On April 9th, my friends and I went to see a documentary called “F@ck This Job” about “Dozhd’” (“Rain”), the only independent TV company in Russia. “Artdocfest” festival, taking place since in 2007 in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Riga, was banned this year in St.Petersburg. At the start of the first day, representatives of Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s Federal Service for Social and Hygienic Monitoring, sealed off the hall of the House of Cinema in St.Petersburg for a “violation of the sanitary regime”. In Moscow, the festival received some indirect threats before a scheduled screening of a film about a gay person who had to flee from Chechnya. First, the organizers received an anonymous call demanding the screening be cancelled, then someone bought all the tickets with one bank card. To mitigate possible risks to the festival venue (film theatre ”October”), the documentary got excluded from the programme.
The documentary “F@ck This Job was made by a journalist and director Vera Krichevskaya, supported by producers Mike Lerner and Jess Search. It is the true story of Natalia Sindeyeva, who, in the prosperous 2000s, was a newly rich and glamorous business lady who launched a TV channel with her husband’s support, and later, to her surprise, faced the harsh reality that news inconvenient to the Kremlin was physically suppressed. The director’s version of the film shown on April the 9th was very well received. In a very sincere tone of voice Vera speaks about Sindeyeva’s struggle and the courage one needs to accept defeat, and about the utmost importance of friends and family support. The latter is probably the main thing that allows one to survive in an anti-utopia evolving in from of our eyes.
TV “Dozhd” team, Vera Krichevskaya, “Artdocfest” crew and the festival director Vitaly Mansky received a standing ovation at the closing moments of the festival, which saw so much trouble this year. With no formal ban, there is obviously an unspoken order being enforced to squeeze out any points of view different from the official one.
I wrote already about the ‘foreign agent’ label. It is difficult to take seriously, just as the expression “pernicious influence of the West”, a media cliché from my Soviet childhood. However, more and more organisations are obliged to mark the websites and publications with this ‘yellow star’.
“Meduza”, a Russian-language online news channel, registered in Latvia, founded by Russian journalists in 2014, was required to put this warning on its home page.
Bad news is, “Meduza” immediately lost most of the advertisers and money coming from them. Good news is, great number of readers committed to support the channel with donations.
In April, «Novaya Gazeta” journalist Roman Anin, who wrote about Panama-based offshore businesses of Russian officials, had his flat searched and his office equipment seized.
Young journalists from DOXA, a journal drawing attention to the political persecutions of students, had their flats and office searched and were charged with “engaging minors” into protest activities, which is a criminal offence.
The entire DOXA team were ordered by the court to confine themselves for two months effectively putting them under house arrest.
From 8th to 11th of April I took part in an international online conference of psychologists and business consultants, which aimed to give participants time and space to experience conscious and unconscious relationships within and between groups, reflect on changes in the world after covid19.
On the first day of the conference, I experienced isolation and powerlessness when my Zoom application didn’t give me “Breakout Rooms” option. The moment everyone chose a virtual discussion room and disappeared, I was left alone in a “lobby”, as if in front of a closed door. Updates, upgrades, proxy server, browser changes didn’t help, and eventually the administrator of the conference had to ‘transfer’ me manually. Thus I found myself being the only one who could not enjoy Zoom’s wonderful conference technology at that online gathering. I wonder if those were some secret intrigue of Roskomnadzor (Russian state body in control of communications) interfering with American Zoom, or the flaws of Zoom’s free version?
I was the only Russian at the conference. A colleague from Lithuania from my “review group” asked: “Nina, for you, someone who comes from a strong and privileged country, it must have been terrible to experience these technical problems.” She was referring to the territory and history, natural resources and talents of Russia but I realized that only later. The moment I heard it I could not see how Russia, and myself, could possibly be associated with privileges. A moment of learning it was.
Below I share two quotes from the group relations conference participants and two quotes from colta.ru, a Russia website sharing publications about culture and society.
“I want to talk about privileges, and solidarity. I am quite happy I got vaccinated. Many of my colleagues, also over 70, had it. One of them gave me a call recently, and happily said that her husband and she were going to Tenerife. I have a problem with that. We live in prosperous Germany and thanks to the retirement age we got our jabs. But millions of people in the world can neither travel nor get protection from covid19. Privilege is a responsibility. To travel when so many people and countries are forced to stay home – there is something indecent about it.”
“When I think of a small amount of vaccines that go to Africa today, I feel terrible. How can one talk about equality in this world.”
“At this exhibition (“African Diaries.” Victoria Ivleva ), you get to understand the simple truth: whilst the first quarter of the XXI century has almost passed by, there is this continent where life is no different from 200-300 years ago in terms of concentration of pain, suffering, and horror…”
“…I was not happy about the work I did that time in Africa but I carefully reviewed the pictures while preparing for the exhibition. Here they are: a man in a European lady’s mink coat with a bucket, his bare feet sprawled in the mud, another man in a Burberry cape with a wash basin. It looks like a circus, on the one hand, but on the other, it is such a shame… our shame.
Photographer Victoria Ivleva changed one African life helping out a little boy from Uganda to go to school, then to enter a medical university in Russia. Odongo will soon become a cardiologist and will help people, as he dreamt.
