Category Archives: Russian society

Thatcher’s Britain and Putin’s Russia: Separated at Birth?

The Battle of Orgreave (June 18, 1984):

There were 95 miners arrested at Orgreave and prosecuted for riot, a charge that carried the potential for a long prison sentence up to a maximum of life. But a year later, on 17 July 1985, all 95 were acquitted. The prosecution withdrew, from the first trial of 15, after police gave unconvincing accounts in the witness box: it became clear that the miners had themselves been attacked by police on horses or with truncheons, and there was evidence that a police officer’s signature on a statement had been forged.

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The Battle of Bolotnaya Square (May 6, 2012):

According to a report by the newspaper Izvestiya, which cited a statement issued by the working group of the Presidential Human Rights Council: the events of May 6, 2012 on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow were provoked by the police and cannot legally be deemed to be riots. By the evening of Thursday, January 31, the statement had been signed by about half of the Council’s members. 

According to Izvestiya’s information, the statement had been signed by the journalists Leonid Parfenov and Ivan Zasursky, civil society activist Irina Khakamada, and head of the Russian Aid Foundation (Rusfond) Lev Ambinder. Having completed an investigation into the circumstances of the incidents at Bolotnaya, the human rights activists decided that the opposition protesters had been compelled to act the way they did. The statement calls for all the accused in the “Bolotnaya Case” to be released from custody. 

“Neither before nor since 6 May, have the police created such unbearable and provocative conditions for demonstrators,” the working group declared in their statement. Notably, the statement specifically drew on evidence provided by members of the Human Rights Council, who had been present at Bolotnaya as public observers. They stressed that the disorder arose as a result of the pressure caused by the huge police cordons, Lenta.ru noted. 

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In May, at Bolotnaya Square the “March of Millions” escalated into clashes between protesters and the police. At present, twelve people involved in a criminal case pertaining to the alleged riots are awaiting sentence in custody. Investigators want to send one of the alleged rioters for compulsory psychological treatment and another five are under house arrest. The only sentence in the case – 4.5 years in prison – was handed down in November against Maksim Luzyanin, who confessed to attacking the police. 

Previously, in May 2012, Federal Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin had declared that there had not been any rioting at Bolotnaya Square, but merely isolated clashes between demonstrators and police. In November, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group proposed that a public inquiry be held based on Lukin’s findings. But on January 30, 2013, it emerged that an independent group consisting of people opposed to the government had already interviewed around two hundred witnesses to the disturbances and presented this information to independent experts.

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Now check out the surprise ending:

Putin Decrees 2014 as Year of British Culture
09 April 2013
The Moscow Times

With an eye on further improving ties with Britain, President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree designating 2014 as the year of British culture in Russia.

The decree, which is aimed at fostering closer relations between the two countries, also calls for a celebration of Russian culture in Britain next year, the Kremlin said in a statement Tuesday.

The head of the organizing committee on the Russian side will be Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, Interfax reported. Committee members will include Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, Kremlin cultural aide Mikhail Shvydkoi, and the heads of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters and the Pushkin and Hermitage museums.

Relations between Russia and Britain have shown a revival in recent months after falling to a low point after Moscow’s refusal to extradite State Duma Deputy Andrei Lugavoi in connection to the 2006 poisoning death of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London.

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced in mid-March that Russia and Britain had agreed to set aside 2014 as a year to celebration of the other country’s culture.

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Photos courtesy of John Sturrock/Socialist Worker and politzeki.tumbler.com. Thanks to the invaluable Comrade Agata for the heads-up. Read her timely 2010 interview with artist Jeremy Deller, who re-enacted the Battle of Orgreave in 2001, here.

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Russia’s Political System Is “Overbearing,” or, One Day in the Life of Artyom Viktorovich

It turns out that for the past five years, at least, we’ve been looking at things the wrong way round. Distinguished Ghanaian-British writer and journalist Ekow Eshun and The Guardian have finally set us straight:

Two decades after the fall of communism, Russia remains a mystery to many foreigners. And from a distance, the country’s most visible aspects – showy oligarchs and an overbearing political system – hardly seem alluring.

But scratch the surface and a different story emerges. For the past year, I’ve been working with a London-based gallery to develop the Calvert Journal, an online guide to creative Russia. The journal is inspired by a generation of creative talent who are starting to remake the country in their own image.

You can feel their influence in Moscow and St Petersburg, where chic bars and restaurants and dynamic cultural centres are springing to life . . .

—Ekow Eshun, “How Russia’s creative revolution is changing the cultural landscape: Moscow, St Petersburg, and cities across Russia, are enjoying a creative boom that features design hubs, hotels, cafes and bars,” The Guardian, April 5, 2013

“Overbearing” is undoubtedly how political prisoner Artyom Savyolov, one of the twenty-seven people charged so far in connection with the so-called Bolotnaya Square Case, would describe the Russian political system:

There is nothing all much that is interesting [behind bars in the pretrial detention facility]. After the new year, I began reviewing “the case.” I do this five days a week, like I’m going to work. In the morning, I get up and drink tea, and then I’m taken to the case review. If I’m lead straight into the police investigator’s office, but he is late getting there, then I have a chance to read a book a little along with my fellow prisoners. Or first I might be taken to “assembly” (the place where prisoners are gathered before being sent to court, to investigators, etc.), and that’s also not bad.

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What is interesting is that despite ethnicity, what crimes people have been charged with, and age, people somehow support each other. Someone gives someone else advice about their case or makes a suggestion. If someone’s low on smokes or matches, people share theirs. Someone tells jokes and pokes fun, and everyone laughs. People get to know each other.

Until lunch, I review “the case.” It’s been a week since I managed to make them  take me for a lunch break [every day]. Then it’s back to the reviewing. By evening, I’m usually exhausted. There’s only time left to have tea with the lads, wash clothes or  do some other small things, and in the morning it all starts over again. 

