Readers and listeners of this blog’s podcast might recall an interview I did last summer with Joy Gleason Carew about African Americans who traveled, worked and even immigrated to the Soviet Union. It’s a fascinating story that is thankfully getting more popular and scholarly attention. There’s Vladimir Alexandrov’s The Black Russian which chronicles the life of Frederick Bruce Thomas in the waning years of Tsarist Russia and the now defunct blog, Afro-Europe, which has several posts dedicated to the black experience in Russia. There’s also Red Africa, a recent exhibit in London organized by the Calvert Foundation which explores the relationship between communist states and Africans. The Calvert Journal has done a special report on the exhibit and the issues it covers.
In addition to several books, there have been a few documentaries like Kara Lynch’s Black Russians (2001) and Yelena Demikovsky’s upcoming Black Russians: The Red Experience. Here’s a trailer for both films:
There’s another new short documentary on the experience of African Americans in Russia. Kremlin to Kremlin: The Joseph J. Roane Story follows the life of Joseph Roane, a Tuskegee Institute trained agronomist, who went to the Soviet Union, specifically Uzbekistan, as one of sixteen black agricultural specialists in the 1930s. As part of his work, he developed a strain of cotton that could be harvested in 25 percent less time. He, his wife Sadie, and son Josif Stalin Roane returned to the United States in 1935 out of fear of getting swept up by Stalin’s terror.
You can watch the film:
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By Sean — 8 years ago
Remember Joaquim Crima, the so-called “Volgograd Obama“? The last we heard from the simple watermelon seller turned political candidate was back in 2009 when he ran for office on the United Russia ticket in Srednaya Akhtuba. The novelty an Afro-Russian candidate bequeathed Crima fifteen minutes on the world stage. He was featured in both the Russian and international media. His fame even spawned a “virtual” challenger, Fillip Kondratevto, to his moniker as Russia’s Obama. His fame even got him an audience with Vladimir Putin last summer. It was assumed, or at least I assumed, that that was the last we’d ever hear from him since I had a sneaking suspicion that Volgograd’s Obama was nothing more than a flash in the pan publicity stunt.
I guess I assumed too soon.
The “Volgograd Obama” is back and and just as his political aspirations thrust him into the news, so has his latest move: dumping United Russia. “I request to cease my membership in the party United Russia,” reads a hand scrawled note, littered with spelling mistakes. It didn’t take long for Crima to find a new political home as a member of Just Russia. “The admission of Vasilii Crima into the ranks of Just Russia is surely a significant event,” says Sergei Klimenkov, a Just Russia secretary. And why did Crima, who had been a member of United Russia since 2007 and once said that “I think that if the country had a hundred of such people like Putin, Russia would be the first in the world,” suddenly switch sides, and no less on the eve of United Russia’s regional party congress?
The answer lies in Crima’s open letter to Putin. Obviously composed by Just Russia spin doctors, it might might go down as an archetypal expression of “loyal opposition.” Criticize the locals for excessive bureaucratism and indifference to the masses (an old Soviet trope by the way), but show deference and, as Crima puts it, staunch support for the course laid out by, and the order of names are key here, Putin and President Medvedev.
Also, are we really to believe that Crima amassed 20 tons of watermelons to send to fire stricken Moscow!? You gotta be kiddin’ me. What did he expect villagers were going to do with 20 tons of melons? Throw them on the fires?
Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich!
Joaquim Rit Cabi Crima is addressing you. Less than a year ago you extended to me, a simple village entrepreneur from the Sredne Akhtubinsk district in Volgograd province, the great honor by inviting me to a meeting which you held in Volgograd. There you asked me if it was better to work in Africa or in Volgograd? Today I would like to answer that question as I did then: it is not important where one works, whether in Africa or Russia, what’s important is what one works for, and here everything depends on the person. If a person actively wants to live better, he must always yearn for something greater.
An You, Vladimir Vladimirovich, agreed with me then, and literally said the following, “If we want to live better, then we need to work better–that’s the whole point. But in order to work better, we need to understand what’s going on.”
I thought of your words several times as I was deciding to leave United Russia and join Just Russia. It was this decision that promoted me to write you this letter to explain why I made such an important decision.
Over the last year the support for United Russia has significantly dropped in Volgograd. This isn’t just my opinion, our governor recently said this himself. I think that to understand why this has happened we need to look at United Russia’s regional office and the situation that has developed in Volgograd province. Volgograd residents have lost faith in the government, in the party of power, and they don’t see positive changes in their lives.
For example, among United Russia’s campaign program in the last elections for Volgograd’s provincial Duma was a promise to increase the pay of state employees, control the prices of essential goods, and prevent the increase in utility costs. None of these promises were fulfilled.
