#OccupyAbai, or Moscow during Protests

12 May

When I was ten years old, I came to visit my grandfather in Moscow for a few weeks in the summer. This was the summer of 1991; to be more precise, the month of August was when I came to visit. I had just been accepted into the Pioneer organization a couple of months before (I blogged about it here) so I was full of enthusiasm for my bright future as a young Soviet citizen. And then the coup, when Communist Party hardliners tried to force Mikhail Gorbachev out of power and reverse the course of his democratic reforms, took place. I’ll blog about my experience in 1991 later, but suffice it to say that it was largely thanks to my ending up in Moscow that summer that the awareness of myself in some manner of an historical context began.

I am back in Moscow, after several years’ absence, and the moment I land, protests have begun again. They haven’t reached the level of the protests of Russian citizens against the coup attempt in 1991, but the coincidence, nonetheless is striking. But now it’s the protests’ evolving similarity to the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests in the US that strikes me the most. And that calls for some reflections on my place in the world and as part of this history.

All of Russia’s opposition protests, that started last December as a result of fraudulent parliamentary elections, have been dismissed by the regime and its minions as engineered by the State Department in the US. “The long arm of the State Department” (“длинная рука госдепа”) has become a phrase that was coined by the protesters themselves to ironically point out the semiotic similarity that Putin’s regime draws with the Soviet anti-American rhetoric: the State Department’s long arm, after all, is a close linguistic relative of “the long arm of American imperialism.” It has been virtually impossible for me, when I meet and talk with Russian protesters, not to introduce myself (as a holder of a US passport) as “the long arm of the State Department” impersonated.

Ever more so since the moment when, some time in the evening on May 9, when it became clear that the Moscow police was not going to immediately disband the protesters, Moscow protests have started their evolving resemblance to the Occupy-style protesters in the US. The gathering place of the protests is the Clean Ponds boulevard, part of Moscow’s “boulevard ring” encircling the center of the city and close to the Clean Ponds (in Russian, Chistye Prudy). More specifically, the protesters have been drawn to the monument to the Kazakh poet and writer Abai Qunanbaiuli (in Russian, Abai Kunanbaev, or, by now, simply Abai), opened in Moscow in 2006 to honor the visit of Kazakhstan’s (autocratic) president Nursultan Nazarbaev to Moscow. Much has already been made by Russian bloggers about the relevance of Abai’s texts to the protesters: the Kazakh’s freedom-loving streak, accidentally discovered by the protests through the mere coincidence of the statue’s presence near the site of the protests, has been amplified in recent days. I don’t doubt that it would take long before someone makes some sort of Borat-style joke about the whole Kazakh theme.

In any case, the encampment, which is about a hundred people staying at the site overnight, crowds swelling to well over 1,500-2,000 in the evenings and late into the night, has now been dubbed “Occupy Abai” – with protesters themselves beginning to draw on the symbolic link with Occupy protests in the US. Abai, himself, has become everything from an accidental iconic hero of the new protest movement (see my photo of the Obama-style poster included with this post) to an unmistakable toponym (trying to meet a friend at the encampment last night, I was directed to look at Abai’s statue and follow his gaze to the intersection with a side alley where my friend stood). And it’s in this context, where the parallel with American-based Occupy movement has become clear to the protesters, that I found myself  emboldened in my role as “the long arm of the State Department.”