Weekends, on the other hand, are like a holiday: I get to go for a stroll [in the prison yard] and chat with the lads with a clear head. We play dominoes with each other, with the losers paying in push-ups, and so on.

Sometimes I wish I were on a desert island. (The rules here prohibit leaving prisoners alone, and except for the cooler, it rarely, rarely happens that one gets to be alone.)

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I wish I were alone on an island with a box of soap and a case of vodka. I’d get washed up, belt out crazy wild songs, and walk for miles. I realize that’s not a very elegant wish, but it is a sincere one. Otherwise, my wishes are the most ordinary: to see loved ones and friends without prison bars between us, see how my apple trees are doing at the dacha without me, and lots of other, completely ordinary things.

They feed us okay: it’s just the ticket for Lent (laughs).

Communication [with the other prisoners] is normal: there are very few real evildoers here. Some have ended up here out of foolishness, while life somehow or another pushed others here. I like how at “assembly” one bloke compared  the “our country is a prison” situation with a line. You walk and walk the line, but sooner or later you stumble. If you’re lucky, you step to the right—and you stay on the outside. If you’re not lucky, you stumble or are pushed to the left—and you go to prison.

I’ve talked with lots of [other inmates], and many of them had thought, “I’m not planning on killing or stealing, so I’m the last person they’d send to jail.”

I want to close on a positive note. Everything that hasn’t killed us has only made us stronger. I’m alive and filled with cheerful anger, and that means we’ll battle our way through and everything will be okay!

“And only up high, next to the Royal gate, / Privy to mysteries, a child was crying / That homecoming is no one’s fate.” I read that somewhere and liked it.

P.S. This letter isn’t very cheerful, but in the future I promise to improve.

March 16, 2013

Artyom

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grani.ru

Artyom Savyolov Day
April 7, 2013

A campaign in support of the “prisoners of Bolotnaya Square” has kicked off in Moscow. On April 6, a rally took place in Pushkin Square. Starting on April 7, each subsequent day will be dedicated to one of the twenty-seven people accused in the case. The campaign will culminate in a large-scale protest action on the anniversary of the [May 6, 2012] events on Bolotnaya.

April 7 was dedicated to Artyom Savyolov. Activists told metro passengers and passersby about him.

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“The May 6 Case Is the Disgrace of the Putin Regime”

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Artyom Savyolov was arrested on June 9. Like most of the “Bolotnaya prisoners,” he has been charged under two articles of the Criminal Code: Article 212 (rioting) and Article 318 (violence against a government official). According to investigators, Savyolov shouted the slogan “Down with the police state!” and others, and grabbed a police officer by his arm and his bulletproof vest. A video recording clearly shows  that Artyom was on Bolotnaya Square for a mere three minutes. After being unwillingly pushed by the crowd past the police cordon, he was almost immediately detained.

Artyom has a severe stutter and is almost unable to speak. However, the claim that he was shouting slogans, recorded in the charge sheet of his administrative arrest [on May 6], has found its way into the criminal case against him.

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Photos of Artyom Savyolov and Artyom Savyolov Day courtesy of Grani.ru and Dmitry Borko. Thanks to Comrades Larry and Ilya for the respective heads-up.

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Mark Knopfler Is a True Friend of the Russian People

This is what everyone who is in Mark Knopfler’s position should do. Not “try and talk some sense” into fascist homophobes like Vitaly Milonov, as the otherwise admirable Stephen Fry recently did. Or “stand in solidarity” with political prisoners Pussy Riot on a Moscow concert stage, as Madonna did, all the while raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in concert fees. The first tack violates the old anti-fascist “no platform” rule, while the second does that, too, while also generating tons of buzz for the Milonovites. More important, it rewards the relatively well-off strata of the Russian urban populace, the people who can afford tickets to Madonna and Knopfler concerts and the like, who are in fact the real bulwark of Putinism (rather than some imaginary post-Soviet “conservative” provincial “grassroots” post-proletariat), at least (but only at least) insofar as these people have been mostly absent from the fight against Putinism or any of its manifestations. In fact, if nothing else, Knopfler’s one-man boycott of their cities might alert otherwise “blissfully” unaware Petersburgers and Muscovites to the recent prosecutorial raids against NGOs in the country, which have included not only (as Knopfler mentions in his statement) Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but hundreds of lesser organizations like the Finnish Institute in St. Petersburg, the Caritas Catholic charity’s support center for disabled children in the city, the Petersburg rights organizations Citizens Watch and Coming Out (Vykhod), as well as the NGO Development Center, the German-Russian Exchange, the Centre for Independent Social Research, the Institute for Information Freedom Development and the offices of the LGBT film festival Side by Side (to mention only a few), as well as branches of Alliance Française in several other major Russian cities.

We recently reflected, so to speak, on the odd news that Manifesta, the ultra-progressive European biennial of contemporary art, had chosen Petersburg—once the “cradle of three revolutions,” now a depressive semi-fascist dump ruled over by dreary officially titled bandits in bad suits who think that legislative homophobia and “Cossacks” are a terrific way of preventing their subject population from noticing the really obvious drawbacks in their continuing “governance” of the city—for its super-serious high-brow art hootenanny next year. Upon hearing this same news, Russian contemporary art curatorial doyenne Olga Sviblova commented, “[T]here’s no reason to get all stirred up about it being in St Petersburg. We have already spent 20 years living in a normal, free country, just the same as any others.” This is manifestly not the case, and it is only by pulling (temporarily, we hope) the plug on their supply of entertainment and cultural labor that people outside Russia who are in a position to do so can show real solidarity with Russian political prisoners, local NGOs, and other people and groups targeted by the Putinist police state.

