.

Source: The Village

NB. Words and phrases highlighted in boldface, above, are specimens of Anglicisms, transliterated English or Rusglish in the original. Photo courtesy of The Village.

 

Anna Karpova: My Wedding Night

My Wedding Night
Anna Karpova
August 7, 2014
Snob.ru

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“And now, the newlyweds can seal their union with a kiss.”

Lyosha and I had long ago stopped listening to the young woman from the registry office and were already sealing our union.

I reluctantly let go of Lyosha’s hands so he could hug my parents and his parents. Our mothers were hiding faces moist with tears behind bouquets.

“Let’s leave the young people alone for a few minutes.”

Everyone left, closing the transparent door of the room where prisoners meet with lawyers. The guard peeked shyly through the glass, and the smell of fresh bread wafted in from the corridor: there is bakery on the first floor of Butyrka prison.

“You’re so cool when I touch you, so . . . real.”

“I love you very much.”

“I love you more.”

We didn’t talk much. We cuddled each other and winced at every rustle, afraid the guard would come in to take my husband away.

I clung to Lyosha as if it would slow down time.

“What should I do tonight when I leave and you stay here? How should I finish this day?”

I had been tormented by this question since we had set the date for the wedding.

“Go out with someone, but if you’re tired, go home to the cat.”

“And what will you do?”

Lyosha laughed.

“You all ordered me a festive meal, so I’m going to eat.”

There was a guilty knock at the door. A prison officer informed us our time was running out.

“When we get out of prison—I mean, when I get out—I will hold you for days on end.”

I cried and buried my head in Lyosha’s shoulder. My husband had been calm all this time.

“My heart is going to leap from chest now,” he suddenly said.

We embraced our parents and the staff from the Public Oversight Commission who had come to the jail to congratulate us. Thanks to them we have photos of the wedding ceremony. Lyosha was being led away—without handcuffs, but under guard.

Now I was going to leave the place, but Lyosha was staying here. A chill emanated from the walls, and behind me countless doors slammed shut. The sound was like the sound of a guillotine’s blade falling.

Now I was going to get out of there and bawl. I would not go out with anyone. I would not go home to the cat. I would sit down on the steps of the remand prison. Better yet, I would lie down on the steps, and I would wallow there until they let Lyosha go. The leaves would fall from the trees, then it would snow, then it would melt, and the branches on the trees would bud, but I would still be lying there, because my life was over.

Everything turned out exactly the opposite. Rather than lying down and dying, I came to life. Despite the period of mourning I had declared, the people who came were so sincerely happy for me that I started to feel happy for myself. I went out, and then I went home to the cat, and I wasn’t left alone for a minute, because everyone knew and understood I was horrified by the fact I didn’t know to how end this day.

At home, the first thing I did was hug Jean-Paul, the huge teddy bear that Lyosha had given me for my twenty-third birthday. If you pinch his paw, he says clever things. On the day of my wedding, he said, “Love means conceding the person you love is right when he’s wrong.”

I had imagined my wedding night differently. Anya, one of my future bridesmaids at my future, real wedding on the outside, was falling asleep on a nearby couch.

“Hey, what do I do with my ‘wedding’ dress? I was wearing it when the guard led my husband away down the corridors of Butyrka prison.”

“Nothing terrible happened today. I haven’t seen you so happy in a long time. Put that dress on more often.”

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Anna Karpova married antifascist activist Alexei (“Lyosha”) Gaskarov on August 6 in the Butyrka remand prison in Moscow. Tomorrow, August 18, Gaskarov is scheduled to be sentenced with the second group of defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case. Read his closing statement at their trial here. Images courtesy of Snob.ru and Gaskarov.info.

UPDATE. On August 18, Alexei Gaskarov was sentenced to three and half years in prison.