This blog has a twitter account connected to it: @returnstosender through which I try to post my own impressions, as well as share relevant articles by others, both in English (as the ironically self-styled American “agent,” I do have an interest, I suppose, in English-language audiences paying attention). Last night, I found myself talking to one women in the emerging core of organizers of the encampment about structural parallels with Occupy. Around 11 PM, a friend and I organized a lesson on how to use the famous live mic that enabled the Occupy encampments amplify their communications despite the ban on the usage of megaphones (same ban exists in Moscow): about 30-40 people joined my friend and I in “mic check” style recitations of the opening chapter of Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin. We chose the text at random, drawing on its familiarity to most Russians, but the relevant political subtext became clear as we “mic checked” it: the novel is set in Petersburg and Pushkin’s narrator, noting that the North [i.e. Petersburg] hasn’t been a good place for him, hints at Pushkin’s own banishment from Petersburg by Tsar Nicolas I. The crowd in Moscow laughed at the lines last night: Vladimir Putin, at whom the current protests are aimed, is form Russia’s northern “capital” (i.e. Petersburg) and it’s largely Putin’s shady Petersburg friends who constitute Russia’s current political and business elite. Referring to Petersburg, Pushkin’s narrator says, “There too I once enjoyed myself /But North winds are damaging to my health”: the political subtext, created in the context of Occupy Abai’s first live mic, was as startling as it was hilarious.

A Russian-born friend and a Ph.D. student at a US university doing research in Moscow now, who was involved with Occupy Oakland, is doing a teach-in at the Occupy Abai encampment later this evening. Both of us are certainly ambivalent about the imperfect nature of American democracy but, as “long arms of the State Department,” we hope to have something to contribute to our new Russian friends.

We’ll see how things go. Stay tuned.

Victory Day in Occupied Moscow

9 May

Trucks with police and internal forces lying in wait. May 9, 2012 in the center of Moscow (my photo).

Today is May 9, when Victory Day is observed in Russia to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. There is virtually not one Russian (or, ex-Soviet) family that hasn’t in some way been affected by the war: my own grandfather served in the army from 1941 until 1945. And while the official observance of the holiday has always, to some extent, co-opted many private reflections on individual people’s relationships to the war and its memory and legacy, there has never been anything quite as profane as what is in plain sight in Moscow today.

Following a large opposition march that was violently dispersed on the eve of Putin’s inauguration as president for the third term, to which he was “elected” in March as a result of heavy falsification and fraud, sporadically organized protests have been ongoing in Moscow ever since. On the day of the inauguration, May 7, the police and internal forces blocked off the center of the city and disbanded people who were trying to observe Putin’s motorcade as it proceeded towards the Kremlin. I watched the inauguration on TV: the motorcade proceeded along completely deserted streets of Moscow in broad daylight as people who live in apartment buildings along the route of the motorcade weren’t allowed out of their homes. A juxtaposition shot of Barack Obama’s inauguration, observed by 2 million people on the National Mall and of Putin’s motorcade on Moscow’s empty streets became an immediate internet sensation, retwitted and reposted online. Protests have been going on ever since.

Today, in a sense, feels like an apogee of more than a week’s worth of events of misguided historical analogies. These analogies were launched on May 1, when Medvedev (the new ex-president) and Putin (the new president) went for a walk among 100,000 people (official and likely exaggerated estimate) celebrating May Day (who, by some accounts, were bussed in to participate in the happening). The duo, Putin dressed in a stylish black suit and Medvedev sporting a stylish white coat, followed up on their outing by going to have beer so as to seem as though they are one with the people – an event, which, as the poet Lev Rubinstein suggested, should have been avoided had Putin and Medvedev’s image makers thought of the historical analogy between the attempted seizure of power by the Nazis in Germany during Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 and the illegal seizure of power by the fraudulently “elected” Putin-Medvedev tandem. The inauguration on May 7, too, was full of misguided historical analogies: as I was watching the ceremony on state TV, I was finding it hard to keep my face straight as the commentators, in one breath, discussed both the coronations of Muscovite princes in the Kremlin in the Middle Ages and the fact that, according to the Soviet protocol still in force, Putin would be addressed by the Kremlin’s commandant as “Comrade President.” However, May 9 – the Victory Day today – is the most profaned historical analogy of all this week.