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www.markknopfler.com

Russia dates cancelled

Thursday – Apr 04, 2013

Mark’s June 7 show in Moscow and June 8 date in St. Petersburg have been cancelled. Ticket holders should contact their point of purchase for refunds.

Please see Mark’s official statement below:

Given the crackdown by Russian authorities on groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I have regretfully decided to cancel my upcoming concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg in June. I have always loved playing in Russia and have great affection for the country and the people. I hope the current climate will change soon.

MK

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The Cradle of Three Revolutions and Russia’s Cultural Capital Bids Farewell to Freedom of Assembly

www.fontanka.ru

Poltavchenko has banned demonstrations on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Isaac’s Square and Palace Square

March 20, 2013

St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko has signed amendments to the law on rallies and demonstrations. The document was signed on March 19 and published on the official website today.

Under the amendments, Nevsky Prospekt, St. Isaac’s Square, and Palace Square will be closed to mass protest actions. It is also prohibited to hold a rally at a distance of 50 meters from buildings where government offices are located.

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On February 20, the Legislative Assembly adopted en bloc amendments to the Law “On Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Marches and Pickets in St. Petersburg,” and the same day submitted them for the Governor to sign.

“This Law of St. Petersburg will enter into force ten days after its publication,” the statement reads.

Photo: Fontanka River, St. Petersburg, March 17, 2013. Courtesy of Chtodelat News

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Valentin Urusov Released from Prison!

www.ituc-csi.org

Russian Trade Union leader Valentin Urusov Released from Prison

15 March 2013. The ITUC has welcomed the release of Russian trade union leader Valentin Urusov from prison today. In early 2008 Urusov, a miner and trade union leader, was detained by the authorities, alleging narcotics possession. However, his arrest coincided suspiciously with preparations for a protest rally by workers at the state-owned Alrosa diamond mining company – a rally which Urusov helped organise. He was sentenced to six years in a penal colony.

Urusov’s case was reported in a complaint to the ILO by the Confederation of Labour of Russia (KTR), supported by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia, the ITUC, and global union federations IUF and IndustriAll. In a November 2012 report, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association explicitly requested his release. Earlier this month a district court decided to replace the rest of his prison term by an ongoing sequestration of 15% of his salary.

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said “We welcome the release of Valentin Urusov, whom the international trade union movement has strongly supported during his time in prison. The release was result of the KTR campaign, supported by the combined efforts of the national and international trade union movement and the work of the ILO. It is a positive step that Russia has responded by implementing the ILO’s recommendations. We should not forget however the circumstances of his imprisonment, and the ITUC will continue supporting the KTR in demanding reconsideration of his case. All the charges against him must be withdrawn”.

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seansrussiablog.org

Good news from Russia is a rarity. But today is one of the those rare days. After four and a half years in prison on fabricated charges, the labor activist Valentin Urusov has been released. His release comes ten days after a Khangalssk district court decision. According to Andrei Demidov, the deputy director of Collective Action, Urusov plans to continue his work as a labor and human rights organizer.

Congratulations to Urusov, his family, and all those who tirelessly agitated for his freedom!

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Mattia Gallo: Interview with a Russian Comrade

The following interview with our comrade Ilya Matveev was made by Mattia Gallo and originally published in Italian as “La Russia ai tempi di Occupy.” Our thanks to her and Ilya for their permission to republish it in English here.

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What is the Russian Socialist Movement? When were you founded? Who are its members?

The Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) is the product of a merger between two far-left groups: Vpered (Forward) and Socialist Resistance. It was founded in March 2011. Both groups were heirs to the Trotskyist tradition. Vpered was affiliated with the Mandelist USFI. However, the RSM is not explicitly Trotskyist: it was modeled as a broad leftist force capable of uniting the non-sectarian far left into the nucleus of a future radical mass party. In part, it was modeled on the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), although obviously on a smaller scale.

Currently, we have several organizations in different Russian cities. The largest RSM groups are in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kaluga. We have a smaller presence in Novosibirsk, Samara, and other places, as well as an affiliated group in Perm. Overall, we have some two hundred to three hundred members.

The Kaluga group is probably the strongest and most coherent. There is an industrial cluster in this city, and it harbors a rare thing in Russia, an independent trade union, in this case, a local of the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (the ITUA, which is also present in Petersburg and the Petersburg area). Our members in Kaluga are union organizers, autoworkers, and radical youth. The RSM have taken part in strikes and in worker self-organization in Kaluga. In Petersburg, RSM also consists of union workers and activists, but its ranks also include radical intellectuals and artists. In Moscow, the RSM is mostly made up of intellectuals, and it has become increasingly popular in radical artistic circles.

Generally, despite some internal problems, RSM is slowly becoming a rallying point for the radical left in Russia, due to its open, non-sectarian character and strong intellectual foundations. We try and play a role in the trade union movement and various social movements, to bring radical politics into these milieux, not, however in typical sectarian “entryist” fashion, but by really working with people, talking to them, getting to know them. We are also working on developing a coherent leftist theory for our situation. Obviously, our success is limited, but at least that is what we recognize as our goal.

In today’s very difficult circumstances, the RSM is very much focused on defending political prisoners in Russia. One of them, Konstantin Lebedev, is a member of our organization. Another RSM member, Filipp Dolbunov (Galtsov), is currently seeking political asylum in Ukraine. The RSM is a driving force behind the international solidarity campaign against political persecution in Russia.

Apart from that major concern, we also work with independent unions and social movements, especially against neoliberal policies in education and health care, and in the environmental and feminist movements, as well as the anti-fascist movement. We organize various cultural activities, in part through our affiliated independent publisher, the Free Marxist Press. We publish a newspaper called the Socialist, and run a web site

When and how did Occupy Moscow begin? What things happened in Moscow? What demands did its activists make, and what difficulties did they face?

