Tag Archives: “extremism”

The Chtodelat News Challenge: A Friday Night on the Town in Petersburg’s Cultural Capital

As an exercise in close reading, we’d like to see what you, our readers, can make of these two hyper-fresh dispatches from Petersburg, Russia’s so-called cultural capital.

Mosque Raid Causes Outrage
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Human rights organizations in Russia, Tajikistan and Georgia on Tuesday protested mass arrests and reported harassment and beatings of mostly Central Asian and North Caucasus migrant workers during Friday’s raid on a marketplace in central St. Petersburg.

They are demanding a thorough investigation by Russian and Tajik authorities into the actions of law-enforcement officers who raided Apraksin Dvor, the marketplace in downtown St. Petersburg, during a service at a mosque on the market’s territory.

The Investigative Committee put the number of those detained at 271, but Fontanka.ru reported that “no less than 700” had been arrested, while human rights activists say that the number of arrests could be as high as 1,000.

Officially, the raid was part of a criminal investigation into “public incitement to terrorist activities or public justification of terrorism” and “inciting hatred or hostility as well as humiliation of human dignity” and was conducted jointly by several law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Security Service (FSB) and counter-extremism Center E. Smaller raids were held elsewhere in the city.

But only one person of the hundreds who were arrested is a suspect in that case.

Mass beatings were reported to have taken place during the raid at Apraksin Dvor.

“People who were victims of the mosque raid there and their relatives keep approaching us since the raid took place,” said Anna Udyarova, a lawyer with the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Center, on Tuesday.

“For instance, one citizen of Uzbekistan said he had gone there with his sons, the youngest of whom was 10, and security service officers had used force against him, had beaten him as well as his adult sons, and all this had happened before the eyes of his 10-year-old son.

“Witnesses who work nearby in Apraksin Dvor said about 200 people were beaten, and some sustained injuries as serious as broken arms and legs, but they refuse to file official complaints or document their injuries because they’re afraid of how the authorities will respond. But in conversation with us, they say that all the men who were at the mosque during the service were beaten.”

The only person detained as a suspect within the investigation, according to the Investigative Committee, was Murat Sarbyshev, born in Kabardino-Balkaria (a republic in the south of the Russian Federation) in 1988. He is suspected of having uploaded “extremist literature and videos depicting terrorist attacks on the Internet in a period between October 2010 and April 2011,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement Saturday.

“We are trying to understand why such a large-scale special operation was held to detain just one person — who turned out to be a citizen of Russia — and with such a large number of people suffering as the result of harassment and beatings,” Udyarova said.

“It had an intimidating effect not only on those who were at the mosque at the time, but also on all the foreign citizens, mainly of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who are based in St. Petersburg and Russia, who learned about this incident and perceived it as a threat to themselves.”

According to Udyarova, up to 1,000 people may have been detained in the city on Friday.

“We were told that about 1,000 were detained, because this special operation took place not only in Apraksin Dvor, but in other places in the city simultaneously,” she said.

“Differences in numbers can be explained by the fact that not everybody who was detained was taken to a police precinct; only those who had problems regarding their immigration documents.

“Even if, as the Interior Ministry’s representative claimed, the objective of this campaign was not to expose illegal migrants and they were in fact looking for suspects in a criminal investigation, as usual, innocent people — foreigners — who were there are the ones who suffered.”

She said the Memorial Anti-Discrimination Center will provide legal support if at least one person who is not intimidated enough to file a complaint is found.

According to the Investigative Committee, those detained included citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and the regions of the North Caucasus, as well as one citizen of Egypt and one citizen of Afghanistan. Ten had personal documents showing signs of forgery, and twenty had no documents at all, the agency said in a statement Saturday.

Of those detained, seven were deported and one more was awaiting deportation in a detention center for foreigners, Interfax news agency reported Monday, citing a source in the police.

With the exception of them and the suspect Sarbyshev, all those detained during the raid were released with no charges pressed, it said.

Late on Tuesday, Interfax quoted a source with the FSB who claimed that the deported seven had links to an “international terrorist organization.”

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[…]

The polarisation of Russian nightlife is undoubtedly tied to the polarisation of wealth in Russian society. Is the arrival of places like Dom Byta [in Petersburg] — that shun the glitzy veneer that has been the hallmark aesthetic of Russian affluence since the Nineties — evidence of the emergence of a new middle class? Burtsev certainly thinks so. “A new generation has arrived that can travel, that can do projects, and the people remaining from the old generation are also willing to give things a go. They’ve made it possible to create this sort of good community.” For Burtsev, this change is starting to have a real impact on city life. “This young generation has already created its own space online,” he says. “They work in jobs like design, in a space beyond the reach of the government. And now we’re seeing people moving gradually, very gradually, to doing projects in real, concrete spaces.”