Nikolai Formozov, a Russian biologist and environmentalist, announced a hunger strike in solidarity with Navalny on his Facebook page : ” Why? There are many reasons. Rational: the authorities count on our inertia and weakness. Any public movement of support terrifies them. Putin’s power fetish is ‘social stability’ <…> Putin recently said about Alexei Navalny: “If they had wanted to kill, they would have killed.” A rare case where I agree with Mr Putin. Yes, that’s right, he has just left out one word – “quickly”. “If they had wanted to kill quickly, they would have killed.” Now Navalny is being killed slowly, in front of his wife Yulia, his mother, in front of all of us. But I repeat, after Yulia, Alexei’s favourite phrase: “Everything will be all right!” For it to be so, we need to act before it’s too late, otherwise all of us and each of us will be guilty for not trying to save him.”
Fedor Katassonov, a medical doctor, wrote in Facebook on April 20th, one day before a rally in support of Navalny explaining why he, sceptical about politicians in general, will join the rally : “I don’t want to leave the country. How can I stay here and remain myself at the same time? I have no illusion that the population of Russia can suddenly get enlightened and sober.<…> In general, I only believe in changes coming from the top, from those with money and armies, and I fear changes from below as I fear bloodshed. If one of the sharks at the top is biting another and needs popular support, I will be ready to extend this support to someone who will repeal the Dima Yakovlev law, acknowledge the plane shoot down, rehabilitate political prisoners, bring back elections and free media. Or does at least something like this, to start with. It is unlikely to be a nice person – I do not believe nice people get power in nuclear states – but at least more human. <…> I don’t like Navalny, though I admire him and give him credit for his truly heroic behaviour. But the man is being murdered in front of our eyes, and the six Nobel Prize winners led by Benedict Cumberbatch will not help him! So, just because I still live here, I cannot stay home <on April 21st, on the day the meeting in support of Navalny>. I cannot quietly watch the murder at my computer. If I am not seen it means I am fine with what is going on. But I do not want a reality show of the death penalty in my country. To remain who I am, I want to show the state that they cannot do this to me. You can’t do this to me.”
The meeting in support of Navalny indeed took place, Alexei got medical treatment and ended his hunger strike. I was near State Duma and Kremlin at 5pm on that day. It was quiet and calm, no crowd yet, but armed men in flak jackets were already there. I tried to talk to them: “Do you know what’s going on here today? Why people want to join the rally? Do you know whom people show solidarity with? which law did he break? why cannot he get medical treatment? Do you understand why someone like me, not really interested in politics, tries to show solidarity tonight?”
They all repeated the same: «We cannot give any comment». Later, in the crowd, an angry lady in her forties, shared her recent experience. She had been detained after January support meetings, and, at a police station, heard this from a senior police officer:
“You are such a small crowd. If you were one million people – I’d listen to you. When you are three million – I will take your side.”
Finally, I would like to share one more post, by Dmitry Bykov, Russian writer, lecturer and political activist . Bykov wrote this in his Instagram on April 12th to mark the sixty years anniversary of the first space flight.
“Gagarin’s flight was seen by many as only an offshoot of the Soviet military programme. They say that the rocket was developed by the military and the space exploration itself was just a side effect of the arms race… The Soviet space project has been slandered many times. Humankind does not seem to understand, still, that everything good in the world is a side effect. Poetry, lyric, most of art is a side effect of the reproductive instinct. All great architecture is a side effect of ego complex of few sovereigns and their men. All beautiful things are generally done in one’s leisure time.
The thing is, part of the USSR ideology was the idea that survival is not the most important thing. One was supposed to risk one’s life for one’s ideals. This has brought results which the whole world is still proud of today. Sixty years after Gagarin’s flight, one finds oneself at a far less comfortable place: Russia is a half-step away from a war with Ukraine (and maybe with Europe). Socialist system collapse has not reduced the number of tyrants and, more importantly, slaves in the world.
The ideological confrontation, which had still left a chance to influence and change opinions, is being replaced by geopolitical confrontation. The main thing is that the enormous, enormous amounts money used to be spent on space is now spent on palaces and yachts, also beautiful oh yes, but far less a breakthrough. That is to say, ordinary people have not gained much from space race stop. Children do not dream of flight to Mars today, but of a second-hand car. When impossible goals are set and incredible impractical deeds take place, mankind does a better job, somehow. Better texts get written and better films made. Negotiations proceed with more success, like between Khrushchev and Kennedy.
When mankind starts to put material metrics and national pride above other things, it degrades not only morally, but in material terms as well. Gagarin did not go to outer space to get a three-bedroom flat. The Soviet Union did not dream of domination, but of the leadership in the world – paying it lip service, yes, but words ultimately shape everything. The main (perhaps unconscious) purpose of the USSR existence was this exit to outer space. It’s mission was completed. Today’s Russia probably also has a mission, possibly unconscious as well. I am afraid it is a mission to demonstrate the perniciousness of certain ideas and practices. Whatever you like, I would vote for space. Everyone rushed into space after us then, and everyone scatters away from us now, and in both cases, I believe, they are quite right.”
End of quote.
Bykov has a predilection for sweeping generalisations but I still like the post above. Gagarin’s famous smile on April billboards reminds of the moment when people in this country felt proud and united, yet there is something more than nostalgia in the air: a thirst for genuine, kind, human words and deeds, sincere and brave people. It’s good to see them around.