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Russia’s Civil Society: From Democracy Backpedaling to Informal War

By Blog Admin, on 30 July 2016

 

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by Professor Alena Ledeneva

Across Central, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, democracy and civil society in the post-communist era are being diverted by informal ties, networks, practices that hide behind democratic institutions. The main problem with powerful informal obligations to family, friends, colleagues and bosses is that they also compromise the state, governance and civil society, especially where clear boundaries between public and private cannot be drawn. Imagine official positions that take over private lives, or having to choose between being a good bureaucrat and a good brother.

I’ve presented my research into informal practices in my trilogy on Russia: Russia’s Economy of Favours, How Russia Really Works, and Can Russia Modernise. In these three books, I take an ethnographic approach towards studying informal practices at different levels and periods, from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia. I view communism, its collapse, and the formation of a new system from the perspective of informal practices, and question the predominant discourses of the state, democracy, and civil society, associated with formal institutions.

There are three strands to my argument.

Firstly, the 1990s’ liberal reforms in Russia were originally thought to allow civil society to emerge and get grounded in already existent networks, yet this was not what happened. It turned out that Russia’s informal networks operate according to the ‘us versus them’ logic that is largely self- or network serving, and thus not conducive to civic values.

Secondly, the double standards widespread under the communist oppressive system continue to operate even after the fall of such a regime. The post-communist vacuum was hard to fill, and after a short blip of enthusiasm for democracy in late 1980s and early 1990s, the informal practices in politics – black PR, kompromat, krugovaya poruka (joint responsibility) – have increased people’s cynicism towards the new democratic institutions.

Thirdly, the non-civic nature of informal networks in Russia has also had effects on those in power. On one hand, Putin’s power networks served themselves and reproduced the culture of privileges, which is detrimental to civil society. On the other hand, Putin’s restrictive laws of 2006 and 2011, which, although damaging to existing non-governmental organisations, had the unintended consequence of benefitting civic initiatives emerging ‘bottom-up’. This was illustrated by the Blue Buckets campaign for equality on the roads, and the anti-Putin protests of 2011. The internet has become an important tool for activism, such as the Last Address initiative, whereby people commemorate victims of Stalin’s purges by putting a plaque on their building.

However, since 2012 powerful nationalist propaganda has considerably eroded the atmosphere for bottom-up social initiatives. This was launched by the Kremlin to ensure popular support for the continuing confrontation with the West over the situations in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and now Turkey. The informal war – an undeclared warfare behind the misleading facades – has gone international. This is not surprising, given the decades-long tradition of informal economy and informal politics. The future is even more worrying, as the number of leaders who admire and emulate the Most Powerful Person in the World is only likely to increase.

 

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Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

Stalin in Manhattan

By Blog Admin, on 20 May 2016

By Dr Elisabeth Schimpfossl – Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL SSEES

Elisabeth is giving a talk on 23rd May on ‘Russia’s New Rich and Their Attitudes to The West’ at UCL as part of the UCL Festival of Culture

(Seminar room 20, Wilkins South Wing, 18.00)

During my last trip to New York I was invited to attend the annual PR event of a chic Russian-owned Manhattan antiques shop. Everything was fancy; the location in one of the trendiest streets in Upper East Side that attracts a cosmopolitan jet-set crowd, the subtly tanned maître de, a young man with a gym-honed physique complemented by the most perfect manicure possible, and the champagne-sipping ladies elegantly balancing on pencil thin heels. I chatted with the wife of the new owner, a very pleasant thirty-something, who appears genuinely natural, despite being perfectly turned out, thanks to Botox, good dentistry and professional fashion styling.

Masha was born into an engineers’ family in Novosibirsk. Her family left for Spain in the early 1990s. After graduating from an international school, Masha did an economics degree at a UK business school. She worked for her father’s company for a few years before meeting Vadim, the son of a Forbes-listed oil and gas businessman. Vadim had some of his business in Latin America, so the young couple settled in New York City. He had a longstanding passion for antiques, and the year before he finally decided to realise his dream of owning a small antiques boutique. Masha was all up for it. She loves meeting new people, the quirky antique art dealers and the international ladies of fashion whom she primarily considers her husband’s clients, and also the people from the neighbourhood, some of them proper New Yorkers, who pop by every so often for a glass or two.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masha and I got to talk about the Moscow metro; how it is superior to the New York subway, not least because of the resources which were put into it by some of the best engineers of the early 1930s; and how little surprising it is that this greatly helped boost Stalin’s popularity. Stalin was not only good though, Masha adds. I nod quickly, affirming to her that that was indeed very much the case. Then I learned I had not nodded to the same idea. Stalin did not go far enough, she says, with the kind of un-Russian, professional smile on her face, learned at her international school.

