Category Archives: Russia

Hogueras, satirical structures made of cardboard portraying current events and personalities, of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and US President  Barack Obama are displayed ahead of the annual San Juan (Saint John) celebrations in Alicante on June 23, 2014. Fires are lit throughout Spain for Saint John where the Hogueras and objects people no longer want are burnt as individuals make wishes as they jump through the flames. AFP PHOTO/ JOSE JORDAN

Podcast: Jonathan Harris, Why do American leaders (and pundits) have such confused conceptions of the USSR and Russian Federation?

jon_harrisAmerican leaders’ definition of the relationship between domestic and foreign policy foster primitive views of the foreign policies of both the USSR and Russian Federation. Their obsession with the “promotion of democracy” produces similar conclusions about the nature of the Russian political system under Putin.

Jonathan Harris is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. His areas of expertise are Comparative politics, USSR and Russian Federation, and international politics.



Is There Life on Mars? An Interview with Elena Demidova on Men’s Choice


In January, Novaya gazeta held their annual online documentary film festival. Each film was available for online viewing for 24 hours. A Facebook friend posted a link to Elena Demidova’s Men’s Choice (Muzhskoi vybor). He had written the English subtitles for it. It looked interesting so I checked it out.

What I saw was something outsiders rarely hear about Russia—the lives of the thousands of people, mostly men, who travel extraordinary distances to Russia’s far north to work in the natural gas fields. These men work on rotations—a month of constant work on, and a month back home. This labor forces them to be separated from their families for long periods of time. Why do they do it? For money, quite simply. Working at Russia’s vast gas fields is far more lucrative than the work available in the small towns and villages many of these men hail from.

I found Men’s Choice fascinating for its human touch against the backdrop of hard labor and a harsh environment. So I reached out to the film’s director, Elena Demidova, for an interview. I originally wanted this to be a podcast, but technical issues and scheduling made it impractical. Luckily, Demidova was kind enough to answer my questions in written form. The interview is below.

Elena Demidova is currently raising funds for her next film, The Last Man. You can donate here.

Watch the trailer for Men’s Choice (English Subtitles)

Tell a bit about yourself and your filmmaking. What are some of the issues that interest you?

I didn’t come to the film industry right away. My first education is in engineering, and then I got a degree in History and worked as a journalist. Then almost by accident I started to study in the Internews film school in Moscow (under Marina Razbezhkina) [Internews Moscow was closed down after a raid by the Russian Interior Ministry in 2007. You can read about the incident here and here as well as the appeal to Vladimir Putin signed by over 1100 Russian journalists and filmmakers.—Sean]. It completely changed my life. I didn’t just get anew profession, I also discovered а new world and new possibilities. I’ve been working as film director since. I’ve made about 10 films. This work is interesting and important for me. Men’s Choice is my second feature-length documentary.

What inspired you to make Men’s Choice?

The Russian North and the Arctic aren’t just words to me.  I went to the North when I was a student. We skied at Northern Urals and Kola Peninsula. In addition to this, I shot one of my previous films in the train travelling from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea. I got the idea for [Men’s Choice] there. When I got on to the train at one of the northern stations, I noticed that only men were travelling in it. So I became acquainted with shift workers, who went home and went back to work a month later. And I realized that I’m really interested in how they live and work in the North and what is going on with them.

Beside this, I wanted to make this film because I lived in a Russian village for quite a long time. I know very well how men and women live there. I feel really bad for the women who must play the man’s role in family because their husbands are unemployed and drink. And I feel sorry for those men who are losing the man in themselves. And I understood that if a man must leave for a long time to support his family, he will not just earn money but he will also have problems. And so it was interesting for me to investigate this situation and these men. I generally believe that a film is always more interesting when it explores something.

And I felt so close to them because I understand their problems. I also used to live in a small town and used to have a husband who earned little money. Granted, we didn’t move to the North, but to Moscow. But it was a lot like moving to the north—there are more opportunities, but you also have to work more as well. My husband gave up; he couldn’t cope with these challenges. My characters can, however. I am interested in how these men manage it.

Your film takes place on the Yamal Peninsula 500 kilometers from the Arctic Circle on the Bovanenkovo gas field. What were you trying to capture by filming the lives of workers in such a remote place?

I wanted to understand how they live, how they work, and the environment around them. It like being on Mars. And in fact, these people go to Mars for their families, that is, out of love for them. But sometimes they lose the family as a result. Other times, they sometimes find a new family. They choose this way of life and they pay for it.

