Monthly Archives: December 2012

That was the year that was

WordPress.com just sent us this 2012 annual report for our little wireless blog.

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Here’s an unintentionally hilarious excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 140,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

That’s right: in the coming year, we’re selling out seven times at the gentrifying above-mentioned center, but until then, read the complete report.

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Victoria Lomasko: “Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me”

Editor’s Note. It is no secret we think Victoria Lomasko is the best thing since sliced bread. And since Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco, Love and Rockets—you name it. In the past year, we have published translations of her graphic reportages from the Pussy Riot trial and the trial against the Golos Association, and without her drawings of migrant workers, last year’s “Against Slavery” issue of our newspaper would have been right-minded but lacking a human touch and compassionate eye. Don’t take our word for it, though. In recent weeks, the German edition of her book Forbidden Art, co-authored with Anton Nikolaev, has been published. She has also produced a stunning series of illustrated reports on the case of the slaves recently freed from a Moscow grocery store. (You can find the first six reports here in English translation, and all seven reports here in the original Russian.) Last but not least and hot off the presses is the new, fortieth number of the newspaper Volya, with Ms. Lomasko’s illustrated “Chronicles of Resistance” as its highlight. So we thought it wouldn’t be out of place to translate and publish this nearly year-old interview with her from Artguide magazine. Our thanks to Victoria Lomasko and Maria Kravtsova for their permission to publish the interview here.

Originally published (in Russian) in Artguide magazine on January 12, 2012. All illustrations courtesy of Ms. Lomasko, except where otherwise noted. An abridged version of this interview has been published on the n+1 web site.

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Victoria Lomasko:
“Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me”

We are confident textbooks on twenty-first-century art history will include, along with photographs by the best photojournalists of our time, the graphic reportages of artist VICTORIA LOMASKO. In recent years, Lomasko has been in the middle of the most controversial social and political events, and she has drawn the trials of members of the contemporary art community and social activists, mass protests, and life in the Russian provinces. Critic MARIA KRAVTSOVA quizzed the artist about her attitude to Russian Orthodox activists, her experiences interacting with law enforcement officials, leftist identity and corruption in the art scene, and her parents and teachers.

lomasko_portrait_chizhenkovVictoria Lomasko, with works from her and Anton Nikolaev’s series Tagansky Justice, at the exhibition of Kandinsky Prize nominees, 2010. Photo by Vlad Chizhenkov

 

Maria Kravtsova: Graphic reportages from courtrooms, grassroots protest actions, and sketches of provincial life are artist Victoria Lomasko’s calling cards. I have never understood how you hold up in the courtroom purely emotionally. In my view, the level of aggression at such events is through the roof.

 01_blagoslovenieVictoria Lomasko, drawing from the book Forbidden Art, 2011. Old woman: “Do you have blessing to draw?”

 

Victoria Lomasko: I become a different person when I start drawing. I am grateful to absolutely everyone portrayed in my works. For example, the old Orthodox women from the courthouse during the Forbidden Art trial, who sat in the corridor and told tall tales about the artist [Avdei] Ter-Oganyan: I listened carefully to every word and every detail, and examined their kerchiefs and skirts. At such moments, the excitement of the artist awakens in me, the excitement of someone who runs like a hound on someone’s trail without knowing how it will end. Maybe the hound is chasing a bear that will smack it down with one paw. But this excitement—or rather, the fact of finding an interesting topic—is overpowering.

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Victoria Lomasko, drawing from the book Forbidden Art, 2011. Old woman: “They’re a bunch of bums on a mission to discredit Russian Orthodoxy.” Priest: “This is only the beginning. We will sweep the unclean spirits from the face of the Russian land.”

 

МK: The aggression of the Orthodox activists, say, didn’t get on your nerves?

VL: Actually, it is easy to understand and pity these people. They are mainly old people who lived in one country, but ended up in another. Nearly all of them say they used to be true-believing communists, and some of them had even wanted to blow up churches. This man, for example, is a former communist. [Victoria shows me a drawing of an overweight middle-aged man with an icon on his chest.] He was a professional stonemason and restorer, and worked in the Kremlin, but then he was disabled and reduced to poverty. Now he travels the forests, restoring abandoned churches.

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Victoria Lomasko, “Orthodox Activist,” from the series Black Portraits, 2010. Caption: The stonemason Sergei. A former militant atheist, now a Russian Orthodox activist. Sergei: “The west wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.”

 

МK: I don’t want to exaggerate my personal experience, but I have difficulty accepting [Russian] leftists, whom I know mainly from the art scene. With a few exceptions, like you, what I see are not leftists, but what they call the bohemian bourgeois or gauche caviar, that is, people who espouse leftist values only verbally. What does the leftist idea mean for you?

VL: For me, the leftist idea is embodied in grassroots assistance; moreover, I’m a believer in pinpointed support. It’s hard to see how things will end when a global idea is deployed in real life, but at all times and under all regimes there are plenty of poor, disadvantaged people and plenty of injustices. I’d rather try and fix one specific injustice than sign onto a global project only formally.

And that is why I am really glad I met the human rights activists from the [Moscow] Center for Prison Reform. These people are focused on selflessly helping others, and compared to them I feel like a nasty bourgeois, doing “projects.” I travel with them to penal colonies for minors and see these human rights activists, most of whom are in their sixties and seventies, dragging seventy backpacks of humanitarian aid on their back, because when the boys and girls are released from the colonies they often have no street clothes. Human rights activists do this regularly, but few people know their names. However, many of the wards in the colonies need not only material, but also psychological support, which we are trying to give them—by, for example, giving drawing lessons, as I do.