On May 6, 2012, a mass opposition rally in Moscow was brutally dispersed by riot police. The police violence was unprecedented, and in a twisted Stalinist move our government afterwards started arresting people for taking part in a “riot,” thus setting the stage for a latter political show trial. Still, after the events at the rally, a minority of the marchers, around a thousand people, refused to go home and began a game of “catch me if you can” with the police on the streets of Moscow. This group of protesters moved around the city, trying to outmaneuver the police. This lasted for two or three days. Finally, the group settled in a kind of permanent camp near the monument to the Kazakh poet Abay on a small square in downtown Moscow. People kept coming, and the police didn’t disperse the camp, probably because the new protest tactics disoriented them. That is how Occupy Moscow or Occupy Abay began.

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It should be noted that some leftist activists had tried to import Occupy tactics before these events, organizing small “assemblies.” The Spanish Indignados and the American OWS were of course important and inspiring for us. However, we didn’t really believe something like that could happen in Moscow—and yet it happened.

Occupy Abay was an OWS-style camp on a small square, with a thousand to two thousand people in attendance daily, and some fifty to a hundred people staying on site in sleeping bags overnight. It was such a fresh experience of self-organization beyond traditional leftist and social scenes! Leftists, including RSM members, and anarchists were truly energized by what was happening right before their eyes. Leftist activists grouped in a European-style “info point” on the square with literature and leaflets. We organized a series of workshops for camp participants on unions, social movements, and leftist politics. The RSM began publishing a daily Occupy Abay leaflet, which quickly became a kind of official newspaper for the camp. Other self-organized activities included a kitchen and cleaning shifts. The square was so immaculately clean that the authorities had to fabricate evidence to present the camp as a nuisance to the neighborhood. However, the most important self-organized activity was the general assembly.

From the beginning, there was tension in the camp (just as in the Russian protest movement as a whole) between rank-and-file participants and self-proclaimed “leaders.” Some established opposition personalities tried to name one person “governor” of the camp, but of course the people ignored them. The left presented an alternative—participatory democracy in the form of the general assembly. The process was very difficult in the beginning, but eventually the assembly became the real voice of the camp. The climax of this self-governing process was, perhaps, an episode during the final hours of the camp’s existence, when the police ordered people to go home. Opposition leaders asked to speak to the crowd. But they had to wait their turn in a queue, just like other regular participants. When their turn came, they made their case—to comply with police orders—but the assembly rejected their proposal. In retrospect, it was the correct decision, since the police didn’t disperse the camp for another day.

The whole history of Occupy Abay/Occupy Barrikadnaya/Occupy Arbat (the last two are subsequent names for Occupy Moscow, reflecting the sites it briefly occupied after Abay was broken up) didn’t last more than several days, but it was an incredibly rich period of improvisation, self-organization, political struggle, and agitation. It injected the ideas of participatory democracy and horizontal structures into the protest movement, which had almost completely lacked such ideas before. We are still reflecting on the political and social significance of this event.

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The major difference between Occupy Moscow and OWS, the Indignados, etc., is that the Moscow camp was not leftist as a whole. It wasn’t organized around social issues; rather, it was the temporary form that the opposition movement in Russia, mostly liberal, took in Moscow in May 2012. Therefore, the participants were not only leftists, but also liberals, even people from the far right (which was rather humble and didn’t cause trouble, being in a weak political position). However, only the left in Russia practices self-organization, self-government, and participatory democracy. Therefore, the left quickly became an essential force driving the camp and its activities.

Talking about civil liberties in Russia, the Pussy Riot case and the anti-gay laws enacted in several Russian regions and now proposed in the national parliament are emblematic in the eyes of the world. You wrote an article last November, “A Police Story (What Happened to Filipp Dolbunov),” about a Russian student abducted by the police. Can you tell us what happened? What is your analysis of civil liberties in Russia?

Well, I wrote about a specific case of police repression against one activist. Currently Filipp, who is my comrade, is seeking political asylum. He is in Ukraine, but this country isn’t safe for him, as the case of another activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, shows: Leonid was kidnapped in Kyiv by Russian security forces, tortured, and brought back to Moscow.

The situation with civil liberties in Russia is outrageous and rapidly becoming more and more catastrophic. More than twenty people are awaiting trial for taking part in the May 6 “riot” (i.e., the brutal attack on a legal, sanctioned rally by riot police). Most of them are in jail. Hundreds of detectives are working day and night to conjure a case out of nothing. One of the arrested confessed and was sent to prison for four and half years. On January 17, while facing similar charges and imminent deportation from the Netherlands back to Russia, Alexander Dolmatov took his own life.

The police have merged the May 6 “riot” case with the Sergei Udaltsov case. Udaltsov is one of the few public opposition leaders from the left. He has been charged with “organizing the unrest” on ”evidence” presented to the entire country during a special broadcast on Russian state-controlled TV. Udaltsov and two other people, one of them, Konstantin Lebedev, an RSM member, are now accused of being the “organizers” of the “riot” that took place on May 6. There is an endless chain of fabricated evidence and trumped-up charges that is directed against the Russian opposition, but mainly the left.

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I was on Bolotnaya: arrest me!

Another group that suffers disproportionately from state repression are anti-fascists. Some of them have been sentenced to prison, while others have been arrested and awaiting trial for months on end.

Please read our appeal for solidarity to learn the details about the recent crackdown in Russia. The RSM and other left groups are in desperate need of solidarity, so any actions of support are most welcome.

Another article of yours, “The ‘Welfare’ State Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This,” talks about the situation of the “welfare state,” a term that in Italian and Russian translates to the “social state.” What is your analysis in this article? What are the social and economic problems in your country?