The transformation of Russia’s entertainment scene is dependent on two factors: time and travel. During the Soviet period, isolation, centralisation and a certain puritanism pushed Russian food culture to the brink of extinction: as a result foreign imports, like the ubiquitous sushi, have dominated the restaurant scene for the past two decades. But open borders have also allowed young Russian chefs, barmen and entrepreneurs to pick up best practice in Europe and America. Frequent trips to Paris, Madrid and Rome have also educated their potential audience. Along with new infrastructure such as better farms, catering schools and supply networks, which all take time to bear fruit, it’s this cosmopolitanism that has laid the foundation for the current renaissance in Russian food and drink.

An avowed Anglophile — Dom Byta has English beer on tap — Burtsev, who is just shy of 40, exemplifies the impact of Russia’s new-found wanderlust. “When we opened Solyanka six or seven years ago we were really influenced by places in London, in Shoreditch,” he says. “We would look at the people, at little details, at the general atmosphere.” His establishments meet the needs of a more educated audience: “The more people travel the more they get used to things: in London or elsewhere in Europe you can just pop in somewhere nice and get a bite to eat, or sit down and work with your laptop and feel relaxed about it.

[…]

Jamie Rann, “High spirits: what’s fuelling St Petersburg’s bar renaissance?,” The Calvert Journal

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How would you, dear readers, read these two stories together? Send us your answer (500 words or less) to our email address (chtodelatnews [at] googlemail [dot] com) or in the comments, below. We’ll post the most convincing entry on this blog as a separate, headlined posting. We’ll also mail the winner a complete set of the Chto Delat group’s popular, award-winning  songspiel films on DVD. And, as if that weren’t enough, we’ll treat the winner to a night on the town in Russia’s stunning cultural capital, Petersburg, including dinner at a restaurant featuring the cuisine of one of the city’s beloved ethnic minorities, followed by all the English tap beer they can drink at Dom Byta. (If “face control” lets us in, that is, and provided, of course, that the winner makes their own way to Petersburg.) The deadline for entries is next Friday at midnight Petersburg time (GMT + 0400).

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“Decent Work” and the Valentin Urusov Case: A Test of Sincerity

column.global-labour-university.org

“Decent Work” and the Valentin Urusov Case: A Test of Sincerity
Anna Wolańska

Like Russian politics, labour relations in Russia are rife with contradictions.

On the one hand, Vladimir Putin addressed the International Labour Conference in 2011 and marched with the trade unions in a 2012 May Day demonstration, portraying himself as a supporter of progressive labour legislation and the notion of social partnership. Russia has an established system of tripartism: no social issue can be decided on without being discussed by the country’s permanent tripartite commission.

To discuss the further development of tripartism and socially-responsible responses to the global crisis, the Russian government will host a major international conference on decent work in Moscow on 11–12 December 2012. Around 800 delegates are expected to attend, including prime ministers, government officials, trade unionists and representatives of employers’ associations from 80 countries.

Speaking in Geneva at a joint briefing with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder during the last session of the ILO Governing Body, Russian Federation Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Protection Lyubov Yeltsova invited all ILO member states to take part in the conference. She emphasised the importance Russia attaches to cooperation in furthering international labour and social standards, the protection of individual and collective rights, and the interests of workers. As she put it, “the concept of decent work makes it possible to seek solutions to key challenges facing the international community, such as job creation, poverty reduction, social stability and globalization, on a just basis.”

On the other hand, on the same day that the Deputy Minister declared her commitment to the principles and ideals of social justice, the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association issued its report on a complaint from Russian and international trade unions. The complaint, filed with the ILO in 2011, is brimming with facts that paint a picture at odds with the official one: constantly increasing pressure on trade union activists, harassment and persecution, threats of physical violence, repressive rulings against trade union organisers by local courts, and a ban on distributing trade union leaflets and educational materials for workers. This is all happening in parallel with the destruction of the social welfare system in a country where wages are shamefully low for a developed European nation.

The complaint submitted to the ILO describes, among other cases, the story of independent trade union activist Valentin Urusov (born 1974). Trade unionists in Russia and around the world have been campaigning for his release for several years. His story is not only an example of determination and sacrifice, but also a vivid illustration of the true relations between capital and labour in today’s Russia, where the largest employers are colluding with corrupt government officials to purposefully and methodically destroy the seeds of the new trade union movement, while Kremlin officials speak about social partnership.