Men’s Choice focuses on three very different men: Andrei, a young man recently married; Alexei, a middle aged man in his second marriage. He met his wife at Bovanenkovo. And Dmitry, who has a wife and a young son. Why these men?

It took a long time find these characters. It was a big problem. I wanted to go to the gas field where the men I met on the train a few years before were traveling. But I could only get therewith Gazprom’s permission. Gazprom didn’t allow us to go there and they permitted us to only film at Bovanenkovo.

There were 3000 men when I got to but I didn’t find the film’s characters. Since the subject of the documentary, as I understood it, is someone who is currently making a choice, who changes, and loves and suffers in front of our eyes. And most of workers had been working in this field for a long time and all the critical moments in their lives had already past.

I met Dmitry first. I don’t like him but he gave us permission to film his wife in their hometown, and when I first saw her, I realized that there is the love and an invisible bond between her and Dmitry. That there is pain.

Dmitry led me to Alexei. I immediately liked Alexei. He’s an unusual man. All the men pump gas, but he pumps shit. All of them are pragmatic but he’s a romantic. All of them just want to make money, but he writes songs. But I had only one problem with him. His life didn’t change the whole time I was filming him and this later presented problems while editing.

And from the beginning I wanted to find a guy who was in the North for the first time and to see how it transforms him. But it turned out that such people rarely get to this gas field. Usually, they’ve previously worked in other gas fields in the North. I only met Andrei when I was on the second filming expedition. His coworkers were surprised that I wanted to film him. They thought that he wasn’t interesting. But I knew that I would film him for more than a year, that I would see the changes in his life and that he would end up in a different and interesting situation. And I was right.

Moreover I think these three stories are interlinked through parallel editing. They support, explain, and move each other forward.

How did these three men react to being filmed? They are not very talkative in the film.

They don’t come off very talkative because these people are generally not talkative. It’s because of their work and incessant tiredness. Besides, it is very hard to talk a lot in this climate.

I also think that words aren’t very important in documentary films. The camera tells a story through images–facial expressions, poses, lights, color—and we understand everything about these people without many words.

Why do they do this type of work where they work a month at a time without time off and in some cases 2000-3000 kilometers from their families?

They have chosen this type of work because there is no regularly paid word in those places where they live. In some small towns in European Russia up to 70% of inhabitants work in this way. They either go to the North or to Moscow.

The alternative to this is to either become a bureaucrat, but not everybody can get such a job, or to earn very little money and live in poverty. But this situation is also very bad for the families. So the choice before a person is actually to separate from their family but earn good money or to live together in poverty.

The film briefly shows women working at Bovanenkovo and Alexei’s wife worked there are well. What do the women do and what are the relations between them and the men?

Alexei’s wife is the woman in film shown in the trailer with Alexei at Bovanenkovo. He talks about how he came there to earn money for his first family, but met her, left his family and now they travel [to Bovanenkovo] together. She’s a cook. I think it’s not that he met her but more like she met him. I think she had come to the North looking for a man. And she found him. This is one of dangers of rotation work.

Many of the shots in the film show the daily life of these workers—As Alexei says in their habitat. Why did you focus on this?

I focused on this because we will never see this anywhere else. The majority of the audience had never been to such a place and they never will. Many people believe that this is easy money, but in fact this money is earned by the very hard work and it was important for me to show it. It was also important to show that the living conditions there are almost like living on Mars.

Also there are many shots just showing the environment—the cold, the darkness, the tundra. Why did you show so much of the landscape?

I don’t think that I show too much of landscape. I actually think the opposite that I don’t show this enough. Showing the people was more important for me so I show landscape mostly through them. I only have four frames that show nature without humans. I think this impression is because nature is perceived as brighter and stronger when you show it through a person. We cannot just see images of nature; we can actually feel how a person feels it. Whether he is cold or warm, whether the wind blows in his face or snow flies. Film for me first and foremost about people.

Given that oil and gas are Russia’s lifeblood, in what ways do the lives of these men, their work, and their families symbolize Russia as a whole?

I wouldn’t make such a generalization.  In fact, life in Russia is much more diverse. The lives of the government and the oligarchs depend on oil and gas pipelines.  But ordinary people earn their living in different ways. In the southern part of European Russia, where black soil is rich, a lot of people work in agriculture. The main source of life in the taiga is the forest. People’s lives in cities are very similar to people’s lives life in cities around the world. In the poor areas (outside the Black Earth zone) to the north of Moscow, (But not in the Arctic, where, yes, oil and gas are the main sources for life), people are very poor, agriculture is destroyed, everyone survives however they can. But even here people aren’t dependent on oil and gas. It’s just poverty. But of course, gas and oil indirectly affects the lives of many, many people working in rotation, and they are a considerable portion of the population.