04_studyVictoria Lomasko, “Life Drawing,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011

 

МK: There are two attitudes toward people in prison. Some believe they have only themselves to blame, while others believe that people who have committed crimes and are paying the penalty for them are victims of circumstance. As I understand it, you belong to the second group?

VL: I’m somewhere in the middle, because all cases are unique. For example, after learning certain details [of a particular case], you might feel disgust for a person, which in fact happened to me with one pupil at the girl’s colony. There are only three penal colonies for underage girls in Russia. While boys often commit violations out of foolishness and usually under the influence of alcohol, girls often experience more severe tragedies and commit more violent crimes. When you interact with such prisoners, a sense of revulsion often arises, and it is quite hard to overcome this feeling. On the other hand, even the Bible says you can condemn someone only if you understand what it is like to walk in his or her shoes. And the life circumstances of many young convicts are such that I’m not sure I could be honest and decent were I in their shoes. The worst thing is that when they get out of prison they return to the same vicious circle—alcoholic parents, violence and poverty—and there is no escape from this. As a result, they don’t have the psychological wherewithal, when they get out, to become normal, law-abiding people. They cannot find work, and so they either become dependent on their parents or, if that is not possible, they go back to stealing and robbing. And the state behaves meanly toward these people simply by failing to develop any program for rehabilitating them.

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Victoria Lomasko, “Cafeteria,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011

 

MK: Another aspect of your civic activism is coverage of rallies and protest actions. Do you think these are a waste of breath or in fact an effective tool for society to exert influence on the authorities?

VL: I think that protest rallies are concretely beneficial because the people who attend them can then plug into specific causes—protests against the demolition of architectural landmarks, injustices in the justice system, and so on. People have learned not to be silent. I also think it is necessary to go to court hearings. Judges have begun to feel public pressure: their faces are there for everyone to see, and they immediately become targets of caricatures and criticism. My personal arsenal of protests includes the trial against the administration of the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, which had illegally fired a number of teachers. As a result, the dismissed teachers were reinstated, while the rector got the boot. The trial was presided over by a good judge who took our side. In addition, several alumni and students drew in the courtroom, and the next day their graphic reportages were on the Internet. This was a real shock for the university administration. They had hoped no one would find out about the trial, that they would do their dirty work and get away with it. They blew a fuse when they saw how I was drawing them. “Who do you think you are?” they said to me, “How dare you draw us! We’ll expel you tomorrow!” And I thought, “Nothing will come of that: I graduated from the university a long time ago, and tomorrow the drawings will be in Advokatskaya gazeta and on Grani.ru!”

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Victoria Lomasko, Rally against Election Fraud. Sakharov Avenue, Moscow, December 24, 2011. Woman talking on phone: “All of Moscow is here.”

 

MK: By the way, what is your education?

VL: I was educated as a graphic artist. I graduated from the [Moscow State] University of Printing Arts, also known by its Soviet name, the Polygraph [Moscow Polygraphic Institute]. I had loved Soviet illustration since I was a kid, especially the work of Viktor Pivovarov, and I wanted to become a book illustrator. I loved Ilya Kabakov’s amazing book “The Magic Apple,” as well as, of course, the illustrations of Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vasiliev, though I later noticed their work was quite similar to the work of another favorite Soviet artist of mine, Henrik Valk. Although in fairness it should be noted that in his memoirs Vasiliev honestly admits they took Valk’s graphic works as a template. Valk was no fool himself and quite deliberately developed his images of Soviet life—of Soviet children, Soviet nature and Soviet technology. Vasiliev and Bulatov not only borrowed this set of pictorial clichés, but also, to some extent, took them to their logical conclusion.

05_evgenii

Victoria Lomasko, from the series Drawing LessonMozhaisk Juvenile Penal Colony, 2010. Yevgeny: “I take out my anger on the world by drawing.” Caption (lower left): Each drop is a grievance—it’s like rain. Caption (right panel): Yevgeny was a gambler: he was sent to the colony for breaking open a slot machine. He did not know how to draw and did not want to learn—he came to class to get things off his chest. Yevgeny always looked tense. He hated his surroundings and once said he wanted to kill. The skinhead Oleg took him down a peg: “Shut up. You don’t know what murder is.”

 

MK: How did your parents react to your idea of becoming an artist? Was it not clear to them that, with rare exceptions, it’s not a lucrative profession?

VL: I was not born yet (no one knew whether I would be a boy or a girl), but Dad was already insisting I would be a born artist. At the age of three, I was handed pencils and paints. My dad is a self-taught artist. He graduated from the ZNUI (People’s Correspondence University of the Arts). Moreover, he studied with the university’s founder, Mikhail Kriger, whom he visited at home and drank vodka with, and whose favorite student he was. But their relationship was simultaneously tragic: Dad did not understand Soviet art and socialist realism, but he did not know any other art and at the same time was always going off on tangents. So he decided to draw an iconostasis entitled “Madonna of the Century,” to portray modern women as Madonnas. Dad showed me his correspondence with Kriger on the topic. “What, have you perhaps lost your mind, Valentin Iosifovich! What Madonnas are you talking about? Look around, there are lovely Soviet female workers, women, in our country!” Plus, Dad never had the chance to show his work in Moscow or abroad. And I believe I have to make this up for him [through my own work].