Valentin Urusov

Urusov worked as an electrical fitter at an ore-processing mill owned by the diamond mining company Alrosa in the town of Udachny (Sakha Republic). An intelligent, persuasive leader, Urusov chaired the Profsvoboda trade union that was founded there and led the protest actions organised by workers.

Profsvoboda was founded in Udachny in June 2008. In mid-August of the same year, dissatisfied with low pay and working conditions, workers in the repair shops at one division of Alrosa announced a hunger strike, formal notice of which was received and registered by management.

The company’s director signed an order establishing a reconciliation commission to resolve the issue of workers’ pay. Profsvoboda was supposed to represent workers on this commission, and the following day it suspended strike actions. Despite its promises, however, Alrosa made no effort to conduct real negotiations, unleashing instead a crackdown against trade union activists. In response, workers began preparations for a large-scale protest rally.

On 3 September 2008, Urusov was detained on suspicion of narcotics possession. However, his arrest suspiciously coincided with preparations for the protest rally by Alrosa workers, a rally he himself was involved in organising. Equally “coincidentally,” the company’s deputy director of economic security was present as an official witness (such witnesses are a formality required under Russian law during police searches) when the drugs were allegedly found on Urusov’s person.

In a statement submitted by his lawyer, Urusov describes his arrest as a kidnapping accompanied by beatings and threats. According to him, the men who arrested him forced him to write a statement, confessing that the packet of drugs they themselves had planted on him actually belonged to him; they threatened to kill Urusov if he refused. Moreover, they demanded that Urusov confess that his deputy in the trade union had given the packet to him. A plan had been sprung to completely eviscerate the union’s leadership. Urusov, however, refused to give false testimony against his comrade.

“The charges against Urusov are based on the testimony of law enforcement officers and biased witnesses,” Urusov’s lawyer recounted. “The signature on the protocol documenting the confiscation of the packet of narcotics was obtained through humiliation and threats. Urusov was taken to the woods, where shots were fired near his head, and he was beaten with batons and told he should get ready to die.”

On 26 December 2008, the Mirninsky District Court (city of Udachny) sentenced Urusov to six years’ imprisonment. On 12 May 2009, however, the Sakha Republic Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Urusov was freed in the courtroom. Ludmilla Alexeyeva and Lev Ponomarev, well-known human rights activists from the Moscow Helsinki Group, stood as surety for Urusov.

However, after a retrial on 26 June 2009, the Mirninsky District Court again sentenced Urusov to imprisonment, reducing the sentence only by a year.

In May 2010, the police officer in charge of Urusov’s arrest, Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Rudov, was himself arrested and convicted of fraud and abuse of power. He was charged with receiving 2.5 million rubles (US$80 000) from Alrosa. This money was disbursed to Rudov shortly after he arrested Urusov.

All these circumstances have convinced Russian and foreign human rights groups that his employer, Alrosa, had fabricated the case against Urusov. Trade unions launched a campaign of solidarity with Urusov. Public protests and other actions have been mounted on his behalf, not only in Russia, but also internationally. An appeal in support of Urusov’s release was signed by dozens of European intellectuals, public figures, and the International Trade Union Confederation while the website LabourStart conducted an email campaign.

The report of the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association also questions Urusov’s sentence. The Committee asks the Russian government to indicate whether, during the investigation and trial, evidence relating to the persecution of Urusov for trade union activities was examined and analysed. It requests that the government launch a new investigation and take steps to ensure the trade union leader’s early release.

In addition, in its final conclusions the Committee mentions the inclusion of trade union leaflets in the Russian federal list of “extremist” materials. The Committee believes that the inclusion of publications with union slogans in the list of extremist materials significantly impedes the right of unions to express their views. As emphasised in the Committee’s conclusions, this is an unacceptable restriction on trade union activities and a flagrant violation of the right to freedom of association. The Committee recalls that the right to express one’s opinion, including criticism of the government’s economic and social policy, is a key element of trade union rights.

In fact, the leaflets in question contained only the most basic information about the opportunities available for workers when they form trade unions and touched on the threats posed by the spread of agency labour and other forms of precarious employment. The declaration of such texts as “extremist” is a clear attempt to render illegal all forms of trade union organising. The ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association recommends that the Russian government take all necessary measures to remove trade union leaflets from the list of extremist materials as soon as possible. The government should also provide assurance that this situation will not happen again.