What is your next project?

I’m currently working on several projects. The first is a co-production with France. It’s called Paris 1986. It’s a story about a mother and her adult son. Pavel is forty years old and Anna Grigoryevna is seventy. Paul isn’t married, has no children, and no steady job. He and his mother are very different, live different lives, have different dreams, and different daily routines. They hurt each other, argue and make up, but they have to live together in the same apartment. This is their only home.

Ever since Pavel found strange old photos in a closet, he’s been constantly occupied with digitizing them on his computer. These are the photos his mother took during a trip to Paris in 1986: three frames in one, poorly focused, with strange angles… At the time, he and his father decided that the photos weren’t any good and didn’t want print them. But now Pavel believes that they’re very interesting and wants to arrange an exhibition for his mother. What if he succeeds?

His mother dreamt about that trip to Paris for thirty years. The trip was almost unreal for a Soviet woman, but this dream came true, and not the dream for grandchildren or a successful life for her son. The son feels guilty and hopes to apologize by getting her back to Paris, at least with the help of a photo exhibition.

I film both of them together and individually to try to find the answers to the eternal questions: How do you learn to understand and accept a loved one? Why does the mother need to feel happy, and how could her son not to feel guilty in front of her? Moreover, I’m very interested if the exhibition will take place.

The film is currently in postproduction.

The other film was shot practically without any money. Just with help of volunteers. The main protagonist—Lesha—is the last man in his village. The other men have died or left. The village was burned down during the terrible fires of 2010. But Lesha doesn’t want to leave. He’s looking for a wife but instead a female director periodically comes to him. He’s looking for love but I’m trying to make a film.

Watch Lesha (English Subtitles)

This is a very personal projector me. I met Lesha in the summer 2010 when the entire European part of Russia was on fire. The village where Lesha lived burned down. I came there with volunteers. We brought humanitarian aid. We went with him on the only village street where his house was and where his cat and dog lived. He had to feed them. We walked and talked. About the fire, but not only. At the time, I thought I would shoot episode of film about the volunteers. But when I looked at the material, I realized that this hour walk was a film in and of itself. This movie was released in 2011, it was simply called Lesha. But during the hour we spent together in that burnt village, something happened that caused me to come to him again and again, first with volunteers and then by myself and to shoot new big film. I came into his life, and he became a part of mine. Once the movie is over it is also be important how.

And I have other plans and dreams. I really hope they will all come true—just like my dream has come true to make a film about male rotation workers in the North.

This interview was originally posted on Sean’s Russia Blog.

epa01716659 (FILE) A file photograph showing Russian troops marching in the village of Alabino outside Moscow on 22 April 2008 during the rehearsal of the military parade which will take place on the Red Square on 09 May 2008, devoted to the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in the WWII . A plan to replace Soviet-era Russian military uniforms with ones by a leading fashion designer has been abandoned because of a lack of money, media reports on 01 May 2009. The plan to bring in the new uniforms, designed by Valentin Yudashkin, was supported by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. There is now only enough money to pay for uniforms for soldiers taking part in the forthcoming Victory Day parade.  EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV

Podcast: Russia’s Armed Forces Today

michael_kofman_hr_0After a period of military reform and modernization, Russia’s armed forces today are a far more capable instrument of national power then they have been since the collapse of the Soviet Union. How do we assess Russia’s military today? What kind of wars and adversaries does it prepare to fight? What can we learn from recent combat operations in Syria and Ukraine?

Mr. Michael Kofman is a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on security issues in Russia and the former Soviet Union, specializing in defense and military analysis. Previously he served at National Defense University as a Program Manager and subject matter expert, advising senior military and government officials on issues in Russia/Eurasia and Pakistan. He has represented the Department of Defense in track one and track two efforts, through military engagement programs and strategic exchanges with Russian officials, the Chinese and Pakistani military, along with trilateral dialogues. At NDU he oversaw military-to-military engagements, training programs, and interoperability exercises for senior officers from the US and other countries.