Putin’s regime has entirely co-opted the memory of the war against Germany, the memory that is nearly sacred to most Russians, for its own purposes and this was in evidence during the heavy military parade today, which the regime had been rehearsing for several days prior to today (causing huge traffic jams all over the city as a result). Shifting the epicenter of national attention from private reflections, using the stands filled with elderly veterans as a prop, Putin unflinchingly (because of botox injections to his face, as some maintain) observed as Army units and heavy military machinery marched along the Red Square. He’s done this in previous years, sure, being the first post-Soviet leader to re-institute the military parade on Victory Day on the Red Square as a form of commemoration (Boris Yeltsin made sure to move it off-site, even rebuilding a small cathedral at the entrance to the Square that was used for passage of heavy military machinery during Soviet-era parades so as to block the most direct entrance into the Square); but this year, following more than a week of events, nothing private was allowed to be left in the meaning of May 9. Putin, violently back in power and clinging on as if he is here to stay for good, has put himself forward as the personification of the day which now, officially, is about nothing else than military might and national pride enabled by his, Putin’s, own enlightened rule. Referring to Putin’s KGB service in East Germany and playing on today’s celebrations over Nazi Germany, someone on twitter pointed out that, “there is a German occupant in the Kremlin.”

There is a very famous song devoted to the Soviet victory over Germany that has the following line: “This Victory Day has a stench of powder to it” (i.e. referring to the hard-won victory that cost 27 million Soviet lives). I remember goosebumps against my skin when hearing this song on TV during observances of May 9 in my childhood. True, TV was still Soviet and full of propaganda, but at least my grandfather, himself with a stench of wartime powder to him, was there in his own person and with his own stories to overpower any officially-created meaning of the holiday. There are fewer and fewer veterans still living- and so the interpretation of May 9 falls, disproportionately, into the hands of Putin and his minions. Seen on Twitter this morning, a contemporary version of that chilling song: “Этот День Победы Путиным пропах” – “This Victory Day has a stench of Putin to it.” 

May Day: Let’s rethink the parade

1 May

May Day, Moscow, 1960

It’s May Day: I am sitting in the airport about to board my flight for Russia. How appropriate. Boarding is in 30 minutes, so this will be quick – and, hopefully, to the point.

At some point someone should (some people already are and I will, too) work through the issues that those of us born and raised in the Soviet Union, no matter how little we were when the country fell apart, have when days like May Day roll around. For many years I couldn’t help but be cynical: the seriousness with which May Day was supposed to have been taken during my supposedly Communist childhood has for a long time made me allergic for anything that even remotely resembled May Day. One of several of Milan Kundera’s wooden and not completely human protagonists, Sabina of the unbearably famous The Unbearable Lightness of Being, has this kind of allergy, too: any social movement, any protests stinks of May Day parades in communist Czechoslovakia for her. I quite liked Sabina and identified enormously with her allergy – as late as 5-6 years ago. But when I was teaching the book to my students several months ago, I couldn’t stand it. To give Sabina a very serious allergen, Kundera caricatures all social protests in the image of some kind of knee-jerk leftism that isn’t totally aware of its own critical faculties and isn’t seeking anything specific beyond some unfulfillable global goals. Perhaps, much of my youth (or that part of it that makes folks prone to be impressed by Kundera) now being over, I am ready – and, in much need – to rethink all this.

May Day might be a good day to start doing so. It’s time to skip over the cynicism that comes with the memory of going to demonstration with my parents carrying red flags, balloons, and portraits of the Marx-Engels-Lenin trinity – else, should having grown up in a country that claimed to have built communism, forever make it impossible to see the legitimacy that is absolutely there when it comes to issues like workers’ rights? Kundera’s May Day parade marches on to sweep everything in its way; but, perhaps, it’s time to think about how these parades were never really about what they claimed to have been about, how the lie by a state about what it saw as the meaning of holidays like May Day should not continue to be a potent force against seeing the necessity of being reminded of what May Day is really supposed to mean.