Despite the fact that the opinions rendered by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association are only recommendations, the Russian government should pay heed to them. First, the body has repeatedly proved its impartiality when dealing with issues relating to freedom of association. Secondly, Urusov’s release and the implementation of the ILO’s other recommendations would serve as convincing proof that the concept of decent work really is part of the Russian government’s priorities. Such actions would be evidence that the eloquent declarations of its commitment to social partnership are not just a smokescreen concealing contempt for the principles of freedom of association and trade union organising, principles that form the basis of the ILO.

Anna Wolańska is the international secretary of NSZZ “Solidarność” and a member of the governing Body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

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The Power of the Waltz to Shape Troubled Young Minds

Russian police wants to know what young people read and listen to

Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev has said that the activity of some internet resources should be restricted to prevent extremism among the youth.
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Young people are very often influenced by others, and they commit “the most audacious and cynical crimes on the grounds of national, racial or religious hatred,” Police Chief Rashid Nurgaliev said. He was speaking at the first regional meeting of the new interdepartmental counter-extremist commission in Novosibirsk on Tuesday.

President Dmitry Medvedev created the new body last week in order to combine the efforts of 16 ministries and state agencies to prevent extremism and remove the conditions which fuel it.

Young people should be protected from harmful influence, Nurgaliev said, adding that they are supposed to “continue and develop the traditions of a multinational country that has many faiths.” The authorities and law enforcement agencies are bound to study the situation in the regions so that the state can develop “adequate measures of response”, the minister noted.

To prevent extremism, it is necessary to know the cultural preferences of young people in regards to music, literature and movies, the police chief believes. The monitoring of what people listen to, read, and watch is also long overdue, the minister stressed. Many cultural values that have united people for years, including such important facets of our musical heritage as love songs and waltzes, have been forgotten in the recent times, he noted.  



Russian waltz instructors

Quite recently, however, employers and members of selection committees in universities were interested in young people’s musical and literature preferences, Nurgaliev said. He added it was necessary to see if their current musical preferences are “one-sided.”



The mass media could play its part in preventing extremist manifestations, the police chief said. But he also called for placing restrictions on the activities of some internet resources. The Internet has become “a means of organizing extremist or even terrorist actions,” he noted. The work of certain websites should be limited, “without infringing on the freedom to exchange information,” Nurgaliev said.



The new commission, headed by the interior minister, will coordinate the efforts of the federal and regional authorities in fighting extremism. The police chief has no doubts that the body will bring about real results in the fight against this evil.

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The St. Petersburg Times
August 3, 2011
Dozens of Arrests Made at Strategy 31 Meeting
By Sergey Chernov

Around 70 were detained as the police shut down a peaceful rally in defense of the right of assembly on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main street, on Sunday, the organizers said. The police admitted to “around 50” arrests during the demo which drew from 500 to 700 people.

The detained were charged with violation of the regulations on holding public events and failure to obey police officers’ orders.

Five people were released later on the same day after being brought to a court that agreed to move their cases’ hearing to their local courts, but most were left at four police precincts overnight. Two women were hospitalized after they fell ill in police precincts, according to the organizers.

Court hearings continued on Monday.

Apart from dispersing the rally, the authorities made preventive arrests, a practice they have not used since the Strategy 31 campaign was launched in St. Petersburg in January 2010.

Olga Kurnosova, the local chair of the United Civil Front and one of the rally’s organizers, said she was detained by plainclothes men, who refused to introduce themselves, near her home as she was heading to the demo. She said she was held in the car for around three hours.

“They were trying to brainwash me telling me that it’s time to stop demonstrating on the 31st day of the month, that I had better think about my children and nonsense like that,” Kurnosova said by phone Monday.

Three activists of the Other Russia political party were detained before they reached the site near Gostiny Dvor, where the event was held.

The police have frequently shown unnecessary cruelty. The St. Petersburg Times witnessed two women being dragged by their wrists, with their backs dragging across the ground. One of them, Alexandra Kachko, had her wrist broken by an unidentified policeman during the May 31 demo.

A passing Navy veteran, celebrating Navy Day which also fell on July 31, was evidently shocked by how Kachko was treated and tried to speak out on her behalf to a police officer. He was also seized and put in the bus, where the detained were held.

The police officers also were seen twisting arms and feet of the detained as they made arrests and pushing people around. Although they tended to arrest people who identified themselves as demonstrators by sitting on the ground or shouting slogans such as “Russia Will Be Free,” a number of the arrested were passers-by and onlookers.

The police claimed that one demonstrator kicked an officer in the jaw, but did not give the name. They said a criminal case would be filed against the alleged offender.

Author Nina Katerli, who came to the demo for the first time with a homemade poster to support a bill introduced by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin into Congress in May to freeze assets and block visas of individuals who commit gross human-rights violations against whistleblowers and activists in the Russian Federation, only just managed to escape arrest.