My basic point in this article is that Russia is not a welfare state, despite the fact that it’s called a “social state” in the Constitution. It lacks a minimum wage (which is set below official subsistence level, i.e., this minimum wage is not enough to avoid dying from starvation). Strikes are almost completely prohibited. The situation with housing, education, health care, childcare, science, and cultural institutions is scandalous, and it’s getting worse day by day.

Even though we now have more than 130 dollar billionaires and one of the world’s largest money reserves, teachers and university professors in some Russian regions are paid the equivalent of 150-250 euros a month, just like doctors and other public employees. Wealth inequality, according to some sources, is the greatest in the world.

Oil and gas-driven growth has not brought prosperity or a meaningful economic future to Russia. It is a country ruled by a parasitic, uncontrollable elite. And their answer to all problems is more neoliberalism, more deregulation. They are currently implementing neoliberal reforms in education, health care, and science and culture, just like in Europe. For example, schoolteachers are forced to compete for wage bonuses, just as schools are forced to compete for pupils. This deliberate introduction of market logic in fields completely alien to it, such as education, health care, and culture, is a basic sign of neoliberalism. And the result is European-style “budget cuts” in a situation where there’s nothing to cut to begin with. The social, scientific, and cultural institutions of the Soviet state are in shambles, and now they are being terrorized yet again by this new neoliberal assault.

What are the problems of universities in Russia? Is the education system under attack by neoliberal policies undertaken by the Putin government? What are the main changes and differences between the education systems in USSR and Russia today?

University teachers have been underpaid for decades in Russia. Average wages are 200-500 euros per month even for those who have degrees. In general, the share of educational spending in the federal budget is very low both in absolute and relative terms. Education amounts to about 4.5 percent of Russian GDP, lower than the OECD average—despite the fact that it needs to be rebuilt, not just maintained.

Another problem is university bureaucracy. The institutions of collegial self-government and university autonomy do not function. Both professors and students are subjugated to the will of the administration.

Some problems, such as the lack of autonomy, are inherited from the USSR; some are new.

For example, the authorities have embarked on a program of university reform. It is basically a neoliberal policy, which identifies “ineffective” institutions of higher learning and closes them or merges them with others. Students, professors, and society as a whole have no say in this.

Still, there are some encouraging signs. The atmosphere in Russia has changed since the protests began in 2011. It is not such an apathetic, depoliticized society as before. And university staff are becoming angry, too: when the education minister blamed them, in an interview, for their incompetence (which, he said, explained their low salaries), more than a thousand professors signed a letter of protest. A new independent university teachers’ union is being created. Just a few days ago, an activist at Moscow State University, Mikhail Lobanov, successfully avoided being fired after a strong campaign of solidarity on his behalf. This might be a small success, but it inspires hope: students are becoming more aware of their potential, and professors are, too. There is an incredible amount of work to be done, but it is much easier now to believe in our eventual success.

Photos taken from the Facebook pages European Revolution, OccupyAbay, and Elena Rostunova without permission but with much gratitude.

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Filed under activism, critical thought, interviews, leftist movements, political repression, protests, Russian society, trade unions, urban movements (right to the city)

International Women’s Day Special: The Professors in the Ikea Balaclavas

March 8 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the fourth in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

On February 21, 2013, the first anniversary, of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” protest, TV Rain’s Maria Makeyeva interviewed Irina Karatsuba, an ecclesiastical historian and Ph.D. in cultural studies, and Elena Volkova, an expert on religion and artistic culture. Earlier in the day, Karatsuba and Volkova had been detained at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in balaclavas while attempting to lay flowers on the altar as way of showing their solidarity with the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. They were later released from Khamovniki police precinct after questioning.

Мaria Makeyeva: What made you, two female academics, go to Christ the Savior Cathedral? I understand that police were expecting someone to show up there on the anniversary of Pussy Riot’s protest action, but it was you, two scholars, whom they found. Was this a scholarly action or a form of research? What was it?

Elena Volkova: It was, first of all, a human action. We wanted to express our solidarity with Maria [Alyokhina] and Nadezhda [Tolokonnikova] on this day, to show them that people remember and appreciated what they did a year ago, that there are people who sympathize with them, share their views, and support the [protest] action they performed in Christ the Savior Cathedral. We went there in solidarity, support, and sympathy. As scholars, we’ve spent the past year on educating people. I ran a “Pussy Riot school” on the Web, where I tried to explain [what they did], because it seemed to me that people perceived the punk prayer so aggressively simply because they didn’t know church history, the history of resistance within the church, the history of the holy fools, Biblical prophecy, and ecclesiastical counterculture. I wanted to educate people, and so as scholars we have been actively involved in outreach the whole [past] year, and we carried balaclavas in our bags.

Makeyeva: As a historian of the church, what do you think of what Pussy Riot did a year ago?

Irina Karatsuba: I think there are several important dates in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century. For example, the Church Council of 1917–1918, at which the Patriarchate was restored and a reform program was drafted, but none of these reforms was carried out. This continues to haunt us today. Or Metropolitan Sergei’s 1927 declaration, in which the church bowed down before an atheist state and thanked it: this is a very important milestone in the history of our church’s apostasy from Christ. Or 1943, when Comrade Stalin allowed the Church Council to convene and elect a new patriarch. He thus bound the church firmly to the atheist state, and the church firmly attached itself to it.

Makeyeva: But what about the “punk prayer”?

Karatsuba: The “punk prayer” completes this sequence. It tries to put everything in its place: render unto God what is God’s, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And it calls on members of the church not to support Caesar, thus closing the books on a very important feature of church-state relations in the twentieth century. Moreover, the girls told the truth, and told it in such a way that everyone heard it. We experts had been writing about this for the past five years, six years, but very few people hear what experts have to say. But [Pussy Riot] were able to say it in a way that everyone heard it, and that is to their great credit.

Makeyeva: You both were expert witnesses in the Pussy Riot case.