Podcast: The Russian Intervention in Syria

Professor_Mark_Katz_0003.237113236_stdWhile Russia’s recent increased involvement in the Syrian conflict may well serve to prevent the Assad regime from falling, the obstacles that Putin faces there will not enable him either to resolve the conflict or defeat ISIS and other Syrian opposition movements. Further, Putin’s efforts to rally some support in the West for Russian intervention on the basis of common hostility toward ISIS is suffering from widespread reports that Russian forces are focusing their attacks on non-ISIS opposition forces, and not ISIS itself.

Mark Katz was born and raised in Riverside, California.  He earned a B.A. in international relations from the University of California at Riverside in 1976, an M.A. in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in 1978, and a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982.

Before starting to teach at George Mason University in 1988, he was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution (1980-81), held a temporary appointment as a Soviet affairs analyst at the U.S. Department of State (1982), was a Rockefeller Foundation international relations fellow (1982-84), and was both a Kennan Institute/Wilson Center research scholar (1985) and research associate (1985-87). He has also received a U.S. Institute of Peace fellowship (1989-90) and grant (1994-95), and several Earhart Foundation fellowship research grants.

He has been a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (Riyadh, May 2001), the Hokkaido University Slavic Research Center (Sapporo, June-July 2007), the Higher School of Economics (Moscow, March 2010), and the Middle East Policy Council (Washington, DC, September 2010-January 2011).

Oil Price Taking a Toll on Russia

RussiaOilPriceChart-2300Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post reports that the drop in the price of oil is having more effect on the Russian economy than Western sanctions:

Nine months into the worst relations between the West and Russia since the Cold War, the plunging price of oil is causing deeper and swifter pain than the Western sanctions that have targeted key areas of Russia’s economy. Russian leaders said Tuesday for the first time that their economy will head into recession next year. In a nation where oil and gas exports largely determine the bottom line, lawmakers are slashing spending promises. And the ruble is hitting historic lows every day.

The sanctions haven’t moved Moscow much. There has been no inclining that Russian will return Crimea. In fact the extension of Russian control over the peninsula marches on. Nor have they stopped Moscow’s meddling in eastern Ukraine. If reports from the Ukrainian government and NATO are to be believed, Moscow’s been sending a steady stream of weapons and armor over the border in recent weeks.

But the fall in oil prices, Birnbaum argues, “appears to be changing policy calculations far more quickly.” What exactly those changing policy calculations are, Birnbaum doesn’t say. Nevertheless, the Finance Ministry now admits that Russia is on the brink of recession. Indeed, last week Finance Minister Anton Siluanov predicted that the loss of oil revenue will cost Russia $90 billion to $100 billion. The sanctions on the contrary will cost $40 billion. Granted, this number doesn’t include the projected $130 billion in sanctions instigated capital flight.

But this doesn’t mean Russia is on the brink of economic disaster as some suggest. Experts give Russia a year to two years of breathing room.

Some aspects of Russia’s finances still stand it in good stead. The state’s debts are low. Its international reserves were $429 billion at the end of October, down by a fifth since last year’s peak but still enough to hold off major economic calamity for about two years, analysts said. And the ruble’s slide has helped cushion the blow to state coffers, since oil transactions are in dollars: A barrel of oil at $71 on Tuesday actually bought more rubles than it did in July, when oil was $110.

Still the drop in the price of oil, which is currently at $70 (the Russian budget is set at $100 a barrel) is having quite an impact on the Russian economy, as the chart comparing the price of oil with the collapse of the ruble indicates. Russia is looking at tough economic waters ahead, especially as experts predict the low price of oil will continue well into 2015.

Conference Report: “No Radical Art Actions Are Going to Help Here…: Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism”

By Jonathan Platt

From September 18-21, 2014, the international conference, “No Radical Art Actions Are Going to Help Here…: Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism” was held in St. Petersburg, Russia as part of the Manifesta 10 Contemporary Art Biennial’s Public Program, curated by Joanna Warsza.  I organized the conference in collaboration with Marijeta Bozovic (Yale University) and Artemy Magun (St. Petersburg State University, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences). Along with support from Manifesta and Magun’s Critique of the Social Sciences Seminar, the conference was also generously supported by a REES small grant.

Manifesta’s choice of holding the biennial in St. Petersburg sparked great controversy, first because of the city’s anti-gay law and then because of the annexation of Crimea. A number of local and foreign artists decided to boycott the events, including the influential Chto Delat collective.  However, local artists felt that it was appropriate to participate in the public program, the goal of which was to engage the city directly with site-specific installations and performances, a series of apartment exhibitions, curated by Olesya Turkina and Roman Osminkin, and public events like my conference.