06_rozanov

Victoria Lomasko, from the series Drawing LessonMozhaisk Juvenile Penal Colony, 2010. Oleg: “A swastika is encrypted in Raphael’s pictures.” Caption (left panel): He draws a lot. He has his own views on Renaissance masterpieces. Caption (right panel): Oleg is a skinhead. It all started when, at the age of eight, he witnessed the murder of a friend: teenagers from the Caucasus killed him to get hold of his telephone. At fourteen, Oleg organized a “fight club,” in which he was the youngest member. The fighters “staged flash mobs at Caucasian markets.” Oleg said that in his small provincial town, the population was divided into skinheads, people from the Caucasus, and suckers. He was convicted of a gang killing. He expected to be rewarded for his patriotism, not punished. Oleg has kept up his spirits in the penal colony: he has been studying foreign languages, philosophy, and economics. He dreams of becoming a politician: “Yanukovych’s convictions didn’t stop him from becoming president.” In the autumn, he was transferred to an adult penal colony.

 

МK: Most Polygraph graduates calmly work in design and don’t fret it.

VL: After graduation, I went through real stress: we’d been taught one thing, but life was quite different. I absolutely did not want to work in design, and there were no commissions for books I would have wanted to illustrate. I was lucky, however: almost immediately after university, I was hired as a staff illustrator for the magazine Ekspert, despite the fact that nowadays it’s the rare magazine that has illustrators on staff.

08_papaVictoria Lomasko, from the series Black Portraits. Gannushkin Psychiatric Hospital, 2010. Patient: “When Dad got hit by a trolleybus, my life became quite lonely.”

 

MK: Many young artists with whom I’ve spoken have noted how they are taught one thing, while the demands of our time are completely different. What is the training like for printing arts students?

VL: There were two kinds of professors: ones who were engaged and often completely insane, and the other kind, who had come to terms with the fact they needed to teach us to work as designers. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for the necessary preparatory courses I needed to get into the Polygraph, so I decided I would take classes in their night school. I enrolled and began commuting between Moscow and Serpukhov, but I really liked the classes, because in the night school they had amazing professors like Vladimir Petrovich Kosynkin, who fell into the first, “insane” category. He didn’t care about what was going on in the world, the so-called demands of the market and the modern world; he had kept on drawing, and drawing was what he taught us. The assignments he gave us were awesome—for example, he set up a still life that crawled out of the room and descended the stairs. You could pick any chunk of this giant indoor scene/still life and draw it sitting on the steps, in the classroom, on the floor in the hallway, wherever you wanted. He taught us various drawing techniques and told us lots of things about composition via the theories of Vladimir Favorsky, Natalia Goncharova, and other theorists of drawing and printmaking.

But then, at some point, the rector decided I had to transfer to the regular degree program since I was the best in my class. On the one hand, this was really great because I was able to get a dorm room, but on the other hand, the teachers in the regular program turned out to be the decadent kind. None of them drew anymore and all they wanted to talk about was design. “Come on, you silly girl, you’re going to be a designer anyway, so learn how to use a computer,” is what I’d hear from them constantly. While Kosynkin had showed us wonderful books—Kathe Kollowitz, Alexander Deineka, the artists of the group Thirteen—in the regular degree program, catalogues of western computer-generated illustrations, which I hate and still believe to be inferior to handmade drawings, were constantly foisted on us as examples. As I’ve already said, they didn’t teach us anything at all about contemporary art. Although at a certain point I had made friends with Anya Neizvestnova, who took me to the NCCA (National Centre For Contemporary Arts) and the Zverev Center, and showed and told me about another, contemporary and conceptual kind of art. At first, I didn’t understand anything at all, but I wanted to, and this impulse led me to [Joseph] Backstein’s school (ICA Moscow), where I began taking classes with Stas Shuripa. In the end, though, I was disappointed in this part of my education.

01_vina

Victoria Lomasko, “Found Guilty,” from her graphic reportage of the trial against the Golos Association, 2011. Judge: “[Its] guilt has been wholly proven insofar as the Golos Association published voter polls and its own research less than five days before the elections.”

 

MK: It’s strange to hear you say that, because I see that a lot of young artists, ICA students, simply adore Shuripa, quote him constantly, and practically idolize him.

VL: That is exactly what I didn’t like. He is entirely focused on his followers. If a person wants to do their own thing, Shuripa simply stops teaching them. He is very diplomatic: first he feels out potential followers to find out how willing they are to follow in his footsteps. At first, he liked me, as it were, but soon there was a rather unpleasant incident. I was getting ready for an exhibition in Sweden and came in to show him my work, which was a series of fantastical illustrations of what was going on in my life, these rather fairy tale-like, sweet drawings. He looked at them and said, “Yes, yes, these are pretty interesting, but there are too many allusions to the Soviet style. You need to redraw them exactly the same way, but so that part of the composition gets lost in the white space.” “Getting lost in the white space” is this western, European style I knew about without his telling me, and I had no idea why I should be emulating anyone. I refused to redraw them, and with that, my education was over. Like many other students, I continued going to class, but I was no longer in the loop. That is when I understood it wasn’t only the powers that be in our society who are divided into clans, but that these kinds of structures extend to all social strata. You have to attach yourself to a powerful person, create this quite particular relationship with the person and their milieu, manipulate and submit to manipulation, and never follow your heart.

02_sveika

Victoria Lomasko, “Seamstress,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011

 

MK: Yes, that is what happens if an artist is geared toward what they call a career, that is, toward being integrated into the artistic community, if they are interested in showing their work at galleries and museums, participating in various biennales, and fame, albeit relative, in the west. It seems to me you distance yourself from being that kind of career artist out of principle, or even that you reject this idea.

