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Grigory Pasko: A Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg – Part 2

[This is the second installment of a travel series from journalist and guest blogger Grigory Pasko. Part 1 can be found here.] A Journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg – Part 2 By Grigory Pasko, journalist Klin First a few general observations. The fact is that I was filming interviews with people on my video camera. Naturally, using a tripod. And so, people had no problem speaking to me when I didn’t have a camera in my hands. When I’d pull out the camera, they’d get noticeably less talkative. And when I’d put the camera on the tripod, they didn’t want to speak at all (with rare exceptions). Several times, seeing the tripod, certain vigilant citizens would come up to me and ask: and what is it that you’re filming here?

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A “supermarket” along the side of highway M-10 (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

The first such incident occurred in Klin. I was doing interviews not far from «McDonald’s». The manager, Irina, came up to me and said she wanted to know why I was filming here. I told her. She demanded documents and said that she would make a report to company management. And added: “After all, we don’t know why you’re filming here. What if you’re going to be criticizing…” Several days later I called the public relations manager of ZAO «Moskva-McDonald’s», Nina Prasolova, and found out that, in her opinion, journalists in Russia are obligated to always ask permission from «McDonald’s» for doing a shoot anywhere near restaurants with a clarification of what specifically is being shot and with what purpose. While I suppose I can at least somehow understand the demand to get permission to shoot near a restaurant, what does the purpose of my discussions as a journalist with people have to do with any of this? Or is the Russian «McDonald’s» already become a branch of the FSB? And another observation. St. Petersburg is often called the Palmyra of the North. Vyshny Volochek – the Russian Venice. Vladivostok – the Russian San Francisco… When I was in San Francisco, I was particularly interested in learning if the locals knew that there even was such a city as Vladivostok. Very many didn’t. And it certainly had never come to them to compare their city with Vladivostok. And I got to thinking: why is it that nobody calls Venice a Vyshny Volochek on the Adriatic or San Francisco a second Vladivostok? And more. When I was filming in San Francisco, including near a «McDonald’s», it somehow never occurred to anyone to prohibit me from shooting and demand a report on the purpose of my journalistic work. In Russia, this is demanded just about everywhere. Maybe that’s why nobody calls Venice another Vyshny Volochek or, say, Hamburg – a second Klin… Tver Tver is a nice little place, even cute in its own way. With a heavy dose of provinciality, naturally. But, as it seemed to me, with a lot of potential as well. For example, there are cities in Russia (and all the more so abroad) where the waterfront along the banks of the local river is the locus of recreational activity for the residents. That’s where you’ll find the parks, the rides, the shops, and the restaurants… They don’t have any of that yet in Tver. The town’s got a lot of potential. And the people of Tver are friendly. They even still remember Mikhail Krug, the author of underworld songs. His songs weren’t bad at all, in my opinion: “And in the Tver GPU a young ‘operok’ [diminutive for “operative worker”—Trans.] stitched together case files with proletarian panache…” Of course, there isn’t a GPU (Main Political Administration) in Tver any more. Or at least it certainly goes by another name now. But according to the local youth, the criminal investigators, the “operative workers”, are no worse than those Krug sang about at “stitching together” criminal cases.

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Cracks in the future – an allegorical Soviet-era mural inside a Tver factory (Photo © 2005 STSTS)

And poetry is alive and well in Tver. For example, one local resident wrote these lines:

My town is simple, not great, ordinary.

But sometimes I even love it…

And other young lads, from a security agency, told me – in prose, for some reason – about their young life: one talked about gangsters from Vladivostok (he had recently arrived from there and apparently hadn’t yet learned how to recognize Tver gangsters); another one, who had a legal education, talked about judicial arbitrariness. Yet both of them named the name of Dmitry Medvedev, one of the first vice-premiers in the Putin government, when asked about their presidential-election preferences. There’s “poetry” for you. By the way, Radishchev in the chapter «Tver» also wrote about poetry: “The creation of verse in our country…, in the various senses in which it is applied, is still a far way from greatness. Poesy did awaken once, but now it slumbers again, while versification took one step and turned into a tree stump.” Torzhok In his chapter «Torzhok», Radishchev writes this about the institution of censorship: “Now everyone is free to have all manner of instruments for printing, but what can be printed is under guardianship. Censorship has been made the nanny of reason, wit, imagination, of everything great and fine. But where you have nannies, then it follows that there are kids who walk around in home-made suspenders [“pomochi” – used as an aid in teaching children to walk—Trans.], from which they often develop bowleggedness.”