The atmosphere is understandably pessimistic for politically engaged artists and theorists in Russia today.  However, the conference proved a great success, as we managed to bring together many of the most important figures in the scene for four days of fruitful discussions about art’s connection to political violence and the capacities for a militant aesthetics today.  There was an incredible warmth to the proceedings, as participants and audience members alike sensed the importance of this loose collective of leftist intellectuals at a time when few seem inclined to listen to sophisticated statements about emancipation, struggle, and the enduring power of engaged art.  The presence of a few high-profile foreign guests and several active audience members, in town from abroad for the biennial, also contributed an essential openness to outside viewpoints.

The first evening of the conference was devoted to a roundtable discussion of the central issues of our gathering and a screening and discussion of Chto Delat’s new film, “The Excluded: In a Moment of Danger,” premiering in Russia. The second day was devoted to scholarly interventions.  A panel on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Critique of Violence,” investigated the philosophical meaning of war and law, and aesthetic means of overcoming violence. The second panel turned more to more properly aesthetic concerns, discussing the place of trauma in Russian Formalist criticism, the place of negativity in aesthetic philosophy since Kant, and Mikhail Lifshits’s theory of humane resignation as an alternative to avant-garde aesthetics. Finally, the third panel turned specifically to the question of artistic forms of political activism.

The third day was devoted to presentations of poetry and original artworks produced for the conference.  We began with readings by Kirill Medvedev, Galina Rymbu, Elena Kostyleva, Keti Chukhrov, and Aleksandr Skidan, followed by a lively discussion of the place of violence in recent Russian poetry.  Roman Osminkin and the Gandhi street art collective presented a video performance, and Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskay (Gluklya) screened her work in progress, examining the militant sacrifice of Soviet partisan, Zoya Kosmodemianskaya. Finally, philosopher Oxana Timofeeva and artist Nikolai Oleynikov delivered a poetic-theoretical dialogue on the theme of making love during wartime.  That evening the group convened for raucous dancing at the Griboedov Club, treated to a concert by Arkady Kots, supported by It’s Too Early to Shave Your Armpits and two anarchist singer-songwriters.

On the final day of the conference, the group traveled by bus to the Razliv Museum, where Lenin hid out before returning to St. Petersburg in October 1917, to view a new exhibit and attend a lecture on the place of the revolutionary museum today.

The full schedule of the conference can be found on the Manifesta website.

Video documentation is also available at the Manifesta 10 YouTube channel.


Lecture: Dominique Arel, The New Ukraine and the War with Russia

In the past year, Ukraine has experienced tectonic changes in its internal and external orientation, with the fall of the fall of the authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovych, a de facto war with Russia leading to the loss of the most heavily ethnic Russian areas (Crimea and the heart of Donbas) and a new anti-Russian and pro-Europe constitutional majority in parliament. The lecture addresses the political, economic, and regional constraints that the Ukrainian government is facing in seeking to reestablish legitimacy, recover territory, and implement cardinal changes.


Food Prices Soar in Russia


The Russian ruble has taken a massive hit over the last month. It’s currently trading at a new historic low of 40.06 rubles to the dollar. According to Bloomberg, “the ruble is sinking more than any other currency in the world.” And one place the inflation is being felt in grocery stores around the country.

The surge in food prices accelerated after Putin placed a ban in August on some imports from the U.S. and Europe in retaliation for the economic sanctions against Russia. The 17 percent annual rate of inflation on meat, for example, is up from 11 percent in July and follows a 3 percent decline in prices at the end of 2013. Overall food inflation has almost doubled to 11 percent from about 6 percent last year.

Inflation is certainly one place where Putin is vulnerable. If prices continue to soar it might put a dent in Putin’s astronomical popularity. But so far, Putin, who turned 62 on October 7, is not feeling any anger. Yet.

So far none of this has dented Putin’s popularity, which soared following his incursion into Ukraine. His approval rating rose to 86 percent in September from 65 percent in January, according to pollster Levada Center, which surveyed 1,600 people across Russia over four days.

Still, some Russians are wondering how long they can put up with the soaring prices. One customer, Galina Mityaeva, reported to Bloomberg:

“Every time I go to the store, food is more expensive,” Mityaeva said as she strolled through the grocery aisles on a recent afternoon. “People are angry right now. In the store lines, you can hear people complaining: ‘What can I afford to buy with 1,000 rubles?’”