VL: I try to work only with people who like my work, people who understand it. So far, I have found people like this only in the west. My work has been shown at the Angoulême International Comics Festival and Arte Mare Bastia. I have some offers from western publishers, but I’m not ready just to draw comics. Andrei Erofeyev could support me here if he weren’t in a difficult spot himself. He actually loves the art he shows, which is a rare thing among curators today.

03_mahbuba

Victoria Lomasko, “The Store Clerk Makhbuba, Kazan Station,” a drawing for Chto Delat newspaper,  2011. Makhbuba: “We came to earn money and teach our children how to provide for their future. Just don’t write in your newspaper that we are ‘wogs.’”

 

MK: I have been observing you for a long time, especially the way you draw during street protests. You stand or walk through the crowd sketching in your notebook, even though what’s happening around you—the crowding, the riot cops, flares lighting up, shouting, rain and snow—could really get in your way. But you could easily simplify the procedure and make it safer by taking photos at events that interest you and then drawing from them later.

VL: I think that drawing from photographs is a way for fake artists or artists who have gone lazy. Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me. Photographs are a one-byte reality, whereas in my all drawings, time is layered, people come and go, the subject and the composition slowly emerge. I stand and wait for something interesting to start happening in the empty corner of my drawing, for people I find interesting to cross a bridge at the right angle. My role models are the artists from the Thirteen group, who talked about how an artist has to capture the flow of time. Just like a dancer dances to the music, an artist must draw to the tempo of what he sees.

04_terroristVictoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, “Terrorist. Psychiatric Hospital in Burashevo, Tver Region,” illustration for the book The Provinces, 2010. Courtesy of the artists. Nurse: “Why did you take hostages?” Patient: “There were voices in my head.”

 

MK: As an artist, you are nowadays primarily associated with political activism. How did you come to this? How did you find yourself in a courtroom with a sketchbook for the first time?

VL: At a certain point I felt like I was suffocating from loneliness and that I needed kindred spirits. Then Anton Nikolaev suddenly appeared in my life. I met him by accident and had no idea that he was an actionist, the stepsonof artist Oleg Kulik, and son of the famous cultural studies scholar Ludmila Bredikhina, that he collaborated with Voina. When we were getting to know each other, he told me he’d just gotten back from Rzhev, where he’d been filming a documentary. Then I watched all of his movies and just fell in love with them. The next time we saw each other, when he said, “I’m planning a new trip to the provinces. There’s room in the car, do you want to come?” I gladly agreed. We went to different towns a few times. I made sketches and Anton made captions to them that I really liked. The result was the book The Provinces.

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Victoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, illustration from the book The Provinces, 2010. Courtesy of the artists. Younger man: “Did you steal this from your wife?” Old man: “No, it’s all my own stuff, from the garden.”

 

After that, Nikolaev invited me to the trial of the organizers of the exhibition Forbidden Art, to draw the performance staged by the group Bombila, “A Fascist Beats Up Themis.” Honestly, I was appalled during the first court session. But after the second one, the Orthodox community had completely captured my imagination.

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Victoria Lomasko during the installation of her Walk On By Gallery show in a pedestrian underpass. Moscow, 2011. Photo by Maria Kravtsova

 

MK: You don’t collaborate with contemporary art galleries. Your work, however, can be seen not only in magazines and on the Internet, but also in very unusual places. I recently visited your solo exhibition for the Walk On By Gallery, in a pedestrian underpass in Moscow that functioned as a gallery for an hour.

VL: It was a gamble, and it was completely unclear how the audience—i.e., the pedestrians—would react.

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Walk On By Gallery exhibition in a pedestrian underpass. Moscow, 2011. Photo by Maria Kravtsova

 

MK: It was obvious from the get-go the police were going to show up and take everyone involved down to the station.

VL:  I told Alexei Knedlyakovsky, who organized the show, that the police would come, but he assured me he’d staged four events in this underpass already and the police had reacted calmly. But at my show there were posters that said, for example, “Let Us Free Russia from Putin,” and after seeing stuff like that they simply would have to take us in. Nonetheless, I have to say I was happy with the police’s reaction to my work, how they looked over the pieces and asked me to leave them some posters as keepsakes. I gave them a few with my autograph: “To so-and-so and so-and-so from Victoria Lomasko.” I am really inspired by authorities reacting this way. I’m not one of those people who believe all cops are beasts you have to hate and despise. I think artists should reach out to people from all segments of the population. I would even be quite glad to give a lecture on reportage comics to police officers.

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Victoria Lomasko, “Let Us Free Russia from Putin,” poster, 2011

 

MK: You also work as a curator. For example, you organized an exhibition of work by Argentine artists as part of curator Tatyana Volkova’s Freedom of Choice project at Proekt_Fabrika.

VL: I had never planned on becoming a curator, I just don’t like the situation described by the saying, “All the same old horses in the ring.” When you go to an exhibition and you don’t see anything new there, it’s all been online and in other shows. I wanted to push the boundaries. There are a lot of Latin American artists involved in civic life, who do systematic work in different segments of society. They don’t seek out themes they can exploit to make their career, but instead help people in prisons, migrant workers, the vulnerable and the poor. I’m very impressed by the fact that helping people is a mundane matter for them.

05_bazhanov_pokayanieVictoria Lomasko, illustration from Forbidden Art, 2011. Caption: One of the female Orthodox activists, an elderly woman who, it turned out, was well versed in nineteenth-century painting, had edifying discussions with NCCA director Leonid Bazhanov. Old woman: “Repent while you can!”

 

MK: Do you sell your work?

VL: So far, I haven’t sold a single piece.

MK: I meant something else. There are some artists who part with their work easily and others who can’t part even with a seemingly minor sketch.

VL: I’m in the second category.