Vladimir Dukmasov: Two Stories and Four Pictures

Weed

Well, well, finally I am going to tell you about weed. It is going to be a long story. I have smoked weed for a while, nineteen years, but I am still not sick of it. What packages isn’t it sold in! It comes in paper bags and matchboxes, in plastic bags, baggies, and extra-large bags, in sacks and glasses. I knew a guy who sold it by the coffee cup. Smoking weed is good. I really like doing it. Oh how much of you I’ve smoked! Green and brown, fragrant and odorless, good and not so terrific. I once smoked weed that was colored pink. Yeah. Soviet Communist General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was still alive then. It was a legendary time. Look how many presidents, political systems and currencies have come and gone in Russkyland since then. But weed does not change. Its effect is consistent.

And I love smoking cigarettes. Yeah, tobacco. In the morning, it is nice to get up, drink a coffee, smoke a cigarette, then a joint, then another cigarette. It is also nice to smoke hashish, but it packs quite a punch, and it’s expensive.

I even traveled to Vladivostok to get weed. It was sometime in 1988 or 1989. Yeah. We got tickets and flew there. The Maritime Territory was a disappointment. The whole place is one big marsh with small hills poking out of it that are dotted with little groves of wispy, stunted oaks and some other trees. Vladivostok is also built on hills, Khrushchev-era apartment blocks and wooden houses interspersed. It was often drizzling. The city is small and somehow nasty. It has lots of criminals, fathers and sons of criminals, a whole generation of criminals. And, apparently, there are also lots of border guards and snitches. Some people there are quite vigilant: the border is nearby, and that is no joke. Vigilant border snitches populate half the city, while totally out of control criminals make up the other half. Real grenades (the most popular weapon there for some reason) are used in hand-to-hand combat. I did not see it personally, but I read in the local newspapers about several incidents involving grenades. During brawls in queues for beer, when settling matters after a fender bender, and just when they are on a binge, the fried local yokels toss grenades at each other, on those hills amid garden plots where pumpkins and melons grow. Garden plots molded from mud.

man sings

We set out traveling round the Maritime Territory in search of weed. But there was no weed coming our way, and that was that. We spent about two weeks on the road. In the villages, people were really intimidated for some reason: they communicated with us reluctantly and tried to disappear behind their rotten picket fences as fast as possible. Quite by accident we found ourselves in the village of Yaroslavka. A dirty, snotty and already stoned boy we met advised us where to look for weed. Shazam! And indeed, we found two bushes a meter high. They were half dried out and stripped of leaves, but we had found them. We were incredibly glad. The same boy explained to us that we had arrived late (it was the end of October) and everything had already been picked.

On the way back, adventures were not long in coming. Apparently, an evil spirit was tailing us. Maybe it was the spirit of weed. First, some strapping lads, about ten of them, gave us a good hiding in Yaroslavka. Then they dragged us into a hut, where they got us drunk on vodka and stoned on grass. They asked where we were from and whether we were fags. (Maybe there is a shortage of women in the Maritime Territory.) Learning we were from Peter and were not fags, they blew their tops and beat the crap out of us a second time. Then the whole mob ran off to fight somewhere else and abandoned us. We spent the night in that hut, and in the morning we set out for Vladivostok. A cop nabbed me at the tiny train station, the paint peeling from its walls. He was a gray-haired, wheezy man in an old uniform, but already sporting a baton. (Perestroika was beginning.)

“People don’t come here from Peter just like that,” said the cop. “There is nothing to do here, and no work, just weed. So you’ve come for the weed, too.”

He searched me but found nothing: I had hid the weed near the station ahead of time. He regretfully released me.

“I still know you came for the weed,” he muttered as I was leaving.

I exited the сop shop just as the train was arriving. My friends got in one car (they already had retrieved the goods), and I got in another. We sat down together once the train started moving. Three hours later we were back in Vladivostok. The trip was over before we noticed, because we had been noisily and merrily discussing our recent adventures.

We did not make any more trips to get weed. We had had enough. Besides, late autumn had somehow came on fast, the trees quickly turned yellow, and heavy rains began. Our money had run out. We went back home by train, which took seven days. Along the way we smoked everything we had, otherwise we would have gone crazy.

We got back to Peter in November. The awful year of 1989 (awful for me) was on its way, but more on that later. Neither my friends nor I ever made a trip for weed again. We realized it was much more economical just to buy it.