Yes, it was crucial to eliminate all those Trotskyists and Leninists who would have only sabotaged the Soviet Union’s leap into an industrialised future. Stalin had never been a Leninist, hence Lenin’s suspicion towards him shortly before his death in early 1924. Both Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, became very wary of Stalin. Lenin had only endured young Stalin before the First World War for successfully staging bank robberies to fill up the party’s fighting fund. At the time Lenin’s party was working underground and any source of income was highly appreciated. So obviously Stalin had to settle his accounts with Lenin, his heritage and all his living memory.

Masha went on to explain why Stalin had to liquidate other revolutionaries and their sympathisers, for example the old Bolshevik Bukharin, a fellow traveller of Lenin. Bukharin had great charisma and was very popular, but he sided with the rich peasants. No industrialisation would have gone ahead with them clinging to their old ways of production; hence Stalin had to get rid of him. He also went on to liquidate the Red Army’s high command in 1937. Masha was now quite animated and in full flow. No matter how Bolshevik Marshall Tukhachevsky and the other senior commanders perceived themselves, they had a Tsarist mind-set. They would have become a massive problem, hindering more courageous military strategies during the Second World War.

If anything, Stalin was not tough enough. This is evident in the fact that there were still massively damaging saboteurs left, such as the Red Army general Vlasov who collaborated with the Nazis after his capture in 1942. At this point Masha’s husband waved his wife over to introduce her to a new customer who was interested in a fine pair of lacquered armchairs. The antique shop staff started collecting the empty Ruinart bottles and champagne glasses. The two pieces I liked most and would have loved to buy if I was rich, a 1940s cabinet for $35K and an art nouveau coffee table for $40K, had red stickers on them to indicate that they had been sold, and I left into the fresh air of a relatively clear New York September night.

 

As cosmopolitan and sophisticated as Masha is in most aspects of her lifestyle, her expensive European schooling and university education had failed to convert her to Western-type humanistic thoughts. Patriotic thinking, including seeing Stalin as the great moderniser and overseer of the Soviet Union’s rise to global superpower, was clearly more persuasive to her. As we saw in the case of Kremlin TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, even repressions in one’s own ancestry suffered during Stalin’s terror do not necessarily outweigh the deeply conservative views that began flourishing in the Putin era, supported by nostalgic feelings towards the Soviet period, primarily associated with solid traditional family values. Stalin is associated as much with the glory of the Soviet victory in the Second World War and with the country’s economic development as he is with atrocities and terror.

 

The tendency to hold such strong convictions arises within the context of clashing historical narratives. Western education, lifestyle and permanent residence do not necessarily have great influence on this view; on the contrary, they can rather cement it: the Western schooling Russians are presented with as gospel truth could not deviate more from what they have heard from relatives, seen on Russian television and read in Russian textbooks. In the Soviet Union, the only channels for alternative versions of history were close friends and family. Patriotism – and with it nostalgia for Russia’s lost status as a superpower – is such a strong component of national identity that Western takes on history are not perceived as pluralistic views, but as a sharp knife stabbed into Russia’s heart. Western textbook writers are partly to blame. It has happened to me, not just once, that when I asked a full lecture hall of history students in England who won the Second World War, the Soviet Union was conspicuous by its absence from their list of victorious countries. Those full of pride in their culture and history (to some extent almost every Russian), if not socialised into a belief in superiority, will necessarily defiantly reject an unsubtle Western understanding of their country and society.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

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Dr Phil Cavendish at Grad London

By Blog Admin, on 29 March 2016

Dr Philip Cavendish spoke at the recent GRAD Eisenstein exhibition on the introduction of colour film to Soviet cinema.