Karatsuba: We were expert witnesses for the defense whose testimony no one wanted to hear. We sat in the stairways at the Khamovniki district court for two days along with [famous Russian novelist] Ludmila Ulitskaya, who is seventy today, God bless her, and Irina Levinskaya, who had written an expert opinion on the expert opinion [commissioned by the prosecution]. She showed how meaningless what the court-appointed experts had dashed off was.

Makeyeva: Could you say more about the balaclavas you carried in your bags for a whole year?

Volkova: We made them for an opposition rally, before the ban on covering one’s face [was introduced]. We made them from Ikea pillowcases five minutes before going to the rally.

Karatsuba: Elena came over to my house and quickly made two balaclavas from an Ikea pillowcase I had.

Volkova: Later, we put them on outside the courthouse when we went there to support the girls. And then I carried it in my bag as a talisman, as a way of maintaining my connection with the persecuted women.

Makeyeva: And where are they now?

Volkova: The guards at Christ the Savior Cathedral tore them off and didn’t give them back to us, unfortunately. The tulips they threw at our feet: we had bought brightly colored tulips by way of stylizing Pussy Riot’s bright outfits.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: And then for some reason one of the cleaning ladies began frantically removing flowers from the icons, apparently fearing we were going to take them from their vases and throw them on the altar. Then the police took us to the paddy wagon, where two strange men appeared. One of them asked why we did it. We talked about the historical role of the “punk prayer,” that Russia had changed after this, that it has had a huge impact on Russian history. To which he replied. . . It was Ira who engaged him in a dialogue from that point on.

Karatsuba: He said that it wasn’t history that had changed, but something in our brains. “That’s okay,” he said, “we treat such alterations at the Serbsky Institute [for Forensic Psychiatry].”

Makeyeva: You mean they introduced themselves as specialists from the Serbsky Institute?

Karatsuba: They didn’t introduce themselves at all. It was just a remark he made.

Makeyeva: Were they in plain clothes?

Karatsuba: Yes, we decided we were going to be taken to the Serbsky Institute for treatment, but for now we haven’t been taken there.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: Then we were taken to the Khamovniki police precinct, where we spoke with a young name from Center “E,” the Center for Combating Extremism, who introduced himself as Ilya. He asked me different questions. As a teacher, it takes me approximately an hour to answer a question. I gave him a lecture on the history of the church, on the history of the holy fool tradition.

Karatsuba: I stood behind the door and listened with delight. Lena expressed herself one hundred percent: it was an amazing lecture.

Volkova: He asked questions and took notes. He asked me what the symphony between church and state was, and wrote down various dates and concepts. I think he liked it. He said he was in charge of religion at Center “E.” I told him he needed to get a religious studies education and advised him to enroll at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He said, “Can you give me the names of people to talk to [there]?” And with that he gave himself away, because this was clearly the question an investigator would ask: Whom did you meet with? What is your connection? What is this faction you mentioned?

Makeyeva: Irina, did you talk with this same young man?

Karatsuba: Yes. I didn’t really want to talk to him, and so our conversation didn’t really gel. He kept pestering me with questions. If I was so devout, he asked, why didn’t I go with those girls to prison? To which I replied that it reminded me of Ivan the Terrible’s logic from the correspondence with Prince Kurbsky: if you’re so righteous, why didn’t accept a martyr’s death at the hands of me, the wicked king, and ascend to heaven?” To which he replied, “And whose side are you? Ivan the Terrible’s or Kurbsky’s?” “I’m on Gagarin’s side,” I said. He sighed and said, “Our conversation hasn’t panned out.”

Makeyeva: And with that they just let you go?

Karatsuba: [Former Pussy Riot lawyer] Violetta Volkova, God bless her, arrived and quickly set the entire Khamovniki precinct straight. The police really wanted our fingerprints, but she said we didn’t have to let them fingerprint us.

Volkova: And that we shouldn’t have talked to the man from Center “E”—we didn’t know that. But it’s okay: we educated and enlightened him a little.

Makeyeva: So Violetta Volkova helped you?

Volkova: Yes, and Mark Feygin. They heard about it on the news and came and found us themselves. Violetta Volkova was the first to arrive. She had two warrants allowing her to act as our attorney, and we followed her advice.

Karatsuba: We wrote statements saying we refused to be fingerprinted, and we were released. Things could develop in different ways: they might summon us again; they might not. We’ll see.

Makeyeva: Irina, you mentioned that both you and Elena are Orthodox. Is this an active part of your lives? Do you go to church and confess?

Volkova: Yes, it’s an active part of our lives. We’ve been in the church for many years, and besides that we are teachers. Irina taught history for many years, including church history. My specialty is the Bible, Christianity, and literature. We taught for thirty years at Moscow State University, which we recently left.

Makeyeva: Why did you leave?

Volkova: There were many reasons, including the fact that they had begun telling us whom to invite and whom not to invite, what to say and what not to say.

Makeyeva: Whom to invite where?

Volkova: To speak at the university.

Makeyeva: This had nothing to do with Pussy Riot?

Volkova: No, it was before that, in 2011. We are not just Orthodox believers, people who practice Orthodoxy. For many years, I organized the Sunday school at one church, and I taught seminarians, who came to Moscow and attended my lectures on Christianity and English poetry. I have had many priests as students, and we were very active in the church for many years. It’s another matter that in the past year we realized that the church has completely turned away from Christian principles and values. Our hopes were very slight, so we stepped up our criticism of the church. When the “punk prayer” happened, we realized that the girls had sung about what we as experts had been saying for many years. People didn’t listen to us, but they heard what [Pussy Riot] said. We were really glad that someone had finally been able to make themselves heard. So we support them by all means, and as a believer, I am certain that it was Christ who sent them to Christ the Savior Cathedral, that they are God’s children, who came from God and said what needed to be said.