And another thing: weed gives you a kick, blows your mind, gives you a buzz, gets you high, shuts you down, turns you on, makes you giggle, and knocks you out.

trigeminal neuralgia

__________

Sosnovka

Sosnovka is this park in Petersburg. Lots of people are familiar with it. I don’t know why, but almost the only things that grow there are pines. In terms of size it is a bit larger than the Sea Gate neighborhood in NYC. Instead of the Hudson River, opposite Sosnovka is a huge L-shaped pond, and beyond it is the Pozitron military plant. Way back when, in my dissolute youth, I moonlighted there as some kind of stupid dryer operator after graduating from college. There are three more small ponds in the park. My first dog, which lived until the age of nine and died after eating some crap in the trash, is buried on one of those ponds.

My cousin’s husband helped me bury the dog. He later hung himself (but not because he was grief-stricken over the dog after the funeral). He hung himself either in 1989 or 1991–92, I don’t remember which. Anguish ate him up, you see. He hung himself in a kiosk that either he owned or where he worked as a vendor. The kiosk was not far from Sosnovka. I often strolled there with a tall, dark-haired woman. I strolled there alone as well, and I would pass through the park while running errands at all times of the day for many years, most of my life in fact.

My friend the loudmouth Ilyukha had a bike snatched there by several teenagers. Ilya was thirty-two then. I have known him for a long time. He is an asshole like me; only he is from Sverdlovsk and wears glasses. His wife left him, stranding him with their little son and two cars (a Lada and a Zaporozhets), and out of his mind. He lives with his mom and dad. I have been friends with him a long time. We even tried to fuck the same broad once. But I couldn’t go through with it, either because I was afraid or disgusted.

So one warm evening in May (or was it July?) Ilyukha borrowed an acquaintance’s bicycle and went riding in Sosnovka. He hadn’t gone a kilometer when out of nowhere teenagers, five or six of them, surrounded him and told him to hand over the bike. “I hadn’t even gotten up to speed,” Ilya says. (Oh, you goofball, I can imagine how you tried to get up to speed.) Ilyukha could not escape. There are ditches along both sides of the path, and pines and shrubs all round. Ilyukha himself knows judo. He abandoned the bike and ran from the teenagers into the white night, appetizingly chomping on old fallen boughs as he ran. That is the sort of judo we do in Sosnovka.

tunnel mouth

Vadik likes to walk there as well. He is more an acquaintance of mine, but he is Ilyukha’s age-old friend. Vadik is quite strong physically. He looks like Schwarzenegger, but dried up. He has homosexual leanings; he is gay, as they would say in NYC. Gay is gay, but the trouble is that our gay friend is mentally ill for real. He once beat up my friend at the guy’s birthday party and afterwards lay down in the doorway of the apartment and yelled out songs. That was why he was taken to the madhouse, putting up a huge fight in the process. (So I heard.) Vadik wanted to fuck me, but I somehow vanished in time. (This was at another party.)

Such was the pleasant company who all lived around Sosnovka. I have known the park for thirty-two years. I haven’t seen it for three years or so. Now it is probably covered in snow and lies in a damp fog, its streetlights ringed with yellow spots.

Nowadays I go strolling in Sea Gate. It is fall in New York: the trees are golden, and it is still warm, although it is early December. It smells of fall. Sea Gate is a small peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea. In the narrowest part of the peninsula a fence and police posts have been set up to keep out the miscreants. Ilyukha would not have had his bike snatched here: there are police everywhere, and you can get up to speed. The place is quiet and calm: you can hear the roar of the sea. But beyond the fence is Greater New York, a huge city chockablock with lunatics. Murderers, thieves, rapists, drug dealers, prostitutes, alcoholics, kidnappers, and just plain dirty characters live there. Normal people live there, too. Twenty-story slab-like residential buildings a nasty brown color amidst an enormous space built up with low, tiny houses and dotted with church spires and advertisements for all kinds of McBurgers.