But the money for the increase of state employee salaries exists in the meager provincial budget. Along with this, several of the budget’s social clauses were put under the knife. The introduction of the institution of city manager in Volgograd has not added to the authority of United Russia’s regional office–the population of a metropolis has lost its right to elect its city leaders.
I became convinced by personal experience that United Russia is more and more becoming a party of bureaucrats. I will give you just one example. Last summer when the horrible fires raged, I came up with an idea to give humanitarian aid to two villages in Moscow province that had severely suffered from the fires. This was a simple, normal desire to help people. I managed to collect 20 tons of watermelons. All that remained was sending them to Moscow. I requested help from United Russia’s regional leadership several times, but it was all in vain–just blank walls of incomprehension and indifference to a stranger’s misfortune. The watermelons simply rotted.
United Russia has talked a lot about needing concrete action in the interests of society. Unfortunately, in my opinion, United Russia has recently moved farther and father from its principles. Concrete political work had been exchanged for well known administrative resources, people have lost their right to vote, and there is an eternal struggle for power between members. United Russia’s political monopoly has not only become a hindrance on path to democratizing our country, but also the source for making decisions that are contrary to the interests of society. This is especially clear in Volgograd province.
That’s why I have decided to leave United Russia. My humble desire to be useful to the party remains unclaimed. And to just possess a party card is not for me.
Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich! Though I am no longer a member of United Russia, I remain a staunch supporter of the course of Russia’s modernization that you and President Dimitry Medvedev have taken. This course, I am sure is also shared by Just Russia. Hopefully, I will not be superfluous in its ranks.
May 4, 2011
By Sean — 11 years ago
Robert Amsterdam’s blog has a translation of a fascinating Kommersant Vlast’ article (the Russian version is here along with some great photos.) on one of the more peculiar forms of early Soviet propaganda: the agitation trial. The article argues that agitsudy were one of the ways “the Bolsheviks managed to change the attitude of tens of millions of people towards the repressions being conducted by them.” I’m quite familiar with agitsudy and their role in fostering a Soviet-style morality among the illiterate masses. I have a few copies of these court room dramas. They come in such stiff names as Trial of Sexual Promiscuity and Trial of Hooligans. I use one titled Trial of a Komsomol or Komsomolka for Breaking League Discipline in my discussion of Komsomol expulsion.
Here is a description of what a typical agitsud looked like:
The most serious attention was devoted to imparting to the staged trial full similitude with a real one. In one of the instructions was said:
“The space where the staged trial is put on must itself recall the general appearance of a courtroom. On a dais – the stage in the auditorium or on a specially cobbled-together platform is placed a table, covered with red cloth. At the table are three chairs: for the chairman and the two members of the court. At the left side – a rostrum for the defender, at the right – the same kind of rostrum for the prosecutor. Somewhat deeper – a table for the secretary and the stenographer. At the sides two doors – one, leading to the “Deliberations room”, the other – to the “Witness [room]”. Somewhat below the level of the stage – a special dais for the defendant.
From this same dais appear the witnesses as well. The stage is decorated with portraits of Lenin, people’s commissar of justice Kursky, the procurator of the republic Krylenko and so forth. On the walls halls posters with slogans: “The proletarian court defends the conquests of the October revolution”, “The proletarian court defends the interests of working people”, pictures of an old and a new courts, photos from our correctional houses, diagrams giving a general impression about the work of our proletarian courts, excerpts from our constitution concerning the proletarian court, codes of laws and so forth printed in large letters.”
It was stipulated very strictly that the trial must not last longer than 4-4.5 hours, otherwise the viewers may tire and lose interest in what is going on. In an appendix to certain plays was appended a time sheet for every stage and every appearance. Moreover, it was especially underscored that the reading of the accusatory conclusion [bill of indictment] for the avoidance of that same loss of interest and attention must not extend for more than 20 minutes. They began to make special demands also of the quality of the accusatory conclusion. It was recommended that it be written by some kind of worker of the procuracy. And about the course of the subsequent “judicial examination” were given the most detailed and concrete indications:
“In order that some kind of bickering begin between the chairman and the defendant (this enlivens the general testimony of the defendant, interrupting his monologue with dialogue), they arrange in advance with the defendant about how he will intentionally drag out his word. The chairman interrupts him with the retort:
“‘I ask you, citizen N, to speak more briefly and closer to the matter at hand!’
“The defendant seeks support from the people’s assessors and complains that they are not letting him speak, that he can not calmly tell everything in order, that they are terrorizing him.
“It is good if at this time someone from the instigators would shout from his seat: ‘You, comrade chairman, don’t muzzle the defendant, we’ve got us a proletarian court here, and everyone can say all he knows’, while another instigator would interrupt him: ‘But if he’s spewing all sorts of garbage and completely, it can be said, not on the matter at hand, then what, the proletarian court is obligated to listen to him and waste time plain and simple.’