Translated by Bela Shayevich and Chtodelat News

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krylov

Victoria Lomasko, “The Future Belongs to Them,” from her graphic reportage of the trial of artist/activist Dmitry Putenikhin (aka Matvei Krylov), 2011. Lawyer: “The future belongs to people like Dmitry Putenikhin.”

 

golovnyov

Victoria Lomasko, “United Russia Party Member Golovnyov,” sketch from a polling station in Khimki, 2011. Golovnyov: “I have portraits of Putin, Medvedev and me hanging in my garage.”

 

krapivna

Victoria Lomasko, “Heroes of Krapivna,” on-the-job sketches from the Krapivna state farm, for the Krapivna Newspaper, 2010

 

kolkhoznitsy

Subjects of Victoria Lomasko’s illustrated reportages holding the issue of the Krapivna Newspaper that tells their stories, 2010

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Filed under activism, contemporary art, interviews, protests, Russian society

Campaign Kazakhstan Takes Protest to Tony Blair (London, December 17, 1 p.m.)

blair-protest-flyer-1

Free all political prisoners!

Kazakhstan is a one man dictatorship. Workers across the country are paid starvation wages whilst a tiny minority become fabulously wealthy. When people stand up for their social, human, workers rights, they face vicious repression. Kazakhstan is constantly ranked amongst the lowest in the world for press freedom, human rights, but amongst the highest for corruption and embezzlement. Tony Blair has acted as an apologist for this regime, speaking on its behalf many times.

But this has not stopped people fighting back. The repression is met with a heroic fighback by many in Kazakhstan. Kazakh president Nazarbayev is preparing the way to become the next Mubarrak or Ben Ali.

Aron Atabek
Aron Atabek, a poet and dissident, has been imprisoned for 5 years now for supporting the struggle of residents of Shanrak. They were evicted with no offer of alternative accommodation. For the ‘crime’ of helping in negotiations with the authorities and the residents, Aron was sentenced to 18 years. He has been in solitary confinement for 2 years, denied access to his family. This is illegal under international law. We demand his immediate release, along with all those imprisoned as a result of the Shanrak struggle.

Vadim Kuramshin
Human rights activist and lawyer Vadim Kuramshin has recently been sentenced for 12 years in a retrial, after a jury threw out the charges a few months earlier. Getting rid of all pretense of a fair trial, neither Vadim nor his representatives were not allowed to attend.

Vadim is in prison simply because he is a throrn in the side of the regime, highlighting the many human rights abuses that occur throughout Kazakhstan. For more details on the campaign for Vadim, see our website below.

Who are Campaign Kazakhstan?
Campaign Kazakhstan fights for democratic, social and workers’ rights in Kazakhstan. Through its campaigning material and its web-site, it highlights the conditions facing workers there and organises international solidarity. Many trade union branches and human rights groups have supported Campaign Kazakhstan internationally. Paul Murphy MEP has raised the campaign’s demands in the European Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn MP, Alan Meale MP and Billy Bragg have all supported the campaign.

Campaign Kazakhstan appeals to human rights and press freedom organisations, trade unionists and all those who support democratic, social, worker and political rights in Kazakhstan to:

a) Add their names to the list of sponsors and supporters of the campaign
b) Send letters of protest about the denial of democratic rights in Kazakhstan
c) Spread the word about the situation in Kazakhstan
d) Join protests, lobbies and other campaigns
e) Make a donation through the website and ask your colleagues, family and friends to do the same

campaignkazakhstan.org

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Counterpunch
December 13, 2012
The World Bank Brings Nazarbayev University to Kazakhstan
by Allen Ruff and Steve Horn

A year ago, on Dec. 15, 2011,  Kazakhstan state security forces opened fire with U.S.-supplied weapons on oil workers on strike since the preceding May for increased wages and better conditions in the Caspian Sea company town of Zhanaozen. According to the official count, 15 workers died and upwards of 70 were wounded. Unofficial accounts reported much higher number of casualties.  Several hundred miles to the east in the capital, Astana, business went on as usual that day for the Western faculty members and administrators at the recently built multi-billion dollar Nazarbayev University, a joint venture involving the country’s authoritarian regime, the World Bank, and a number of major, primarily US “partnering” universities. This is the first of a three-part series, stimulated by news of the “Zhanaozen Massacre” and initial word of “global university” dealings in Kazakhstan.

Part One

A number of prestigious, primarily U.S.-based universities are quietly working with the authoritarian regime in  Kazakhstan under the dictatorial rule of the country’s “Leader for Life,” Nursultan Nazarbayev.

In a project largely shaped and brokered by the World Bank in 2009 and  2010, the regime sealed deals with some ten major U.S. and British universities and scientific research institutes. They’ve been tasked to design and guide the specialized colleges at the country’s newly constructed showcase university.

As a result, scores of academics have flocked to the resource rich, strategically located country four times the size of Texas. They remain there despite the fact that every major international human rights monitor has cited the Nazarbayev regime for its continuing abuse of  civil liberties and basic freedoms.

Kazakhstan now serves as a key hub for the application of the World Bank’s “knowledge bank” agenda, a vivid case study of the far-reaching nature of a corporate – and by extension, imperial – higher education agenda. . . .

Read the rest of the article here.

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Filed under activism, international affairs, open letters, manifestos, appeals, political repression, protests, trade unions

“If you want to live, you pay them” (Kopeisk Prison)

nplusonemag.com
3 December 2012

“If you want to live, you pay them”

On Saturday, November 24, 2012, hundreds of prisoners at Penal Colony No.6 in Kopeisk, Russia walked out onto the roofs of the prison with banners in order to protest the horrific conditions inside. The signs, some of them allegedly written in blood, plead for help. The protest led to a violent confrontation between the police and the prisoners’ relatives gathered outside the prison gates—the protest had been staged on a visitors’ day.