This is Brooklyn. There are other stories here, for another time. But I am writing about Sosnovka, where maniacs also popped up from time to time. Some of them raped and murdered; others, on the contrary, murdered and raped. Only then did some rape minors, some raped old folks or just flashed their dicks from the bushes, not to mention the murders and robberies. The old mangy squirrels are the only ones who preserve memories of all this in their heads.

Ah, if I go back, I am going for a walk in Sosnovka. (It’s too bad I can’t have beer.) But only in the afternoon and without Vadik. Scary Sosnovka. Ghastly Brooklyn. The funny thing is that before this incident Ilyukha had for a whole year been praising bicycles for being safe from criminal sorts and the police. And Vadik had been into German philosophers.

The end.

November–December 1998

__________

Self portrait 80

Vladimir Dukmasov (1964–2008), an artist, was born in Leningrad, and lived in Petersburg and New York. He began drawing at the age of seventeen, went to medical school, made paintings and short stories, suffered, and dreamed. He liked reading and walking in his beloved Petersburg and New York. There were happy days and dark periods in his short life, during which he created over seventy paintings and numerous carved semiprecious stones.

These stories and paintings have been excerpted from a complete volume of his work that will soon be published by his family.

All images and texts © Luba Leontieva. Please contact her at luba105 [at] hotmail.com (writing “REPRINTS” in the subject line) for permission to republish them and to get more information about the forthcoming book.

Hanna Perekhoda: Freedom and Social Identity in the Donbas

Freedom and Social Identity
Hanna Perekhoda
August 11, 2014
OpenLeft.ru

don-1Donetsk. Photo from an album of the 1970s

The past is the locomotive that pulls the future. Sometimes it is someone else’s past to boot. You go backwards and see only what has already disappeared. And to get off the train you need a ticket. You hold it in your hands. But whom are you going to show it to?
—Victor Pelevin, The Yellow Arrow

I was born in Donetsk to a family in whose home there were two diplomas on the bookshelf: a factory furnace builder’s and an artist’s. The holders of these diplomas desperately tried to build their happiness on the ruins of a communism that might have been. But what seemed like temporary measures turned into permanent professions, and now my father is a taxi driver with years of experience, and my mom has been selling flowers for fifteen years. Earnings were laid away; I studied foreign languages, graduated from a lyceum, got into university in Kyiv, and then went to Europe to study. It is time, in my self-imposed exile, to reflect on where I come from and how to live with it.

The Donbas, where I lived for eighteen years and where my friends and family still live, has now borne the brunt of post-Soviet society’s collective hysteria. And so I feel all the consequences of the conflict that has broken out in my country and that rages in the hearts of many of my countrymen. Attempting to analyze what has happened is primarily a way of understanding myself, this flimsy construction of memories, desires, and ideas that threatens to crumble with each new surge of emotions.

In the most difficult moments of internal fragmentation and rethinking, I remember what French writer Amin Maalouf wrote on this subject in his essay “Deadly Identities”: “The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.” However, I have trouble with my identity, and finding its advantages and positive aspects is a matter of survival and mental health.

Today, the line between absurdity and reality has seamlessly disappeared for a long time to come, obviously, and one spends all one’s mental energy only on understanding the causes of what has happened. For example, why did the separatist movement turn from a marginal idea in the east of the country into the cause of a political and military conflict that has riveted the world’s attention for several months? Why does the line of fire run along the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions? What exactly does this line separate? Russia and Ukraine? Asia and Europe? The Soviet Union and the capitalist West? The best minds (and not only the best minds) in different countries have been strenuously and almost fruitlessly reflecting on these questions day after day, especially in Ukraine, for which the situation proved indecently unexpected. I won’t hidе the fact it was a surprise for me as well, and for all the people in Donetsk I know.