The overarching title of the Gallery for Russian Art & Design’s (GRAD for short and based in Little Portland Street, London) series of public lectures this Spring is a play on the well-known slogan, ‘A Cinema, Understood by the Millions’. This became associated with Soviet cinema of the 1930s.
Dr Phillip Cavendish: SOVIET COLOUR FILM, 1929–1945: AN EXPERIMENT UNDERSTOOD BY VERY FEW

Courtesy of GRAD

Since the drawings of Sergei Eisenstein are the subject of the exhibition currently being curated at GRAD, it might be worth pointing out that the title also makes reference to the title of a newspaper article which Eisenstein published alongside Grigorii Aleksandrov in early 1929. Entitled ‘Eksperiment, poniatyi millionam’ (An Experiment Accessible to Millions), this was published in the film journal Sovetskii ekran to accompany the release of the film Staroe i novoe (The Old and the New) – also known as General’naia Linia, which they had directed together.

By suggesting that colour cinema was an ‘experiment understood by very few’, I don’t mean that Soviet audiences experienced conceptual confusion in relation to the phenomenon of colour. Instead, it is that the complexity of the scientific processes that underpinned the development of colour technology was generally grasped poorly. This is true of the direct consumers of film culture, the vast majority of film critics and correspondents who reported on that culture, the senior managers and employees of Soviet film studios and the bureaucrats that were responsible for the film industry as a whole.

This lack of comprehension had dire, if not tragic, consequences for some of those involved in colour-film production in the Soviet Union. It also produces significant challenges for the film historian who seeks to understand the phenomenon and its implications for the development of Soviet cinema and Soviet culture more broadly.

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Courtesy of GRAD

The reasons for being interested in this subject are nevertheless various and compelling. (more…)

Gender, nationalism and citizenship in anti-authoritarian protests in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

By Blog Admin, on 13 July 2015

Darya Malyutina, a recent UCL PhD, reports on a workshop that was held at the University of Cambridge, which was funded by CEELBAS and Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, and which involved the participation of several representatives of UCL SSEES. The event was organized by Olesya Khromeychuk, until recently a teaching fellow at SSEES and lector in Ukrainian at Cambridge, and soon to take up a position as Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of East Anglia.

Participants in the workshop: (L-R) Richard Mole, Anna Shadrina, Nadzeya Husakouskaya, Tamara Martseniuk.

On 20 June 2015, a workshop that brought together scholars, human rights and gender equality activists, artists and journalists working on Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, took place at Robinson College at the University of Cambridge. The participants discussed the implications and intersections of gender, nationalism and citizenship in the recent and ongoing protest movements in the three countries. The interdisciplinary discussions also addressed a number of related issues, from body politics and corporeality to migration and diaspora, from media and propaganda to art and literature, from war to ethical and methodological quandaries of research and activism.

(more…)

How Western plans to fight Putin’s propaganda war could backfire

By Blog Admin, on 26 June 2015

Joanna Szostek, a Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow at UCL SSEES, considers the implications of Western proposals to fight Russian propaganda. She argues that injecting Western government money into Russian-language news content could backfire.

An information war is raging in Eastern Europe; at stake are perceptions of the situation in Ukraine. In both Russia and the West, the commentariat claims the other side manipulates gullible minds with propaganda.

Vladimir Putin on Russia Today. Photo: Wiki Commons.

In mid-May, Russian television ran a six-minute report about “battle formations” pitted “against Russia” on the internet and airwaves. By this it meant the volunteer Information Army established by the Ukrainian Information Ministry and the “myth-busters” Brussels hopes to recruit to defend its Eastern Partnership initiative against Russian disinformation.

A week later, the Latvian capital Riga hosted a conference where hundreds of journalists and assorted experts discussed how to counter the “Russian information threat”. EU officials were in attendance, promising tens of millions of euros to support “free media” across the six Eastern Partnership states.

(more…)

Ukraine: Why Russian perspectives should be heard

By Blog Admin, on 14 November 2014

Throughout the Ukraine crisis there has been persistent criticism from the West that the Russian media have intentionally presented misleading information on the conflict.

However, Joanna Szostek argues while there are legitimate concerns about the reporting of organisations such as the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT, banning or excluding Russian perspectives from the Western media would be counter-productive.

On 31 October a conference took place at the University of Cambridge to discuss ‘Ukraine and the Global Information War’. The event brought journalists, activists and academics together to reflect on media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, with the problem of propaganda a particular concern. Several speakers represented organisations that have been working to expose disinformation in the Russian media and counter the Russian narrative of events in Ukraine more generally.

