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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Postcard to Khodorkovsky

By Sean L Hanley, on 21 October 2013

Pussy Riot Global Day

London has become home to a growing, but fractious community of political activists opposed to the Putin regime, finds Darya Malyutina. 

With its long history of serving as a refuge for disaffected Russians, London today hosts a sizeable and heterogeneous Russian-speaking population.

Many of them express casual anti-Putin sentiments; some of them are more actively trying to unseat him. How effective is this activism? Is it helping to bring democratic change to Russia, or raising awareness of what is happening in Russia to the British public; perhaps, at the very least, gaining some moral authority in the eyes of Russian society, or is it just so much wishful thinking and hot air?

In the autumn of 2012 Andrei Sidelnikov, the leader of London-based Russian opposition group Govorite Gromche [Speak Up], decided that, after a couple of years of organising regular rallies and various protest demonstrations, the format of their activity should be changed to ‘intellectual discussions and educational meetings.’ Some of these meetings took place in a small basement bookshop in Central London.

The meeting I attended took the form of a Skype conversation with Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. About twenty Russians gathered in the shop and listened to Pavel speaking about his father: how he has managed to write a book; how ‘Putin and his gang’ have no intention of letting him out; and how he continues to be a ‘moral leader,’ even from his prison cell. ‘What can we, Russians living in the West, do to help fight for rights and freedoms of citizens? How can we move Russia back to the democratic path of the early 1990s?’ asks Sidelnikov. ‘We understand that our actions do not have much impact,’ replies Pavel. ‘But we provide inspiration for those who are in prison; and our actions establish a moral authority. And, of course, we might be able to influence Russia’s foreign relations, because protest can be a catalyst for solving political problems….’

We could have been in the London of Alexander Herzen, in the 1850s, discussing overnight ways to make the autocratic Tsar, a liberal. ‘And maybe,’ said Sidelnikov, ‘we could send Mikhail a postcard for the New Year?’

‘He would be very pleased,’ replied Pavel. The meeting was declared closed, and the evening ended in the traditional way – the democracy fighters headed to the nearby pub. (more…)

Russians on Ripper Street

By Sarah J Young, on 4 February 2013

Conspiracies involving Russian anarchists and their adversaries in the tsarist secret police have played a long-standing role in the folklore of London’s East End, finds Sarah J. Young

A victim of Jack the Ripper, from the Illustrated Police News. Via Wikimedia Commons

Last night’s episode of the popular BBC period drama Ripper Street saw Inspector Reid and his Whitechapel team investigate tsarist secret police involvement in the death of an Eastern European Jewish anarchist. The story takes the series a long way from the initial scenario of a post-Ripper slasher, but in real life, tales of crimes and conspiracies perpetrated by both the Russian government and its opponents can be traced back to the Jack the Ripper case itself.

By the 1880s, London had already played host to high-profile political exiles from the Russian Empire for a number of decades, most famously becoming home to Alexander Herzen, who set up the Free Russian Press in Bloomsbury in the 1850s, Mikhail Bakunin, who joined Herzen in 1861 after escaping from Siberian exile, and Peter Lavrov, who published the revolutionary journal Vpered! (Forward) from a North London suburb from 1873 to 1876. The arrivals continued in the 1880s, with the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and members of the revolutionary organization The People’s Will such as Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky and Feliks Volkhovsky settling in London. But by now such radicals were no longer isolated voices, as this was also the period of working class, mainly Jewish immigration from the Russian empire, as people escaped the appalling conditions and restrictions of life in the Pale of Settlement. According to William Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals, roughly 30,000 immigrants arrived in London between 1881 and 1891. (more…)