That sentence, I know, was a mouthful. As I said, these are issues to be worked through.

I’ll be in Russia tomorrow – May Day is still a day-off and a holiday there, though its meaning still not clear at all.


“Shuttle traders” or, getting rid of old wool

28 Apr

Old wool

Having to move and going through old stuff could be productive: old stuff gets thrown out while, by the very virtue of being thrown out, it brings in new ideas. I was going through some boxes of clothing in my basement last week and found this old woolen sweater (see photo) at the bottom of one of them. The sweater is still a few sizes bigger than what I could conceivably wear today – I can only imagine how ridiculous I must have looked in it at age 15 when this item was purchased for me at an open air market in the city where I grew up in Russia when I was a man of an even more diminutive stature than I am today.

Such sweaters came from India and/or Turkey and were brought to provincial markets in Russia by a breed of people who were  products of the early unregulated capitalist economy of the waning Soviet years and the early post-Soviet ones. These people were called chelnoki (singular: chelnok) – a word, whose original meaning  refers to a small boat that shuttles between two banks of a river carrying goods and passengers across. These shuttle traders set out on long and dangerous voyages (usually, by bus) to some faraway places, risking a great deal because they were prone to attacks from highway robbers, thieves, and, once their wares were brought back to Russia, competing chelnoki and policemen demanding protection money. I don’t recall the history of this specific sweater, but I know that some sweater (maybe this one even) was once ordered directly for me directly from one of the shuttle traders my parents knew – ordered, supposedly, in a size that far exceeded my own. My parents must have hoped that I’d fill out in a few years’ time and fill in the sweater that I would have already come into my possession by then.

I am not sure why this sweater ended up coming with us to the States though my mother also brought some old knives, a few pots and pans, a couple of pillows and even a fur coat which she was warned not to wear around town for the fear of angering animal rights protesters who were rumored to throw paint at be-furred ladies (she wore her furs under the cover of night, walking our dog through deserted suburban streets, for the first couple of winters in America before hanging up her coat for good).

The shuttle traders who brought me my big woolen sweater from some faraway land, no longer – for the most part – exist. They (mostly) vanished over the course of the 2000s as Russian capitalism became less wild – or, perhaps, less wild only in certain ways. One provincial city – located, in fact, not far from my own hometown – even opened a monument to chelnoki at one of the city’s markets in 2009 (pictured below) solidifying their status as a site of cultural memory. At least one of their sweaters even made it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. a piece of cultural memory that spent several years in a box of clothing in my basement.

I am surprised that American moths haven’t eaten this Indian-made / Russian-traded  oversized sweater  of mine in a decade and a half while they’ve managed to devour my newer and leaner merino wool sweaters purchased  at one or another boringly legal shop. Perhaps, the tough passage of these sweaters and their traders across borders, mountains, forests and other dangerous terrains made them resistant to insects.  I haven’t worn this sweater since I was 16; and, given its size and the fact that my BMI is still a  reasonable ratio of body to mass for my now more advanced years, I wasn’t likely to wear it any time soon. Upon making this discovery, I did for a moment entertain the idea of calling my mother to inquire whether I was allowed to send the sweater to Salvation Army. However, my partner, who set the rules for this exploration of the basement as “if you haven’t worn it in more than 10 years, it gets thrown out,” assured me that I didn’t have to call my mother to ask for her consent.

I did, of course, raise the matter of wanting to consult my mother about wanting to get rid of the sweater with my therapist.

A monument to "shuttle traders" in the provincial Russian city of Ekaterinburg.

Lenin’s birthday, Part Two: The last Pioneer

22 Apr
The last pioneer

The last pioneer

Another reason why Lenin’s birthday, which is today, is memorable: on this day, twenty one years ago, I became a Pionner – one in the very last batch of Soviet children inducted into the Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization. The year was 1991, the spring was in the air, and 3rd graders all over the country were being inducted into the organization (a junior wing of the Communist Party) as was customary, on the birthday of our dear Grandpa Lenin.