Katerli, 77, who walks with a stick because of a broken leg, said she wanted to make a speech to urge U.S. sanctions against Russian officials connected to the persecution of imprisoned businessmen Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

“But I failed, because, first, I had no microphone or anything, and, secondly, as soon as I came I was seized and dragged towards the police bus,” she said by phone Monday.

Katerli said she was won back by people around who were indignant at the sight of her being dragged and that they prevented the police from detaining her until a senior officer arrived and ordered that she be left.

She described the arrests of the activists as “illegal” and a “violation of the constitution.” “Before Putin, you didn’t need any sanctions to hold a demo, it’s outrageous that Putin introduced them,” Katerli said.

Kurnosova said that the participation of Katerli was important. “It’s crucial that people have started to come with their own agendas,” she said.

“Even if they arrest the leaders, people will be coming to the demo on their own; the authorities have to understand that this tactic doesn’t work. The fact that people come to the rally is perhaps the campaign’s main result in the long run.”

The Other Russia local chair Andrei Dmitriyev said that the St. Petersburg authorities showed more intolerance to the demonstrators than the Moscow authorities.

“If in Moscow, they let people sit for two hours and only began arresting people when there was an attempted march, in St. Petersburg they shut down the demo as soon as people sat down on the ground,” he said.

Photos by Sergey Chernov. See his complete photo reportage of the protest and arrests here and here.

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Valences of the Contemporary Police State: “The Rise of Street Extremism” in the UK

First this, from F for Philistine:

UK Uncut protested today [January 30] at Boots, who avoided a £87m tax bill last year by relocating their head offices to Switzerland. Protesters were today handing out leaflets, and occupying the store since the news of Boots’ tax-dodging comes at the same time as we hear of massive cuts (sorry, restructuring) to the NHS.

The protest was peaceful, and good-natured. Several shoppers joined the demonstration, and once we left the store to hand out leaflets on the street, passers-by were wishing us well and cheering us on. One woman marched up to the manager of Boots and asked “Is this true?” waving a leaflet in his face. He shrugged and told her, unfortunately, it was, but it wasn’t a decision he was involved in. I chatted to a Community Support Officer about his bike (it’s far superior to mine), and we spoke to the manager of Boots as well: there wasn’t any ill-will about.

Then, as I was stood next to the locked automatic doors, I noticed that a police officer was asking a woman to remove a number of leaflets she’d placed in the gap between the door. The woman asked why she was being asked to do so. The policewoman initially said “Littering” then claimed it was criminal damage. At this point the woman objected to being touched on the arm by the policewoman. A number of people started taking photos of the exchange, then she was arrested by two officers who led her towards a thoroughfare next to Boots.


A number of protesters followed to keep an eye on the situation, chanting “Shame On You”. At this point, one of the officers, CW2440, used CS gas on a number of protesters nearby. I decided to film from a distance, rather than follow, as can be seen in the footage below:


I saw at least 7 people who had been sprayed in the eyes including a journalist, with three men particularly badly affected. One protesters had contact lenses in, which reacted with the spray. If you’ve never been tear-gassed before, it’s horrific. You can’t see, you’re in extreme amounts of pain, and massively panicked by the fact that you have no clue where you are, or who is around you. I called an ambulance, who confirmed they’d be there as soon as possible. At this point, three police officers with slightly different uniforms arrived at the scene: Legal Observers later told me they were Diplomatic Police, and definitely had tasers, though may also have been armed. Boots staff were shocked by the scenes, and an optician and first aid team inside offered to help those injured. The ambulance arrived soon afterwards, and took the three worst affected inside, initially thinking they could treat them in the ambulance. After 15 minutes, they confirmed they’d be taking them to hospital. A police officer then started speaking to us, informing us of how to make a complaint, asked us if we had the contact details of those injured then told us the number of the officer who’d used CS gas. Another officer later came over to a legal observer I was talking to and confirmed that Officer CW2440 had been the one to use gas on the protesters. I’ve never seen police officers offer up this type of information before, though am happy to be corrected.

It was a hugely jarring thing to witness, and I wasn’t affected. The policing was initially calm, and hands-off then suddenly became massively over zealous. That CS gas was used on one of the busiest streets in London in response to people simply chanting is terrifying. I’ve often thought criticism of the police can be a little unproductive, but today has made me think otherwise.