Russia’s international propaganda machine is so powerful, insidious and dangerous, argued some of these speakers, that much tougher measures are needed to block its effects. Calls were voiced for RT, Russia’s state-funded broadcaster aimed at international audiences, to be outlawed. Other participants suggested that Western news outlets should be freed from the usual requirement to ‘report both sides’ on the basis that the Russian ‘side’ is largely derived from falsehoods, so repeating it merely serves the Kremlin’s aim of muddying the waters. One eminent historian complained that the BBC’s Ukraine coverage had been ‘particularly irritating’ with its rigid commitment to ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism.

Some of the untrue stories disseminated by Russian television during the conflict in Ukraine have certainly been outrageous and the activists who volunteer their time and energy debunking fabrications deserve respect and support. Incessant Russian talk of the ‘fascist coup’ in Kyiv must infuriate the millions who joined Euromaidan out of a genuine desire to make their country less corrupt and more democratic.

Nevertheless, to ban RT or exclude the ‘Russian perspective’ from news reports would be counterproductive: it would serve only to reinforce impressions of Western hostility and ‘double standards’ in the eyes of the Russian public. (more…)

“This is clearly not just about Ukraine, but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole neighbourhood”

By Blog Admin, on 20 October 2014

Wilson UCWIMFTW coverAndrew Wilson  discusses his new book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for The West with SSEES Research Blog.

SRB: You made a trip to Ukraine when writing this book. Could you tell us about your experiences there?

AW: When I was there, it struck me as a good idea that there was a book in all this. The previous time I was in Ukraine was in November last year, just before the protests started. But by February, it was also pretty clear that things were getting exciting and heading to some kind of denouement. So what do you do? You just go.

I arrived in the middle of an old fashioned revolution. I remember a human chain collecting cobblestones. At the front you had young guys chucking them at the militia, but the human chain was made up of the entire citizenry of Kiev – well dressed women in high heels coming from the office, the grandmother at the front still holding her shopping in a blue plastic bag. It was like a nineteenth century revolution between the citizens and the evil rulers, a bit like Les Miserables.

The book went to press really quickly, but hopefully, I can put some pictures in the second edition.

SRB: You refer to the Orange Revolution as a precedent to the Ukraine crisis. To what extent do you see this crisis is a continuation of the 2004 Orange Revolution?

AW: Well, the protesters clearly had that in mind. Initially they were copying the tactics of the Orange Revolution and it started in the same way – a peaceful, carnival-like protest. But people were also thinking of how to do it better. It was clear very early on during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that the regime wasn’t capable of using violence, whereas this time the regime did use violence–but did so very early and not sufficiently to put an end to things. So had a very early set of calculations with how to deal with a very different regime.

Ultimately the tragedy is that immediately after the uprising there was a sense of optimism that Ukraine was doing better this time but it never got the chance to show that because people were still learning lessons from the disappointments that followed the Orange Revolution.

SRB: Do you think in the immediate future that the Russia’s hegemony will dictate the political paths of countries in Eastern Europe?

AW: We can see Russia trying to influence all its neighbours, not just Ukraine. The bigger picture is a pretty scary one. If it is true that the countries that reformed fairly successfully in the 1990s in Central Europe were able to do so only because Russia was not really able prevent them, whereas Russia is now so able to do so here –that’s a pretty depressing conclusion.

It’s not just Ukraine but other countries that might be unable to reform or undertake the EU-friendly policies that Brussels wants; Moldova is a big test case with the election coming up, Georgia is a very interesting case too, because it has already reformed but under Russian pressure is now backsliding a bit. We can also see the reintroduction of a more Russian political culture – back to corruption, patronage, political prosecutions. The Baltic States are an important test case too because they’re in EU and NATO, but will that protect them from Russian pressure?

What’s more, this is clearly not just about Ukraine but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole  neighbourhood. Long- term I think Russia is over extended, so it would be able make trouble everywhere, but it can probably make trouble in two countries at once. (more…)

‘Our dear Georgii Ivanovich’: an American journalist between Siberia and the Russian emigration

By Blog Admin, on 1 October 2014

Society of Friends of Russian Freedom flyer, from the LSE archives.

Society of Friends of Russian Freedom flyer.
LSE archives. Reproduced with permission

Archives in Moscow, London and Washington DC reveal the story of an American writer’s influence on the Russian revolutionary emigration, finds postgraduate Ben Phillips.