Donetsk is a city that had always lived comfortably without any ethnic identity. It is a city of immigrants, ex-prisoners, and a totally impoverished proletariat that owns nothing but the strength of its own hands. Its center was never a church or town hall, and for a long time no public square was provided in the city plan for assemblies or celebrations. The heart of Donetsk was the factory, something terrible, dangerous, and unpredictable, and at the same time necessary, generous, and paternal. The factory and the mine played the role of idols and taboos: they gave life and had the right to take it away.

don-2Donetsk. Coal ’75 Expo

Self-definition was based primarily on the principle of “private property,” which clearly divided the proletarianized city and the kulak villages long before these concepts were adopted by the Bolsheviks. The total opposites of the townspeople psychologically, culturally, and economically, the villagers spoke Ukrainian to boot. Few people nowadays know (and usually just deny the fact) that people who spoke Ukrainian had also inhabited the region. The reasons for this memory lapse largely lie in the policy of collectivization, “dizziness with success,” and the famine of 1932–1933. My great-grandmother, a resident of the village of Chicherino in the Donetsk region, was one of three survivors in a family of eleven children. The first time she talked about what she had been through was at the age of ninety, when she was finally convinced the hammer and sickle had been removed from the village council building for good and the yellow-and-blue flag had been hanging there for several years. It was already her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to whom she told her story. She talked about executions and cannibalism, finishing her story with the phrase, “If only Stalin had known.”

According to those whose children and parents had died of hunger, none of it would have happened if Stalin had known. It is quite scary to realize it is the regions that were most affected by the man-made famine that deny this crime most furiously. I am not willing to support Ukrainian politicians who claim it was a genocide of the Ukrainian people. The people who spoke Ukrainian back then did not always think of themselves as a nation, but they did feel the land belonged to them and they held onto it until the bitter end. My great-grandmother’s family suffered not because they spoke Ukrainian, but because they did not want to give up their patch of black earth and their cow. It was easier to nurture the new “Soviet” man on this scorched earth, and it was not hard to convince my grandfather to speak Russian and be ashamed of his uneducated mother, babbling in a dialect alien to the mighty country.

I was born to a Russian-speaking family, but I went to a Ukrainian-language school (then one of fifteen in a city of a million people) only because it was close to home. I never cease thanking the heavens that my teachers were people with “double” identities who gave us the ability to think critically and try on different “folk costumes.” Thanks to our history lessons, Bandera is not a dirty word to me, but nor is he a guiding light. I was never faced with the question of choosing heroes and ideals, because I felt my future should not and would not depend on my country’s past. And the issue of countries never came up. I always loved the Russia “we had lost,” while contemporary Russia mostly inspired pity and disgust, increasingly causing me to try on the Ukrainian embroidered blouse known as “it’s not much of a democracy, but it’s a democracy all the same,” because it obviously fit better.

don-3Donetsk. Photo from an album of the 1970s

While I was wearing embroidered blouses, speaking Russian in Lviv, studying French in Kyiv, and insisting on my proletarian background in the company of European students, life went on its own way in the Donbas. When revolution began in Ukraine, I once again actively reconstructed my identity, organizing fellow citizens to demonstrate outside a UN building in Geneva, giving fiery speeches about my love for Ukraine, feeling I was needed, and also feeling guilty towards those who were risking their lives for our country.

Then one day some Donetsk friends sent me a video. A column of several hundred people with foreign flags and shouting the name of a foreign country march down Ilyich Avenue, where I was born and where I went through more than one stage of socialization. A woman at a bus stop ostentatiously displays her Ukrainian passport, which the marchers snatch from the woman, violently insulting her in the process. I can use bare facts, surveys, and other data to analyze why this happened, but I cannot get my head around the fact that it happened on my street.

As a native of Donetsk, what has surprised me about this situation is the demand of the regions to grant them greater economic and cultural powers. Over many years, not counting the Kravchuk and Yushchenko administrations, the Donbas received unprecedented subsidies, since the Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk clans were in power. But the local bosses, who tirelessly chanted the mantra that Donbas money was going to feed the idlers in Lviv and Kyiv, pocketed the money. The region’s economy was totally controlled by the local authorities. What greater powers could there be to give? And to whom could they be given? To the same local bosses who all these twenty-three years, working like dogs, “raised the Donbas from its knees”?