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Well, that is all very nice, but what does it mean? Fortunately, the UK, like any other largish country with a proud tradition of democracy, has lots of experts on hand to defog our brains when nasty people try to hand us leaflets in high street shops. Like this blue-ribbon panel of well-spoken chaps in suits, who reveal that it is the Trotskyists who are to blame and make helpful suggestions on how to crush the current Red Menace:

Here is how the think thank responsible for convening this panel in its “Ideas Space” described it and the distinguished panelists:

There are increasing signs that significant sections of the extreme left have little intention of confining their opposition to Coalition policies to peaceful, democratic protest.  In recent weeks we have seen riots over student tuition fees, the forcible closure of high street stores by flashmobs and also growing demands for industrial action to undermine the Coalition administration, including from the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union.

Do these actions portend a dangerous new trend towards the use of physical force?  If so, what can and should be done to prevent this phenomenon becoming a regular feature of the national landscape?

Speakers:
Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM – former Head of the Counter Terrorism Command and former Borough Commander in Brixton during the 1995 riots
Rt Hon David Maclean – former Minister of State at the Home Office and Parliamentary Adviser to the Police Superintendents Association
Paul Mercer – UK’s pre-eminent expert on extremist groups and author, Longman’s Directory of British Political Organisations
Henry Robinson –  Anti Terrorist community and street activist and former Irish republican prisoner

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Editor’s Note. Thanks to Comrade E. and Sons of Malcolm for the heads-up.

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David Riff: Notes on Voina

David Riff
Notes on Voina

There are moments in life that make the fineries of art criticism seem inappropriate. Аesthetic differences are overshadowed by political choice: either yes or no, for or against. The arrest of two key artist-activists from the art group Voina is a case like that. On November 15, 2010, law enforcers detained Oleg Vorotnikov (aka “Vor” or “Thief”) and Leonid Nikolayev (aka “Lyonya the F*cknut”) for an action carried out two months before, in the course of which activists flipped a police car near the Mikhailovsky Castle in Petersburg, ostensibly to retrieve a child’s ball that was stuck under it, as a YouTube video – the actual artwork – shows. Though the damage was small, this was a step too far for the Petersburg police, who sent officers from Center “E” (a task force formed to combat “extremism”) on a special ops mission to Moscow to apprehend the culprits. They have been in custody ever since, on charges of aggravated criminal mischief. If they are convicted and given the maximum sentence, they face up to five years in jail.

No matter how skeptical one might be of Voina’s practices, it is impossible not to demand their immediate release. Russian law enforcers tasked with combating extremism go after artists who flip militia cars and paint phalli on bridges and charge them with hate crimes: “criminal mischief motivated by political, ideological, racist, nationalist or religious hatred or enmity against any social group whatsoever,” the social group, in this case, being the Petersburg police. This interpretation of the law stands in the same line as the application of Article 282 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, a law designed to stop the “spread of national or religious discord,” but used to persecute curators and artists who broach Russian Orthodox religious taboos. And this while lethal right-wing extremism and national-religious fundamentalism go unchallenged, tolerated if not engineered by the state.

The perverse argument of victimization by representatives of the dominant culture will sound familiar; nationalists often construct their identitarian discourse on the “threat” by people from a “clashing civilization.” For example, when 5,000 neo-Nazi football hooligans held an unsanctioned demonstration in front of the Kremlin, their chief demand was for the state to protect them from people from Dagestan and other distant places, and law enforcers are inclined to concede to that demand to a point. Reviewing the footage of December 11, you can see Russian riot police holding back despite massive provocations and failing to protect migrants from getting beaten up, individual acts of heroism aside. According to one high-ranking law enforcement officer on TV, the police acted “loyally” until physically attacked. That is, they were “loyal” to the neo-Nazi football hooligans…

Another interesting slip of the tongue on the night of December 11 was when the head of the Interior Ministry, Rashid Nurgaliev, explained the violence as an eruption planned and inflamed by the radical left. Indeed, the so-called Centers “E” are known for harassing leftists of all ilk, including antifa activists, anarchists, and free trade unionists, as well as artists and intellectuals, simply because they are easy to raid, frame, and intimidate, though probably a little confusing to monitor. The chief instrument is that of any protection racket: undiscriminating, random violence. That is, masked Interior Ministry troops carrying automatic weapons and riot gear could bust down the door of a seminar held by leftist intellectuals, or confiscate editions of a newspaper where a libretto of a songspiel makes an unfavorable mention of Vladimir Putin. They could also randomly call in activists for questioning, and frame them with possession charges, if they prove uncooperative as in the case of Artem Loskutov in Novosibirsk, who was framed with marijuana possession charges and has been persecuted by law enforcers ever since.