Police escort university professors Yelena Volkova and Irina Karatsuba after detaining them inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow

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International Women’s Day Special: Victoria Lomasko on Women’s Lives in Small-Town Russia

March 8 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the third in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

Below, artist Victoria Lomasko reflects in words and pictures on the lives of women in small Russian towns and cities like the one where she grew up, a hundred kilometers south of Moscow.

Lomasko’s series Feminine is featured in a special Eighth of March/feminist issue of Volya (Liberty), the newspaper edited by our friend and comrade Vlad Tupikin. Yesterday, during an authorized opposition rally to mark International Women’s Day, Tupikin was detained by Moscow police for the “criminal” act of attempting to distribute this newspaper.

A special thanks to Victoria Lomasko for permission to reproduce her work here.

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Victoria Lomasko

Feminine

svidanya

“When I was young, I had a date lined up on every corner.”

 

In the series Feminine, all the characters are drawn from life, and their remarks are recorded verbatim. However, I tried to move away from reportage and towards symbolism—to generalize specific situations in images expressing my feelings.

The portraits here are less images of specific people and more archetypes: the faded, lonely woman, the “sluttish” boozer, the rigid old Soviet woman, and so on.

 nety

“There are no factories in this town and no blokes.”

 tetay Luda

“He just couldn’t put on slippers and become a domesticated bloke.”

 

Each drawing adds its own tint (of sadness, irony, and anger) to the overall picture—the life of women in the Russian provinces.

blyadstvo

“I’ve been feeling slutty since December.”

 

I was born in Serpukhov, a town in the Moscow Region. The women and girls around me talked about men: acquaintances and strangers, exes, current husbands and boyfriends, and future husbands and boyfriends. We believed that love would change the monotonous course of our lives.

 svyatay

“I’m not a boozer. I’m a saint.”

 

I had one other belief—in my calling as an artist. Only my dad, a self-taught artist, supported my plan to study in Moscow and then work as an artist. Some of my girlfriends’ moms tried to force their daughters to spend less time with me, believing such nonsense as I was spouting communicable and a hindrance to finding a husband. They were right: I’m still not married and have no children.

 v bory

“We’re used to having blokes pay for everything.”

 

I have lived in Moscow for over ten years. When I travel to the provinces, the pictures I see and the conversations I hear are familiar to me. Even divorced girlfriends sympathize with my “plight.”

I became an artist, but I do not feel like a winner. In this country, their life strategies and mine turn into a loss. I look at the “heroines” in Feminine and find a part of myself in all of them.

 avtomat

“Where can I get hold of a machine gun to kill Putin?”

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International Women’s Day in Moscow: Police Attack and Arrest Our Comrades

The Moscow police celebrated International Women’s Day in style yesterday. First, they arrested our comrade, journalist and activist Vlad Tupikin, for the criminal act of distributing a special Eighth of March/feminist issue of the newspaper Volya (Liberty) at a permitted IWD rally. Then, when other activists and rally attendees tried to demand Vlad’s release, the police went after them as well. All in all, a couple dozen people were arrested for the apparently insane attempt, in Putin’s ultra-reactionary Russia, to bring some of its original meaning back into what has just become a commercialized, chauvinist “celebration of the weaker sex.”


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International Women’s Day Special: Taisiya Osipova, Political Prisoner

March 8 marks the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the second in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

In August 2012, Taisiya Osipova, an activist in The Other Russia opposition party, was sentenced to eight years in prison on drugs charges. She and her supporters have always maintained her innocence, claiming that police planted the drugs found in her apartment in Smolensk during a search in order to pressure her into cooperating with them and testifying against her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, a senior party activist.

In sentencing her to eight years in prison, the court not only failed to take into account the evidence of her innocence, but also ignored the fact that Osipova is the mother of a young child and suffers from several chronic illnesses, including diabetes.

Sergei Fomchenkov recently posted the following text on Facebook. In it, he describes the extreme difficulties Osipova and her fellow inmates at the women’s penal colony in Vishny Volochok have getting decent, humane medical care, and the recent family visit that he and their daughter Katrina made there. 

tasya600

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“Scalding hot! Torzhok!”
By Sergei Fomchenkov
March 1, 2013

The title of this article is a partial quotation of a bit of prison humor at the women’s penal colony in Vyshny Volochok, where Taisiya Osipova is an inmate. This dark humor is associated with the medical unit, to be more precise, with its head doctor, Valery Moskvin, a colorful character and one known well in town, beyond the premises of the penal colony. The full version of the phrase goes like this: “Scalding hot! Torzhok! The way our medicine works, I can’t promise you Torzhok!” It is uttered by the women prisoners, every one of whom before work in the morning walks down the aisle between rows of beds carrying a liter mug full of boiling water. There is not so much time to get ready for work, and the women have to manage to drink a cup of tea or coffee before going, so they do everything quickly. Rushing down the narrow aisle between rows of bed to her section, the female inmate risks pouring boiling water on other women straying into her path. To keep this from happening, the person carrying boiling water is supposed to loudly repeat the phrase, “Scalding hot! Torzhok. . .” Its meaning is clear only to the local inhabitants, who have encountered the specific form of prison medical care at Correctional Colony No. 5. The fact is that the town of Torzhok is home to the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Tver Regional Hospital. Since the means available to the medical unit at the penal colony are quite limited—they do not have the necessary equipment, specialists, and so forth—comprehensive medical care is impossible. This is a problem common to such medical facilities. But the regional prison hospital in Torzhok has more means at its disposal (although things there are not ideal, either) in terms of equipment and specialists, and they say the staff there has a better attitude about doing their jobs.

“We’re all going there. Some sooner, some later”

Mr. Moskvin really hates referring sick inmates to the regional prison hospital. This isn’t simply a matter of the prejudice, often held in his profession, that inmates feign their illnesses. It also has to do with Mr. Moskvin’s personal character.