They say each region should decide what language to speak and what heroes to honor. But in order to decentralize one fine day, it would be first necessary to centralize the country around a common cultural concept. Complaints about excessive Ukrainization of the region not only do not correspond to reality, but contradict it. Ukrainian was more exotic sounding than Arabic in Donetsk: I never heard anyone speaking Ukrainian on the streets there. No newspapers were published in the language, and the local TV stations did not broadcast in Ukrainian. To find the books I needed on Ukrainian literature, I had to order them from Kyiv. The last step to de-Ukrainization was removing the Ukrainian flags from government buildings, which were the few signs of Ukraine’s presence in its eastern lands. And the popular masses took this step to de-Ukrainization.

The Ukrainian project failed because it did not succeed in making the Donbas part of Ukraine over these twenty-three years. No unifying idea based on a vision of a common future, rather than on the historical legacy, on ethnic and linguistic identity, was found. So Ukraine lived for its heroic and tragic history of the struggle for freedom, while the Donbas was left to dream about returning to the Soviet Union.

don-4Donetsk. Photo from an album of the 1970s

The project of creating a “Soviet people” was a success in the Donbas, and now the hour has come to reap its fruits. The fact that the “Kyiv junta” is being warded off there with two iconic images simultaneously—those of Stalin and Christ—should not be taken seriously. They are merely symbols, shells, talismans, and amulets. People in the Donbas are motivated by the honest desire, which no one makes any bones about, to obey someone who can embody the image of the “father” (or batya, in the common parlance).

Whence this desire for a strong hand? Increasingly, journalists provide a simple explanation: it is all because mentally, physiologically, and almost genetically they are slaves, sovoks (homo Sovieticus), irrational, and uneducated besides. I find explanations like this unacceptable. They render this gap almost biologically insurmountable, and doom attempts to find common ground to failure before they start.

First of all, it is worth remembering this society had no experience of building horizontal social ties. This chance was first given in 1991, but the criminal clans quickly took advantage of it. They grabbed the “strong hand” baton, leaving behind, in terms of social welfare, the working people, who were totally out of their depth and utterly discouraged.

A government that controls nothing, but instead shifts responsibility to its citizens, is a weak government. For example, many people in Donetsk consider democracy a weak form of government. Why are the local housing authorities dysfunctional? Why are there no light bulbs in the stairwells of residential buildings? Because all that has multiplied like rabbits is democracy and freedom, they think. Freedom turned out to be something no one needed, because it was confused with the liberty to do what you want and survive as you can.

Thanks to the experience of living in a European country, I became aware of the inconsistencies in this understanding of freedom. I once had to explain to a Western classmate the perennial dilemma of our society: the question of whether order or freedom was more important. He saw such reflections as something out of the Middle Ages, because for many Europeans it is evident that the freedom of each citizen is the sole guarantee of order. Freedom of choice and democracy are, in fact, the mechanisms that enable society to control those it elects to leadership positions.

don-5Donetsk. Photo from an album of the 1970s

It seems the Donbas lived until 1991, and after that it only survived and was more like a terminally ill patient. It was not only high salaries that disappeared along with prosperity but also the meaning of life, which had been based on a belief in slogans about the invaluable contribution of miners and workers to building the bright communist future. And then it was gone: the privileges, the confidence in the future, and the pride in one’s work. Poverty is easy to manipulate, and the people who stated at every opportunity that “the Donbas feeds Ukraine” and that it “could not be brought to its knees” have secured a comfortable future for themselves at the expense of the region’s population, who live below the poverty line.

All these twenty-odd years, people of the Donbas who had been born in the Soviet Union recalled it with nostalgia, reviving only the good things in their memories. My mother often recalled how there was such delicious fatty milk every day in kindergarten, and how she had been paid a phenomenally high salary for frescoes depicting athletes and cosmonauts on the walls the Mariupol House of Young Pioneers. Even queues for dish sets and rugs, and then for sausage and bread, were recalled as something bright, as a symbol of the people’s unity amidst its misfortune. After all, almost everyone stood in queues for sausage, and those who did not stand in them avoided flaunting their wealth.