Over the last years, such random violence has had a great effect, bringing home the overall securitization of Russian society (sometimes it seems like more than half of the male population work as security guards) to the art scene; it has produced a top-to-bottom system of self-censorship that runs all the way from printers and technicians, via editors, copywriters, PR specialists, and journalists to curators, critics, and artists, who collectively begin to enforce a system of taboos, if not to pander directly to those “silent majorities” that might potentially feel persecuted. Though there are not so many artists who seek permission from the Moscow Patriarchate to exhibit works with religious themes yet, the majority of Russian art professionals shies away from any politics beyond harmless spectacle, opting instead for a defense of “free art” and “autonomy,” which, under present conditions, can and should be understood as autonomy in a heavily guarded luxury ghetto (if the artist is lucky) or autonomy below the horizon of visibility or on the margins of society (if she or he is not lucky or really lucky, depending on how you see it). The right of artists to “live by their own laws” is predicated on the vast privileges of their patrons, and disappears once artists operate in the outer world in any visible manner.

Thus, it seems very tempting to defend Voina by demanding the impossible and asserting artistically motivated hooliganism’s right to offend. Andrei Erofeev, one of the defendants in the “Forbidden Art” trial and Voina’s principle supporter, makes such an argument, likening the group to firemen who break down the doors of burning buildings. This line of argumentation claims that artists should have a certain immunity from prosecution because they follow their own law, which includes the right to exercise satire and provocation, designed for minimal material damages and maximal social effect. In this argumentation, the action is obviously not motivated by political, social, national or religious hatred but by the experimental drive of the artist (in this case, the collective artist Voina); outrage and material violence (more of a threat and a taunt than a reality) are artistic devices, actor’s ploys, justifiable means subordinated to positive aesthetic and political ends. That is, Voina lays claim to a specific type of aesthetic violence that redefines art from outside its normative shell; it’s an old Dadaist method redeployed again and again throughout the twentieth century, and it only works when the transgression of aesthetic law coincides with that of administrative law, when the threat of violence and sanction are real and become self-evident, when the apparatus reacts with all its overwhelming stupidity. The apparatus’s reaction is a part of the artwork, in other words; the arrest becomes an aesthetic device, not so much a means as an ending.

What disappears, unfortunately, is the possibility to criticize Voina’s actions as art or to see them as art at all; solidarity with political prisoners requires that any discussion of their work be reduced to the level of supportive political commentary. They don’t need analysis, as long as it doesn’t directly serve the cause of vindicating them. As Ilya Budraitskis, one of the organizers of the rally held in support of Voina in Moscow on December 18, put it, “The time for aesthetic discussion about Voina was over once the activists were put in jail,” arguing that any aesthetic criticisms would, at this point, add to their predicament. Artist and theorist Anatoly Osmolovsky takes a diametrically opposed position: he writes that Voina was uninteresting to him until the arrest, and then launches into an attack on the group’s actions as a rehash of actionist strategies that he himself helped to pioneer. Osmolovsky’s article expresses a widespread sentiment that curator Oxana Sarkissian sums up: “I can’t support Voina’s artistic strategies, because they are inappropriate to our time.” Meaning: ten years of “normalization” under Putin have made radical public art impossible, and Voina, effectively, proves it yet again.

Art can only be “political” when it is criticized, attacked and/or endorsed by an art community and a broader audience, but it can only be art when the audience can appreciate, discuss, and criticize it without being held to a question like “do you want them to go to jail or not?” The point is that in the nineties, this was possible: Osmolovsky’s performance of laying out the word khui (“dick”) in human letters could be interpreted precisely because its then-still anonymous authors could successfully evade any punishment, because politics had not been silenced, but, on the contrary, was going up in flames. Moscow Actionism, one could see, was predicated on a strange power vacuum in the period of shock privatization and its political failures, a theater that unfolded in failed pubic space and an as yet uncontrolled no man’s land: it famously took the police over an hour to respond in any way to the barricade Osmolovsky built in 1998 down the road from the Kremlin. The early 2000s changed all that, redefining all the fields of visibility in Russian society, and effectively banishing artists to their autonomy zones.