The following story characterizes this scion of Hippocrates. Upon her arrival at the camp, an inmate named Elena told him she had a history of cancer, and had undergone multiple surgeries for the removal of tumors. Moskvin responded, “Where did you get that idea? You make something up, and then you end up believing it.” She didn’t know what to say to that. Some time later, a growth appeared on Elena’s back, and she went to Dr. Moskvin to ask to have it looked at the prison hospital in Torzhok. Instead, without doing any tests, this man of medicine prescribed the following course of treatment: for a month, iodine was rubbed on the tumor. But since that didn’t help, he ordered the ointment Levomekol rubbed on it, again for a month. The tumor continued to grow, and the pain got worse. Three months after her initial request, Elena once again visited the head doctor, requesting that something be done. Moskvin once again suggested iodine. Elena asked him, “Will it help?” “It won’t get any worse,” was his reply. In the end, Elena was finally sent to the hospital in Torzhok, where they surgically removed the tumor.

This is just one story of many. I am quoting Elena verbatim, because I spoke with her personally. I am not a doctor. But the stories I heard during my prolonged visit with Taisiya confirm Elena’s account. For instance, when another inmate with cancer asked Moskvin to send her to the Torzhok hospital, he told her, “Why bother? Nothing will save you now.” The most proverbial of his sayings, which he likes to repeat to the female inmates who come to him for help, is, “We’re all going THERE. Some sooner, some later.” This is his way of saying that there isn’t much point in doing tests or getting treatment.

High-Ranking Commission

Several days after Taisiya was deprived, in January, of the pills she needs, and this was reported on the Web, a commission of high-ranking officials from the Federal Penitentiary Service came to visit the penal colony. On the day of their arrival, January 29, 2013, Taisiya was taken to the regular municipal clinic for an appointment with an endocrinologist.  There is no endocrinologist on staff in the penal colony’s medical unit, and even the glucose tolerance test done before she was sent to the municipal clinic was done incorrectly. The endocrinologist confirmed this to Taisiya. She also explained that Taisiya needed a full slate of tests at a regular in-patient hospital. Upon Taisiya’s return to the penal colony, she found out that high-ranking authorities were visiting, which explained why she had suddenly been sent to an endocrinologist. Only one member of this “commission” met with her. This official admitted that the colony lacked the necessary resources for treating her illness, but promised her that by mid-February she would be taken to a real hospital, regardless of what head of the medical unit Dr. Moskvin wanted. At the same time, the official also expressed doubt that this would in any way benefit Taisiya, saying that with illnesses like hers it was “quite possible to live without receiving treatment.” Unfortunately, Taisiya did not remember his name.

Maximum Security Family Living

Almost everything recounted above I found out during my prolonged visit with Taisiya, from February 4 to February 7. Our daughter Katrina and I had come to the penal colony for a visit. The building where the visit was held was on the premises of the colony. It had four rooms, a common kitchen, and a bathroom. We had registered for the visit in advance. A prolonged visit, which entails living together for three days, is allowed once every three months. A short visit is allowed once every two months, through glass, and lasts four hours.

During a prolonged visit, each inmate and her relatives (only close relatives are allowed the privilege of such visits) are given a single room to share. In it, there are two beds, a refrigerator, and a television. Food is prepared in the common kitchen. Visitors and their groceries are thoroughly searched before entering the visitation building. A search is also conducted upon departure. During the visit, a check is made twice daily to ascertain that the inmates are in the building. At night, the building is locked from the outside.

Katrina and I arrived for the visit early in the morning. Leading us to the visitation building, the prison staff searched us (this was probably the first time Katrina had ever been frisked, although she had been present for two searches involving police in balaclavas), and they checked the groceries we’d brought. Everything was done politely and carefully. After that, Taisiya was led in.

Katrina glued herself to her mother for three days straight. She was jealous of every moment I had Taisiya’s attention. Katrina followed her mother from room to room, even to the kitchen and back. Taisiya promised her daughter she would be released soon. We only talked about what our life would be like after her release.

In moments when Katrina was either distracted or sleeping, we had the chance to talk. Taisiya told me all about her life in the colony, about being transported to the penal colony and her hunger strike in solitary confinement at the Tver pre-trial detention center. It had been impossible to drink the tap water in the cell at the detention center because of its high level of chlorine. Thus, her hunger strike was practically “dry.” As a result, upon being released from solitary confinement, her kidneys started to shut down.

Taisiya recounted the story of her arrest, and how Center “E” (“anti-extremism”) police, led by Savchenkov, visited her in jail, demanding she testify against herself and me as well as squealing on the [Other Russia] party. They threatened to deprive her of parental rights and put Katrina in an orphanage.

We were able to discuss the plans for appealing the verdict. Taisiya has high hopes for the supervisory appeal and the complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.

The most difficult time for Taisiya came when two days had passed, and only one remained before she had to return to the penal colony. That was when Katrina, just like an adult, in turn tried to calm Taisiya down, explaining to her mother that she would soon be released and telling her about how good everything would be when that happened. It wasn’t a scene for the faint of heart.

The next morning, the guards took Taisiya away. Katrina and I were searched and escorted to the penal colony gates.

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P.S. Taisiya really was sent to the hospital in Torzhok on the night of February 16. She managed to write a letter where she said that, “As it turns out, there is no endocrinologist in Torzhok. And they’re not going to affirm my request, anyway. It’s all the doing of the Federal Penitentiary Service.”

On February 26, journalists were able to get in touch with [Taisiya’s] lawyers, who told them that the Smolensk Regional Court had refused to reexamine Taisiya’s verdict, but had not even informed her lawyers of this decision.

Translated by Bela Shayevich and Chtodelat News

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