The following are three testimonies: the first a statement from Valeria Prikhodkina, a member of the Public Monitoring Committee of the Chelyabinsk region; next, a description of conditions inside Penal Colony No.6 from former inmate Mikhail Ermuraki, who was released in April 2012; and, finally, human rights activist Nikolai Shur’s interview with Russian independent news site slon.ru upon visiting the prison on Tuesday.

Valeria Prikhodkina

Public Monitoring Committee, Chelyabinsk

[Source: Bolshoi Gorod. Published November 25, 2012]

Saturday was visiting day at the prison. People started coming early in the morning, some having traveled long distances. All visitors were stopped at the prison gates without explanation. Something was going on inside. Suddenly, the riot police stormed into the prison along with other police forces and even fire trucks. The visiting relatives began to panic.

The inmates had organized a strike; they went out into the prison yard and refused to go back inside.

More relatives gathered at the gates. By evening, it seemed that military operations were underway inside the colony: you could hear screams, people were running on the roofs, and then prisoners hung out a sheet with the message “People, help us” written on it. Members of the Public Monitoring Committee arrived, but they were not admitted into the prison. After they left at around 23:00, a bloodbath began. The police beat the prisoners with sticks, indiscriminately and swinging wildly.

From among our colleagues, only Oksana Trufanova stayed. She met the prison warden and was told that the prisoners had captured the watchtower and that she would not be allowed inside. She went into the grounds as far as she could and then left when she found she could go no further. While we were talking to her on the phone, we suddenly heard screams and the line went dead. It turned out that the riot police had attacked the assembled crowd of relatives to disperse them. Oksana was hit on the head with a police club and she lost consciousness. I don’t know anything about the drunken young people they’re talking about in official reports. I think it’s just nonsense. Who visits prisons? Mothers, wives—they’d been standing at the shut prison gates in the cold since the morning.

This particular penal colony is, of course, problematic, and we tend to visit it more often than we do other places.

If you come to a prison and the prisoners don’t say anything or tell you everything’s fine, that’s no reason to believe that it’s a regular Young Pioneer summer camp. Prisoners only start speaking when they can’t take it anymore and believe it can’t get any worse. Apparently that’s what happened in Kopeisk.

We are currently reviewing the case of Nikolai Korovkin along with the prosecutor’s office. Investigators have kept themselves busy by refusing all our requests since June. We have a lot of evidence that he was simply beaten to death. The authorities claim he died of late stage AIDS. The problem with that story is that he only spent two months in the penal colony after his trial. So either something happened to him in prison or they sent a gravely ill man to the penal colony. We have found someone who witnessed the beating.

Another prisoner, Daniil Abakumov, when he wound up in a pretrial detention facility, disclosed details and wrote a statement. But then they sent him back to the colony. I can’t even talk about what happened to him after that, but there is video of his testimony online. We’re talking about extortion, beatings, rape—in a word, torture.

Why does all of this go on? They’re trying to shake the relatives down for money. I don’t know whether it’s for themselves or for the colony as whole. Prisons in Russia are being reformed right now, and the penal colonies are supposed to be outfitted to European standards. But they don’t have the money for it. And so the relatives are paying for everything from fans to game consoles. You want to be paroled? That will cost you. Do you want your son or husband to be safe from beatings? That will cost you.

There aren’t standard rates—they stop at nothing. Someone was bringing them desk lamps, someone else, toilets. And the relatives were the ones who took out the loans, who actually bought these toilets, in exchange for parole. Parents are constantly complaining that their children are completely eligible for parole but it is not being granted because they can’t afford to pay the authorities. They were extorting money from Korovkin as well.

There are rumors that if a prisoner complains, they break his hands. I don’t have any proof of this, but this kind of injury, fractured fingers, is very common in the Chelyabinsk region, and often ends in amputation. Especially in this colony, where there have been several cases. No one will say what happened. And what would you say if they broke your fingers?

Yes, this penal colony is mostly populated with “maximum security” inmates, repeat offenders. But the government admits that 30% of the incarcerated are there undeservedly, while in reality the number is even greater. As human rights advocates, we are not concerned about what people are in prison for. People are people. They have been convicted and sentenced to incarceration. No law legislates slave labor, humiliation, round-the-clock beatings and torturous conditions.

Mikhail Ermuraki 

Former Inmate at Kopeisk No. 6

[Source: Openspace.Ru. Published November 27, 2012]

When I left No. 6 on Monday evening it was still cordoned off. They had started letting buses in, but they weren’t letting cars in. There were a bunch of OMONvehicles. A bunch of traffic cops. The bloody sheets [the demands on the sheets were written in blood—Openspace.ru] that prisoners had written “People on the outside, help us!” had been removed from the barracks and towers yesterday, when the riot police had gone into the colony.

I’ll say this: it was reasonable people in No. 6 who organized themselves. They don’t want to be beaten. They decided they can’t take it anymore. They’ll either slit their wrists, commit suicide or go down swinging. This wasn’t an uprising, but a declaration of their rights. Around 6 PM Moscow time on Monday I got a call from the prison and was told that 250 people, including those who had been on the roof in Kopeisk over the weekend, were sent to the medical unit, and the majority of them had been made to stand in the yard naked. They stood there naked for no less than five hours, keeping in mind that on Monday, it was -9 degrees Celsius in Kopeisk. They weren’t allowed to drink or put on clothes.