Voina has flaunted those new conventions, but its actions were only art for as long as they created and exploited those new vacuums that have been arising within what outwardly seems quite forbidding and total, for as long as they evaded arrest. Of course, the risk of arrest was always part of the game; in fact, in one YouTube video, Vorotnikov taunts an employee of Center “E” and admonishes him for shaking down another activist. But arrest does not necessarily mean a cold New Year’s in prison, with the prospect of broken families. Voina was actually famous for caution, for “smart activism,” for flaunting the law without ever actually risking more than a misdemeanor. Many of my students dismiss their work not because it is risky or breaks taboos, but because it seems too calculated, planned as a spectacle with actors playing clearly defined theatrical roles, too close for comfort to the spectacular nature of football hooligan politics under Putin. One student actually said that his contacts on the radical right were big fans of Voina and saw them as brave allies in the battle against the police, obsessed with protecting its own interests (as a minority), instead of the interests of the (equally persecuted) Russian majority.

Such interpretations underscore the importance of art criticism, which suddenly seems more than appropriate, simply to avoid confusion and to keep Russian neo-Nazis from claiming Voina for themselves. Once they are released, we can discuss what might be wrong with Voina’s general pose, whether it is romantic or cynical or crazy or all of the above. We can talk about why the political motives are intentionally vague. We can wonder why Voina (and everyone else) is so clear about anti-authoritarianism but not much else. Why this obsession with the state and the elite? Isn’t it Bakuninist? Power, imagined in overly abstract terms, and countered with overly abstract means? This is typical for post-communist politics, and one of the reasons why Voina’s actions resonate so broadly. There is also a counter-tendency in Voina that seems more promising: one that addresses the dispersed violence in the everyday, as present in a nightclub frequented by neocons as in your average megamall. This could be one point to begin the discussion; another is that a lot of Voina’s work is conscious trash and camped-up kitsch, briefly captivating, but very much calculated for intermedial scandalizing effect. The rather traditional transgressive image of the romantic bohemian commune, having pregnant group sex in a zoological museum, does little to hold up the spread of fascism through the everyday, just as releasing roaches in a courtroom cannot stop yet another biased court from reading its verdict. The court can, however, stop us from ever discussing any of those topics and from seeing Voina’s actions as art, simply because it is unethical to attack them while they are in jail. In Russia, verdicts take a long time to read, and even longer to write.

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Editor’s Note. To find out more about the work and history of the Voina group, the story of their arrest and updates in this case, and how you can help the arrested activists with their legal defense and in spreading the word, go to Free Voina.

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Chto Delat in London/Alexei Penzei: “Under Suspicion”

First, an important announcement:

Dmitry Vilensky & Alexei Penzin from Chto Delat/What Is to Be Done?
Lecture: Tuesday, December 1st at 6.00 pm
Small Hall / Cinema (to the side of Loafers)
Richard Hoggart Building
Goldsmiths College, New Cross, London SE14 6NW

Organised by Marxism in Culture and the Micropolitics Research Group, Goldsmiths, and supported by the Open University.

Second, to give Londoners a taste of what they might be hearing at the December 1 lecture, we are reprinting here Alexei Penzin’s essay “Under Suspicion,” from a recent issue of our newspaper entitled Another Commons: Living/Knowledge/Action. Sadly, what Alexei wrote this past summer has only gained in relevance and timeliness since then.

Alexei Penzin: Under Suspicion

When we peruse the timeline of the “merry month of May” 2009 in Russia—a laconic chronicle of arrests, detentions of activists, intellectuals and artists, but also of protests against these actions of the authorities—many difficult questions arise. Of course, the fragmentary and brief comments given below do not claim to be a definitive diagnosis. The incomplete and sketchy quality of these comments is rather a part of the problem itself. A fuller analysis will be possible when there is a systematic understanding of the post-Soviet political experience, which for now is a thing of the future. 

1. In medias res

It is very difficult to understand what is going on in medias res, from the inside: these are events that are in the process of development, that affect us personally and assail us from all sides without allowing us to assume the stance of a dispassionate observer. These events affect many of us, sometimes in the literal, physical sense. The command “Hands against the wall!” A stunning blow to the head in a bus filled with people nabbed at a demonstration. Or, for example, the indescribably grotesque intrusion of a detachment of armed, shouting men during the showing of a Godard film at a peaceful leftist seminar. For about a year now the solidarity networks have been constantly delivering reports of new arrests, unlawful summonses for “discussions,” and beatings of activists. It is possible, however, that we should not be so focused on ourselves. The bad news concerns not only the minority of activists and intellectuals. The news also comes from those who are not involved in politics, education or research—from “average citizens.” The very texture of post-Soviet society in recent years has been steeped in anonymous, free-floating violence committed by the “forces of law and order.” Violence against civilians has become a kind of collateral damage, an excess of the existing system of political management. Sometimes this anonymous violence takes on personal and transgressive features. For example, in the person of a police officer who shoots at customers in a supermarket with the cold-bloodedness of a character in a computer game. Continue reading

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