In a letter to the executive committee of the revolutionary populist group Narodnaia volia (People’s Will) in March 1882, the writer and sometime revolutionary terrorist Sergei Kravchinskii (better known by his nom de plume, Stepniak) insisted that the emigration to the West – then in its third and final stage before the events of 1917 – should conduct two distinct propagandas: one, characterised by revolutionary socialism, amongst the Russian youth, the other focused on stirring humanitarian outrage against the iniquities of Russian politics amongst the European bourgeoisie. ‘We can expect no sympathy in the name of our socialism’, he wrote. ‘We must acquaint Europe not with our political programme, but with the current state of the revolutionary struggle’ (Valk 1965, p. 345).

For years, the emigration was Janus-faced. Looking west, Russia’s political outcasts at once presented themselves as moderate liberals and democratic socialists to the European bourgeoisie, whilst introspectively debating the merits of revolutionary terrorism and engaging with theoretical questions. In this context, the story of George Kennan, with his web of contacts and personal friendships extending between the emigration and Siberia’s community of political exiles, and his writings on the Siberian exile system that were translated into Russian and disseminated illegally across Russia almost before they had appeared in English, remains one of the underexplored curiosities of revolutionary history. How did an American journalist come to transcend the audiences to which the emigration had previously spoken in two different languages and two different registers?

A distant cousin of his Cold War namesake, Kennan’s interest in Russia dated back to the 1860s, when a two-year visit to the Kamchatka peninsula provided material for Tent Life in Siberia (1877). However, it was his second visit to Russia’s eastern domains in the mid-1880s that cemented Kennan’s legacy. From 1885 to 1886, Kennan’s research on the Siberian exile system exposed him to the worst iniquities of Tsarist autocracy and brought him into contact with many political prisoners with whom he remained friends. His damning findings were serialised by Century Magazine at the end of the 1880s and early 1890s, creating a sensation across the Anglophone world. During this time, he frequented the American lecture circuit, and was recognised as his country’s preeminent Russianist. His magnum opus, Siberia and the Exile System, appeared in two volumes in 1891 and remains his best known work as well as a significant source for those working on the history of Siberian exile.

Kennan reached different audiences in different ways. Thomas M. Barrett has argued that it was through his American lectures, ‘more than anywhere else, that Kennan reached his public and became a celebrity’ (Stolberg 2005, p. 139). His oratory drew heavily on American melodramatic traditions and sensationalist representations of Siberia as a Ruritanian wilderness populated by terrifying natives and the exiled nobility of Russia’s western borderlands. Kennan’s trick was to add politics to the melodrama, along with a heavy dose of self-regarding chauvinism. Night after night, Kennan turned out the lights for magic lantern displays of political prisoners’ photographs, sang prison songs, disappeared mid-lecture only to return dressed as a Siberian convict and, on at least one occasion, reduced an audience to tears with an (unverified) anecdote of prisoners in a Petersburg forwarding prison flying the American flag to celebrate July 4th. (See Travis 1990.)Thus it is clearly true that in one sense Kennan tells us far more about American liberalism at the end of the nineteenth century than he does about Russia. One can relate the figure of the political exile in Kennan’s writings and his lectures to the role of refugees from the 1848 revolutions in the mid-Victorian consciousness: both represented mirrors on the self.

In another sense, however, Kennan was a fully fledged member of the revolutionary movement. His (more…)

How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia

By Blog Admin, on 21 July 2014

A satirical recipe book offers unusual insights into seventeenth-century Russia, says Clare Griffin.

One of the big questions for me when reading recipes is, did anyone actually use these? This is always a tricky point, especially when we consider the range of ‘recipes’ and recipe collections out there. One group of texts which circulated in early modern Russia, usually referred to as the ‘Satirical Leechbooks’, gives an interesting perspective.

Moscow's Foreign Quarter

Moscow’s Foreign Quarter, by Adam Olearius.
Via Wikimedia Commons

The most well-known starts like this:

A leechbook for foreigners.

A leechbook by Russian people, how to heal foreigners and people of their land; [using] very appropriate medicines from various and expensive ingredients.

 

 

 

 

The ingredients mentioned in this leechbook are odd:

– Part of a white bridge

– Chopped women’s folk dancing

– Light-colored screeching of a cart

– A fat eagle’s flight

– The voice of a bass violin

Bridge theft aside, these ingredients seem difficult to source. Would the peddler of the famous Russian folk song Korobeiniki – better known to non-Slavicists as ‘the Tetris song’ – have had such wares in his tray? It seems unlikely.