It was, as I said, 1991: six years into Gorbachev’s perestroika, the admission into the Pioneer organization was by no means required any longer, but the organization still exercised a strong pull and so the admission was pumped up as something that was by no means guaranteed. One had to have good grades in academic subjects and good grades for behavior, and one had to receive positive recommendations from teachers in order to stand a chance to be admitted. I recall the months leading up to April 22, 1991 as a kind of minor intrigue. I myself – a straight A’s student and the teachers’ favorite – had nothing to fear, but I recall, with no small amount of retroactive embarassment, the sheer satisfaction of attending class meetings where problematic candidacies of some of my classmates were up for discussion. I don’t recall myself weighing in against my classmates (or have I conveniently forgotten it?), but I do recall the sadistic pleasure of delighting in the petty denunciations by nine- and ten-year-olds of their misbehaving peers. Everyone in my class was admitted, save for one – a boy with bad grades for his behavior, who would (not completely maliciously) sic a dog on me a few months later. The last I heard of him, he was gainfully employed by Russia’s Tax police. He did well for himself without being Lenin’s little Pioneer.

My Pionner spring was sweet but short: there was only one month left of the school year during which we were required to wear our red Pioneer ties. Because this was the time of the final exams, we didn’t get to do any activities that made being a Pioneer so appealing in the first place (read the last few words with a sarcastic intonation) – no helping any old ladies across the street, no collection of scrap metal to help our struggling state, no collection of paper recycling to allow more books (Lenin’s folios included) to be printed. The pionner tie itself, made of some red sweat-inducing artificial fabric, with its three ends symbolizing the ever-unbreakable u(tri)nity of the Pioneers, the Komsomol (Communist Youth Organization), and the Communist Party, was proving to be a chore to wear around one’s neck as the weather was getting warmer and warmer. Then came summer. Then, in August, the coup d’etat  happened and failed, and on September 1, 1991, the first day of the new school year, my parents did not let me wear my tie to school despite my pleading. It took a week or so for everyone else to stop wearing their red ties, too. Though it was only a few months since that glorious Lenin’s birthday when I became a Pioneer, those few months made all the difference. Nobody needed the Pioneers any more.

The guy you see in the picture is a wooden goat I own. I improvised him a Pioneer tie a few years ago out of nostalgia mixed liberally with a few doses of sarcasm. I always thought of myself as Russia’s last Pioneer – but no, my wooden goat, sitting proudly on his perch on one of my bookshelves, deserves that title more than I do.

What happened to my own Pioneer tie, you may ask – the object that every Pioneer was to hold sacred and take good care of? We got a dog, an American cocker spaniel. He was just a young teething pup then. He ate my Pioneer tie that year. That agent of imperialism!

Lenin’s birthday, Part One: On writing in invisible ink

22 Apr

Lenin and children (painting by Maya Nachiporenko, 1986)

Today is Lenin’s birthday. I remember the date well because for the first decade of my life it was part of my childhood mythology. April 22 was a sacred (of sorts) day – second only to bigger holidays, like the anniversary of the Revolution on November 7th or May Day. The founder of the Soviet state was my and all of my friends’ very own and affectionately apostrophized Grandpa Lenin who was rumored to have been great with children. He was a great superhero to have had growing up.

There was even a minor literary genre of children’s stories about Lenin. Of these stories I remember one particularly well. In it, Lenin, incarcerated by the evil Tsar, was not allowed to have ink and paper to write on (his words, we were told, were dangerous to his captors). But the ingenuity of Grandpa Lenin prevailed over the shorsightedness and the inability to see what a great man he was displayed by those who placed him under arrest. Lenin asked that his friends, who were allowed to see him, bring him books – lots of books (for reading was a positive value to instill in us, Soviet children!); he also went on a diet of milk and black bread. Here is the ingenious part: Lenin, the story went, made inkwells out of bread, poured milk into them, and using a quill pen, wrote in the margins of books he was given … in milk. Whenever the guard would come by, Lenin would eat his “inkwell.” If he guard checked the pages of the book for any traces of writing with some smuggled-in pen – well, the margins were all clean and white! Lenin would let his friends take back the books they loaned to him, the friends would bring each page in close proximity to a flame – and the milk script would turn brown, revealing the genius thoughts of our own tireless collective Grandpa about how to make the Revolution.