“Such sparring between the two instigators will evoke a certain noise in the hall, squirming on the chairs of the defender and prosecutor, the ring [Russian equivalent of “gavel”] of the chairman, while all this will enliven the session.”
Literally everything was regimented – from the character of the testimonies of witnesses and experts to the speeches of the prosecutor, defender and defendant. In essence, in political cases the defense lawyer was supposed to not defend the defendant, but together with the procurator recognize his guilt and ask for leniency due to mitigating circumstances. Thus did they slowly and quietly habituate the population to [the idea] that they do not put the guiltless on trial in the USSR.
A good description, but a few over statements. First, while agitsudy scripts provided guidelines to how to stage and conduct them, there was no guarantee that directives from “above” were followed “below.” Quite the opposite usually. Plus even after 1925, trial scripts encouraged local troupes to adapt their performances to local conditions. Many of their scripts were actually written locally. Second, there is a question to how widespread these trials were. Hundreds were written and published, but their distribution was quite small. Far smaller than newspapers, which the article rightly says hardly reached even information hungry (and literate) citizens. Therefore, I doubt “millions” of people were exposed to them.
Most of these trials were more like moral plays rather than about political enemies. Most dealt with religion, sex, martial relations, hygiene, and other ethical norms. There were some overtly political ones, especially those during the Civil War, where Red Army agitators staged mock trials of White generals–Denekin, Wrangel, and others–or to promote Bolshevik propaganda, like the Trial of Lenin.
Also, many mock trials from the 1920s were scripted to have an open ended judgment. The audience was encouraged to discuss possible verdicts according to a kind of multiple choice list. It was only in the 1930s that they became more didactic and predictable. A few historians have tried to make a direct connection between these agitation trials and the great show trials of the 1930s. Elizabeth Wood’s Performing Justice: Agitation Trials In Early Soviet Russia and Julie Cassiday’s The Enemy on Trial: Early Soviet Courts on Stage and Screen are two such examples. I remain unconvinced of their overall impact on both citizens’ moral and political outlook. At most, agitsudy belong to a whole range of mechanisms that promoted (often unsuccessfully) a particular Soviet ideological worldview.
In fact, agitation trials weren’t even a Bolshevik invention (when it came to forms of agitation, the Bolsheviks invented rather little). Nor were their Tsarist predecessors only about students putting literary characters on trials as the article suggests. Tsarist moralists organized agitation trials pretty much around the same topics as the Bolsheviks–hygiene, sex, morality, sobriety, and other topics– as a means to “enlighten” a mostly illiterate population.
The Tsarist mock trials weren’t widespread either and had minimal impact on peasant morality. When it comes to promoting a “legal consciousness” on a mass level, you would have to turn to the volost court and its Soviet predecessor, the people’s courts. To my knowledge, there has yet to be a study of the Soviet people’s courts, mostly because I think people incorrectly assume they were vapid ideological shells. There has been a study of the volost court. These, as Stephen Frank shows in his Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856-1914, were quite popular and their outcomes, often to the chagrin of Russia intelligentsia, reflected community norms rather than the “law.” And if the justice metered out by the court didn’t jive with the community, the latter took matters into their own hands via charivari, or samosud, a practice which incidentally continues to this day.
By Sean — 8 years ago
I often tell my students that Russian politics is a zero sum game. You’re either in or you’re out. One’s political patronage begins and ends with one’s institutional authority. Without the ability to dole out favors, and more importantly protect your clients, you’re nothing in the world of Russian politics. Zip, ziltch, nada, nichego.
There’s no meaningful tradition of a Russian elder statesmen. There is no custom of ex-politicians having a visibly influential hand in politics. There are no Bill Clintons and no Henry Kissingers. And certainly no Richard Nixons. Once a powerful Russian politician retires, or what happens more often, is forced out, the sun sets on their power. It’s an old Russian practice dating back to Muscovy when Grand Princes had to sideline rival boyar clans, placate them through compromise, or for those who didn’t fall into line, simply exile or have them slaughtered. Remember when Peter the Great threw his half-sister Sophia into a convent and exiled her co-conspirator Vasily Golitsyn to the north. Or have the conspirators in the Tsykler plot executed over the exhumed corpse of Ivan Miroslavsky, the head of his stepmother Maria’s clan, and had their blood “sprinkled on the dead carcass which in some places was rotten and consumed.” Peter was good with the symbolism. And punishment was often collective. As the 1649 Law Code stated: “If someone commits treason, and after him survive a father, or mother, or brothers, or uncles, or any other member of his clan in the Muscovite state…conduct a rigorous investigation…If it is established conclusively that they knew about the treason of that traitor, punish them with death.” Interestingly, the same principle was applied during Stalin’s terror.