People are not looking for politicians who tell them uncomfortable truths. And the truth is that the coal industry has long been a loss-making dead end. The whole industrial structure of the Donbas has to be changed and the process of retraining the region begun: there are no other chances. It is not hard to guess that the population has preferred to be robbed, but consoled. In Orwell’s anti-utopia 1984, there is the following passage: “[Winston] knew in advance what O’Brien would say. That the Party [...] sought power because men in the mass were frail, cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves. That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better.” Maybe those born in the Donbas can fully sense the meaning of these lines.

The Soviet-era rhetoric came back pretty quickly, while the standard of living increased very slowly: the population contented itself with the myth of the good life more than the real thing. My neighbors on the landing spoke with pride of what a pretty stadium Rinat Akhmetov (the oligarch and “boss” of the Donbas) had built, and how nice it was that the European football championship was being held in our city. They were genuinely happy, although they had no way of buying a ticket to any of the matches and had no idea who had footed the bill for building stadiums they could only look at from afar.

All reputable political forces in the Donbas persistently promised one thing: union with Russia. No one dared promise a return to the Soviet Union, but the descriptions of Russia were exact copies of a landscape from the lost Soviet paradise. In this fairytale Russia, everyone was equal, loved the motherland and the supreme leader, despised the rotten West, and belonged to the Moscow Patriarchy of the Orthodox Church (the real patriarchy). But most importantly, everything was stable in Russia: there was a normal life there without shocks and unnecessary hassles. Well yes, there were parasites there, too, who scoffed at the government and the church, demanding some kind of freedom, but they were quickly isolated from normal healthy society, thank God.

don-6

Honest naïve citizens believed in this caricature of the Soviet Union. They took the flagrant mockery at face value and raised it on a pedestal as a national idea. This unimaginably grotesque amalgam of tsarism, Stalinism, National Bolshevism, Eurasianism, the cult of victory in World War Two, and Orthodoxy was crowned with the name of Putin, who subsequently betrayed the sincere faith of Donetsk’s people.

I am faced with a lot of questions. First, how will these deceived people go on living if the twenty year-old promises of the Russian world do not come true? Second, how will those who never believed in these fairytales live alongside them? How can I return to my hometown? After all, my age-mates, who once waited outside the entrance to my building to scare or insult me for the fun of it are now toting machine guns and having fun the adult way. Who knows when I will get answers to my questions, when I will be able to live at home and not travel in search of gracious hosts willing to shelter me. Who knows when my parents will again find work in desolated Donetsk, where no one takes a taxi nowadays, and flowers are bought only for funerals.

Identity comes at a high price to us. Thousands of people have been killed, and one of the reasons is so that more and more Russian-speaking people in the country can say with confidence, “We are Ukrainians,” not because we speak Ukrainian, but because we want to be free. People are not free if they do not want to know the truth and are comfortable living in ignorance. People who began to think become free. That is why I want Ukraine to become free in the search for truth, which often hurts the eyes, but cleanses the soul.

Hanna Perekhoda, a native of Donetsk, is a student at the University of Lausanne. Images courtesy of OpenLeft.ru.

 

The Root Beer Hall Putsch

Food-23-foodPhoto-861-serfburger

As their president makes as if to invade a neighboring country and his supporters show their true “anti-imperialist” colors, Petersburg’s creative class gets ready to quaff root beer and gnaw on cheeseburgers at Geek Picnic 2014:

Butcher 
serves the best American burgers in town, made ​​from fresh, quality ingredients.

Located on Kommendantsky Boulevard, they will soon be opening a branch at Salon (Bolshoi Kazachy Lane, 11). They deliver.

Representing Butcher [at Geek Picnic 2014] will be the favorites of Petersburgers, the best of the best athletes—the classic cheeseburger (Classy Cheese) and, in the lightweight category, the vegetarian burger with mushrooms (Veggie Trip). For beverages, guests will be offered homemade lemonade and root beer, a carbonated drink based on sassafras tree bark that is very popular in North America, but little known in our homeland.

source: Geek Picnic 2014