Needless to say, I tried this out – writing in milk, that is. It works. Try it yourselves on this 142nd birthday of Grandpa Lenin.

Back to the USSR: Bringing American jeans to Moscow, 2012

21 Apr


I am heading to Moscow in ten days for the first time in many years. I am staying with a distant relative who has a spare room, the apartment question still being among Moscow’s most cursed. One expects to do favors for relatives when one stays with them, but the specific request I received this time, baffled me: I was asked to bring a potato peeler and two pairs of jeans.

Foreigners (and, after sixteen years in the US, I am clearly seen as one of them in this particular instance) bringing jeans to Russia – that’s the kind of stuff that comes  straight out of some kind of a mothballed Cold War joke. The appearance of American jeans in the USSR – or, at least, their appearance in the Soviet cultural imagination – could be traced back to the  American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, a display of American consumer goods as part of “cultural diplomacy” that served as a setting for the famous kitchen debates between the US Vice President Richard Nixon and the Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. Jeans were part of the display that summer and, as Levi Strauss & Co. notes on the company’s blog, “Although jeans were frowned upon by Soviet officials as symbols of decadence and western imperialism, the products on display had to be replaced almost daily. Why? As explained then by the international press service R&F Features, ‘Eager Soviet visitors handled – and occasionally helped themselves to – display samples of the all-American denim pants.’” 

It’s not unusual for American travelers who visited the Soviet Union during the years of the Cold War to remember being approached by Russians on the street and offering money in exchange for the pair of jeans that said American traveler would have been wearing that day. My own childhood memory is imprinted by something of the kind: my grandfather returning from his first trip to the US around 1987, American clothes and other assorted items in tow. There certainly was a pair of jeans there. It was a pair of used jeans – something sent by my grandfather’s long-lost and then-rediscovered third-generation American relatives. It must have been the same wisdom inherited from other travelers and the American version of the Soviet-love-affair-with-Levi’s story that they must have been following in deciding what to send to the people of Russia they’ve never met. I remember finding a one-dollar bill in the pair of jeans intended for me. I was only six or seven years old then, but I certainly recall being over the moon about the new jeans – probably as much if not more over the moon than the 24 year old Soviet teacher named Larissa who penned (in funny English) the letter to Levi’s I am including here.

Letter from a grateful Soviet consumer of Levi's jeans, August 1991.

The Moscow relative with whom I am staying this spring would have been in his mid-teens  when jeans were first sighted in the American pavilion in  Russia – so, who knows, maybe he was one of those people wonderstruck by denim in 1959. I suppose the initial cultural shock left by the primal encounter with Levi’s might have proved stronger than the last twenty years of unchecked capitalism in Russia, with everything from Gap to Uniqlo in abundance in Moscow (more about Uniqlo another time). I shouldn’t be the one lecturing this relative on the sometimes-positive aspects of globalization, which allow travelers to forgo the need of paying for extra luggage in order to bring an authentic American pair of jeans to the country that has long been selling those same jeans in situ. As one Israeli friend remarked, he’s come to “always associate these requests with a marked use of double-plural” – jeans (the word, a peculiar double plural in both Russian and Hebrew) is something that our relatives expect of us, Americans. I should be charitable. Or, as another friend aptly noted, pointing to another element of the same Cold War consumerist dream, I should bring my relative some chewing gum, too – I’ll see what he does then.