When I was there, things like this happened as well. It’s a kind of torture. An hour into it, you want to go to the bathroom. You fidget and the guard will tell you to stand still. If you disobey, they drag you into the duty room, put you on the “stretcher” [which involves handcuffing the prisoner’s hands and feet to the bars as far apart as possible—Openspace.ru], start beating you and tell you that you’re so lawless, why are you breaking the code of conduct?

It’s especially horrible in No. 6. The guards take you to solitary confinement and practice on you like you’re a punching bag. They hit you anywhere, even in the balls. Until you’re foaming at the mouth — some people lose consciousness. They don’t care how old you are—20, 48, or 65. I went through this myself. I was released on April 4 of this year, and I went in for oral surgery on April 5 and again on April 10. The two oral surgeons could have wept. I opened up my mouth and told them I’d been walking around in this condition since March 24. My jaw was completely broken: they did that to me in prison. When I got out, I found the mothers of various other inmates and explained to them their sons didn’t write them for months because their hands had been broken.

One of the convicts, Korovkin was his last name, they killed him last summer because he refused to pay them. It goes like this: a new batch of prisoners arrives, and they find out what people’s financial situation is. God forbid they find out that your wife has a hair salon or that your mother-in-law runs a kiosk. Then the extortion begins.

If you want to live, you pay them. They charge 200, 300, 500 rubles. If you don’t pay, they pour chlorine on you, strip you naked, and throw you out into the yard where it’s -20 degrees Celsius. After four days of that, I got pneumonia. I filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office and got solitary for five days as a result. A day in, I lost my voice. Then my blood pressure dropped. Just then investigators from the prosecutor’s office came—I got lucky. They took me out of there to a [regular] cell and the prosecutor asked, “What’s going on here?” I just pulled up my t-shirt without saying a word. There were marks from the beatings on my body, seven stripes four centimeters wide and 12 to 36 centimeters long. They saw this, yelled at the prison authorities, but no one lost their jobs. The worst part is that they’re not letting any human rights advocates into the prison right now.

Nikolai Shur

Member of the regional public commission on prisoners’ rights, interviewed by Roman Dobrokhotov

[Source: Slon.ru. Published November 27, 2012].

Nikolai, today your group was finally allowed into the penal colony. Did you find evidence of violence there, beatings?

During the protest, there was no violence from either side. The prisoner’s protest was completely peaceful: they did not attack anyone. And they ended it of their own free will because they had achieved their goal: to draw the attention of the media, human rights advocates, and the prosecutor’s office to what was happening in the prison.

There had been reports of torture and beatings. Have you been able to confirm them?

Yes, beatings and torture were a regular occurrence in the prison on a mass scale. We were able to gather specific examples of this corroborated by photographic evidence and videotaped testimony, which we will present at a press conference tomorrow.

Were you allowed to see the solitary confinement cells?

Yes, we were allowed in everywhere. In the solitary confinement cells there is a man who has been on hunger strike since the 19th and is in critical condition. They are not allowing doctors in to see him, and today, he cut his veins in desperation. And that’s not the only such case.

What kind of torture goes on at this prison? 

Today, we heard stories of how inmates were given electric shocks. Bracelets are put on their legs to which a generator is hooked up. The generator is cranked up and the person is shocked.

Why do they do this?

For various reasons—mostly in order to extort money.

So you were also able to confirm instances of extortion?

Yes, in large numbers. It wasn’t just a handful or dozens of cases, but hundreds of cases: it really a mass phenomenon.

But the prisoners earn pennies—what can be extorted from them?

They make their relatives bring money or goods. There are a huge number of instances of this.

How much money do they ask for?

One inmate estimated that about a million rubles (about $32 K USD—Trans.) is taken from a unit (a unit contains between 100 and 150 prisoners) per month. Which is to say about 10 to 15 million rubles a month for the whole colony. However, these figures are only from one source: they need to be corroborated.

Your committee will continue to watch this penal colony since it’s highly likely that the administration will decide to get even with the prisoners for their protest.

Yes, the prison administration is just dreaming of this, but right now, they are more concerned with saving their skin than getting revenge.

Do you think they’ll manage to save their skins?

I really hope that everyone guilty will be punished, I sincerely hope for this. If you journalists continue to support us, we might have a chance. 

Translated by Bela Shayevich and Chtodelat News

Photo by Valeria Prikhodkina. Prisoners at Penal Colony No. 6 in Kopeisk holding a sign reading, “The Prison Administration Extorts $. Tortures and Humiliates Us.”

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Russia Riot Prison Dubbed ‘Hell’ by Kremlin Rights Council

[…]

Kremlin human rights council chief Mikhail Fedotov said Thursday a number of inmates had been held in isolation cells for “months or even years.”

“There was one man who could only crawl,” he added. “His legs didn’t work anymore after being kept in a punishment isolation cell for months.”

The disturbances made headlines across Russia and were the subject of intense online debate by the country’s increasingly politicized internet community. Police also made 12 arrests at a November 26 protest against torture in the Russian prison system outside the Moscow headquarters of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FCIN).

“The attention being paid to the abuse in Kopeisk is a great step forward for Russia and another sign that civil society has at last woken up,” veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov told RIA Novosti.

“Four prisoners were killed in this very same prison in 2008 and there was no attention paid to their deaths at all,” he added. “It was as if people thought then this was how things ought to be.”

Investigators have since filed assault charges against five inmates. One prison guard has also been charged with extortion.

“People who complained [about extortion] were beaten,” council member Igor Kalyapin said, adding that “a stream” of complaints to local officials about the alleged abuse had been ignored.