In the Soviet period, the way to get rid of a rival was to physically annihilate him. Remember Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev. Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 changed the calculus. Rivals were no longer physically annihilated, only politically, and were allowed to live out their lives quietly. Remember Vlacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgi Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev. Old Molotov spent his final years in the main reading room of the Lenin Library working on his memoirs and appealing the Politburo to get his Party card back.
This zero sum game appears to have ramped up since the collapse of communism. Some even say that the Russian elite has reverted back to its feudal past and readopted the “Muscovite model” of rule. Whether Russia continues to be a feudal society is a matter of debate. It can’t be denied, however, that Putin’s presidency and Medvedev’s succession have maintained a stable oligarchy in power not seen since the 1930s. Putin’s only revision to post-communist “feudalism” is the notion of the Tandem, which thus far has maintained political stability between liberal and conservative elite factions. Still, it had to purge the major political players from the 1990s from the halls of state power to get to this point. The current oligarchy’s rivals are either dead, driven into exile, in prison, blackballed and besmirched, or, if they’re lucky, left to peacefully live in political obscurity, as long as they keep to themselves. It’s not difficult for those in power to maintain this tradition. Since many Russian power brokers gained and maintained their power through nefarious means, once they lose their position, they immediately become vulnerable. It’s not just because they no longer have the privilege of the office to hide behind. It’s also because the loss of position means being deprived of the clients who gave a patron his power in the first place. Given this, it is no surprise that investigations of theft, corruption and fraud emerge after a broker’s fall. It is because of this naked vulnerability that I believe Putin will be around for a long time. Not on account of his love for power per se, but because he doesn’t like prison or exile.
Still, why does the zero sum politics remain? My theory has to do with elite class consciousness, particularly in the old Marxist adage about a class in and for itself. Russia’s elite is a class in itself, but it has yet to become a class for itself. Meaning, the Russian ruling elite has yet to realize that it doesn’t have to cannibalize itself to maintain power. All it has to do is recognize its corporate class interests and see their rivals as essentially all part of the same gang. There can still be factions and low level conflicts, but these never seek to completely destroy a rival.
There is no better recent example of this zero sum game than ex-Moscow mayor and former major political player, Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov was the last of the Mandarins from the 1990s. It’s amazing that he held on as long as he did. But eventually he did fall, and what initially appeared as soft landing has now turned into a full speed head-on into the pavement. At first, Luzhkov didn’t understand the rules of the game, which is surprising since he’s been at it so long. A mere week after his firing, like so many before him, Luzhkov declared himself a “democrat” and vowed to continue in politics. That venture was short-lived because at the same time the ex-mayor was manufacturing his democratic credentials, he was also desperately trying to find an EU country willing to give him residency. Their response: Yuri go screw yourself.
The charges of mass theft, particularly on the part of his construction mogul wife, Elena Baturnia, are coming to fruition. Two weeks ago, a Moscow city audit accused Luzhkov of embezzling almost $8 billion during his tenure as mayor. The Ministry of Interior has been investigating his wife for embezzling $440 million through her company Inteko (my guess is that they’ve been keeping documents on them for a long time).
Well, the chickens have finally come home to roost as masked Interior Robocops raided Baturnia’s company. The Moscow News describes the tangled web of theft as follows:
The prosecutor’s eye is homing in on a deal in 2009, when Bank of Moscow lent 12.76 billion roubles to Premier Estate. The company was created three months before the deal, Interfax reported.
The little known company used the funds to buy a 58 hectare plot of land from Inteko for 13 billion roubles, although its charter capital was just 10,000.
The transaction took place three weeks after Moscow City Duma approved a 14.99 billion rouble transfer from city coffers to Bank Moskvy, Kommersant reported.
By selling the land, as well as some shares in Sperbank, Rosneft and Gazprom, Baturina reaped 27 billion roubles. Of this, 18 billion went to pay off debts, to Gazprombank and other creditors.
But it wasn’t just the company that benefited. “The money, received as a loan from Bank of Moscow and worth around 13 billion roubles, was transferred into the personal account of Elena Baturina,” the British Home Office’s press service told Kommersant.
Baturina’s brother says that she’s already fled the country. You’re damn right she did. Apparently, the whole Luzhkov family is stewing in Britain. No matter, the Russian authorities have no problem trying fallen oligarchs in absentia.
Others of his clan are going down too. Lukhkov’s metro boss, Dmitry Gayev, will soon find himself charged with embezzling $3.8 million. Gazeta.ru is reporting that his former head of sport has been sacked by Sobyanin. And Luzhkov’s vice mayor, Vladimir Resin, is rumored to resign in the coming days. Whether they will be investigated too remains to be seen.
The purge of Luzhkov’s people is heating up. And with that the survivors in the zero sum game begin another trot around the board.
Image: RIA Novosti