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There are many abandoned churches and monasteries in Torzhok (Photo © 2004 STSTS)

This is a very relevant topic for modern Russia, inasmuch as censorship has literally inundated the country. And playing the role of censors are… the citizens themselves. Well, okay, there are also those “wonderful” laws of the Putinite dispensation, for example the one on countering extremism, on the basis of which they’re now pursuing journalists with a vengeance. The most recent case involved a member of the «Yabloko» party, Andrei Piontkovsky, whose articles were found by a court (!) to be extremist. Let me explain for those of you who don’t see the implications here: this means that there are now grounds to find not only a member of «Yabloko» an extremist, but the entire party as a whole. Democracy in Russia has failed. While those of its timorous institutions that somehow contrive to still exist look like bowlegged kids who walk in home-made suspenders. In Torzhok, the saleswoman working at a newspaper stand told me that she hasn’t yet thought about the elections: “That’s in Moscow and ‘Peter’ that they think about things like that. But we, we’re an apolitical people.” I bought a newspaper from her. «Torzhokskaya nedelya» [The Week in Torzhok—Trans.] delighted the reader that day with an article from Tver Oblast governor Dmitry Zelenin. He wrote: “Tver Oblast has believed in its strength… A depressive mood, provincial ‘complexes’ – all this has been left in the past… Optimism has become the dominant public mood.”

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Self-affirmation for the «United Russia» party: the blue poster reads “A Strong Russia – A United Russia” (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

I recalled my conversations with people in Tver, Torzhok, Vyshny Volochek, Vydropuzhsk… I certainly found depressive moods, and the provincial complexes haven’t gone anywhere either, and I can’t say that I noticed any particular optimism… I understand that Zelenin needs to justify Putin’s trust in him and propagandize some «Putin Plan» (indeed, the entire article is about this), but why lie blatantly about the optimism of all Tverians? Or did he mean only a few? Vyshny Volochek Radishchev wrote: “Never have I passed through this new town without taking a look at the local canal locks. The first person who thought to become like unto nature in her beneficence and to make a river with his own hands… is worthy of a monument for future posterity.” I agree, you could put up a monument to that person. But in Vyshny Volochek I only noticed a monument to Lenin across from the police station and a monument to the painter Vasnetsov across from a store with the sign «Tea, coffee and other colonial goods». The canal locks, they say, haven’t been in operation for a long time already. The canals themselves are filled with garbage. In front of the church stood women asking for alms. They told me that life is so hard, while the pension is so small, that they’re forced to beg for money for bread from the parishioners. One of the women turned out to be a member of the LDPR [Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia—Trans.] and said that she’s going to go and vote for Zhirinovsky, for who knows which time already. A drunk man was lying not far from the entrance to the church. The people skirted around him as they walked by. Only one person – who himself wasn’t exactly steady on his feet – leaned down towards him. He started to pick his buddy up, but couldn’t. Then he came up to me and asked was I a friend to him. He soon even named the criterion for friendship: for this you’ve got to be a fan of the «Spartak» team. At which point it turned out that he and I weren’t friends after all.

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The stars on top of Moscow’s Kremlin towers were made of rubies in Vyshny Volochek (Photo © 2005 moscowvision.ru)

Vyshny Volochek retains traces of a former beauty. The canals are still beautiful. There’s lots of greenery. In one of the stories about the town I read the following: “The red ruby stars for Moscow’s Kremlin were fabricated at the ‘Red May’ plant outside Vyshny Volochek. Now the industry of the town, like that of the entire Oblast, is found in a semi-ruined state. The town… is poorly maintained – there’s no money in the town budget, naturally, and when it comes right down to it, there isn’t even anyone to blame for this: both Stalin and Brezhnev are long gone, Gorbachev and Yeltsin are also no longer on the job, and there’s no sense in asking Putin – it wasn’t him who made all this fall apart, after all. The narod survives as best it can. The practically nonexistent pension helps a bit, and now, thanks to Putin and oil prices, it’s being paid out on time. And being close to the road helps…”

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A dilapidated house by the highway (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

Who would have thought? – the monstrosity is a boon! (It’s the highway I’m talking about, not Putin or oil.) And even so! 20 thousand vehicles pass through the town daily. The policemen complain – they need a permanent GIBDD post [The GIBDD – State Inspectorate for the Safety of Road Traffic – has permanent roadblock stations at major highway intersections and the entrances to all towns and cities, where they can stop every single vehicle if they so choose—Trans.], but there’s no money for one. (And I’m thinking they could build three such posts for all the bribes they rake in from shaking down motorists…). By the way, there’s a competitive waiting list to become a GIBDD inspector here. And why wouldn’t there be, for a job with such lucrative fringe benefits!