Chelyabinsk Region Governor Mikhail Yurevich said last month the riot was sparked by a “corrupt” system.

The council’s news conference came two days after deputy FCIN head Eduard Petrukhin admitted that attempted reforms of Russia’s prison system had been a “failure”.

More than 700,000 Russians are currently behind bars. Human rights activists frequently complain of sub-standard living conditions, torture, and disease in the country’s prisons.

[…]

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New York City Fast Food Workers on Strike!

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I serve fast food, and I’m striking for my family
A McDonald’s cashier explains why she walked off the job
by Linda Archer
New York Daily News
Sunday, December 2, 2012

This Black Friday, I wasn’t searching the shelves for deals. I was working the cash register at the McDonald’s on 42nd St. just off Broadway. And seeing all of those shoppers out buying gifts for their loved ones made me sad — because it reminded me that fast-food wages aren’t enough, even on the most deeply discounted day of the year.

I earn $8 an hour — which is more than many of my co-workers, who earn minimum wage — but it’s hardly enough to cover my rent and bills, much less leave anything for Christmas presents.

But more than that, the fix I’m in reveals a growing problem with New York City’s economy: that many of our city’s businesses aren’t paying their workers enough to be customers.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

That’s why on Thursday, I joined with hundreds of fast-food workers to walk off the job and call for wages we can afford to live on. For the first time ever, storefront staff at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other chains are coming together to demand $15 an hour and the right to form a union without interference.

At restaurants in Times Square, lower Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and throughout the city, we stepped out from behind the counter because we believe this city will be a better place when jobs pay enough for working people to meet basic needs. For that to happen, the highly profitable, $200 billion-a-year fast food industry (that’s in the U.S. alone), which employs 4 million Americans, has to change.

Fifteen dollars an hour would make a huge difference in my life. I’m 59 and have been working at McDonald’s for almost three years. When I started, they told me that we’d get a raise every six months. That hasn’t happened.

With more money, I could afford to go back to school. I could find a better apartment for me and my 80-year-old mother. I could pay my bills and buy Christmas presents.

I’m not alone. Some 50,000 New Yorkers are employed by fast-food chains as cashiers, janitors, storage clerks and cooks. The number of these low-wage food service jobs is growing as fast as any sector of our economy.

The state minimum wage is $7.25; according to official government statistics, the median hourly wage for New York food service and prep workers is $8.90 an hour. The stereotype is that most of those earning these paychecks are young people trying to get themselves through school or pay the cell phone bill.

That’s incorrect. We are people like Gregory, a 53-year-old KFC worker earning $8.20 an hour who hasn’t gotten a raise since 1998, and Joshua, 28, a stocker for Wendy’s earning $7.25 per hour and not getting enough hours to pay rent, school loans and support his newborn son.

We know change is possible. We’ve seen low-wage workers win victories before. Janitors and cafeteria workers who’ve come together by forming a union already make double what we do.

But in fast food, we’ve been stuck fending for ourselves. Some of our managers have even threatened to withhold pay unless employees sign statements promising not to ask for a raise. Another McDonald’s worker was suspended for trying to get his co-workers to sign a petition in support of our campaign.

We will not go away. I have high hopes that next Christmas, or a Christmas very soon, large fast-food chains will be paying enough so workers can give our loved ones the gifts they want, which will help give our city’s economy the growth it needs.

Archer works at McDonald’s and lives in the Bronx.

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Ukrainian Neo-Nazis Attack Presentation of Journal “Commons” in Ternopil

commons.com.ua

Neo-Nazis attack organizers at presentation of journal “Commons” in Ternopil
December 1, 2012

Ten neo-Nazis assaulted the four organizers of a presentation of the journal Spilne (“Commons”) on December 1 in Ternopil. Spilne is a journal of social critique whose new issue focuses on the subjects of class exploitation and class struggle.

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The presentation was scheduled for 1 p.m. at the regional history museum. At noon, however, the four organizers were attacked right in the museum by ten neo-Nazis, most of them football hooligans from FC Niva (Ternopil). Despite their numerical advantage, the attackers used pepper spray. One of the organizers was hit over the head with a chair and required stitches.

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It is known that the attack was organized by Igor “Juice” Kostyuk, a member of the far-right party Svoboda. Before the presentation, he had threatened the presentation’s organizers online and mobilized the local extreme right.

This was not the first neo-Nazi attack on critical thought in Ukraine. In particular, the extreme right had carried out physical attacks on the Visual Culture Research Center at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy National University and actively supported moves by the university administration to close the center, the most active venue for critical public scholarship in our country.

The presentation of Spilne was to have been purely educational in nature. The participants intended to discuss forms of abuse by employers (in particular, precarious employment), as well as what things are needed to empower workers and trade unions. “The Nazis thus showed their opposition to the people of Ternopil thinking critically, knowing more about free education, free labor and class exploitation, and taking a skeptical attitude toward myths about migration. It is symbolic that the extreme right now actually hinders the grassroots self-organization of workers and young people,” said Maxim, one of the organizers of the event. “Currently the extreme right can ‘persuade’ opponents only through violence. “

Police came to the scene of the crime and are now deciding whether to institute criminal proceedings.

After the incident, the presentation and discussion took place as planned.

This report is based on an article originally published on the web site gaslo.info.

UPDATE: According to the online Ternopil newspaper Doba, members of the far-right group Trizub (“Trident”) have assumed responsibility for the attack. They were, allegedly, thus protecting “the honor of God and country” (!) from “anti-Ukrainian scribbling.”

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Filed under critical thought, political repression, racism, nationalism, fascism