Korobeiniki (Peddlers)

Korobeiniki (Peddlers). Via Wikimedia Commons

 

Some of the accompanying therapeutic activities also seem unrealistic:

– Sweat for three days naked in ice

– Rise early, just after vespers

 

Reading these recipes, it does seem that the author might not have been entirely serious about healing his foreign patient; indeed, ‘healing’ itself here seems to be a joke, although the foreigner might not have seen it like that. The text itself notes: ‘those it does not kill it will surely heal’ – not perhaps the most assuring of claims. The ‘very appropriate medicines’ mentioned in the introduction really seem to be ‘just desserts’ for the foreigners as prescribed by a less-than welcoming Russian.

The text also seems to be mocking medicine in general. In seventeenth-century Russia, official court medicine was practiced by Western European medical practitioners, often using Western European medical books available in Latin and other foreign languages. This use of foreigners and foreign medicine seems to be the focus of the ‘joke’ being made here.

So, these recipes are more for entertainment than therapy, a type of recipe found across Europe, but do they actually tell us anything about Russian medicine? Perhaps happily for any sickly foreigners in seventeenth-century Russia, the Leechbook for Foreigners was not the only medical-style text available in Russia; by the 1700s, there were several medical recipe books circulating in Russia, and in Russian, which a rather kinder healer of foreigners would have selected.

In fact, the unknown author of the Leechbook for Foreigners seems to have been rather familiar with such texts. Leaving aside his idiosyncratic collection of ingredients, his recipes do make sense in the context of a medical recipe: he uses the same kinds of measures, and recommends combining ingredients in the same way, as ‘serious’ medical books of the time. On one level, this seems to be a part of his mocking of healing: by aping a format, he derides it as ridiculous. But on another level, it reveals that he has in fact read such recipes, in order to be sufficiently familiar with them to parody them. Our anonymous author may not have approved of foreigners and their foreign healing, but he seemed well versed in what he criticised.

This post was first published on The Recipes Project, and is republished here with permission. The fourth in a series of posts on Russian recipes on The Recipes Project, previous posts have introduced early modern Russia, and given advice on how to feed our servants, and how to get over hangovers.

Clare Griffin studied Russian History at UCL-SSEES, and is now a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

The SSEES Research Blog will return in September.

Russia’s Invisible Youth

By Blog Admin, on 18 June 2014

Deti 404 is an online project for Russia's LGBT teenagers. Photo CC: Ivan Simochkin

Deti 404 is an online project for Russia’s LGBT
teenagers. Photo CC: Ivan Simochkin

Maxim Edwards and Imogen Wade introduce a new documentary from Russia that will have its UK premiere at the closing gala of Open City Docs in London (17-22 June 2014).

Footsteps echo through the hallways of an undisclosed school in Russia; a telephone camera rocks to and fro before the grainy, leering faces of classmates. ‘For me, every day at school starts with shouts of ‘Faggot!’, ‘Be careful, he could f*** your ass with that fork’, and other terms of abuse. I think of it as ‘Good Morning.’ So begins the day of one of 45 teenagers, interviewed for Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev’s 2014 documentary film Children 404.

The ‘404: page not found’ youth of Russia

The effects of Russia’s controversial 2013 law prohibiting ‘LGBT propaganda’ are well known, but as the creator of Deti 404 (Children 404), journalist Yelena Klimova knows, few people have bothered to ask the opinions of those the law supposedly protects – Russia’s children. Deti 404 is an online project for the children who many believe do not exist – Russia’s LGBT teenagers, the ‘404: page not found’ errors who live in daily fear of harassment and intimidation in the classroom and at home. These are the children who have found a voice in Klimova’s project, allowing them to share their stories with the world.

The authorities’ response was predictable. As a result of Deti 404, Klimova was charged with breaking the law, though her trial on 27 February 2014 found no evidence of ‘gay propaganda’ in her activities. With 22,000 people joining its group on Russian social network VKontakte in its first year and 1364 teenagers having shared their stories so far, the project has been described by journalist Valery Panyushkin as the ‘youth crisis centre the state ought to have created, instead of adopting its anti-gay law.’

The film shows a world of faces hidden behind hands and cameras, furtive glances over shoulders and echoing taunts in school corridors. This is nothing to do with cinematic style; the majority of these children were interviewed on condition of anonymity. (more…)