The House on the Embankment looms over the Moscow River (photo by Andrey Korzun CC BY-SA 4.0)
Joshua Yaffa‘s latest in The New Yorker looks at the fascinating history of the House on the Embankment, a massive Moscow apartment complex built in the 1930s to house high-level Soviet officials. Along with apartments, the building was home to theaters, a bank, gyms, a post office, a grocery store, and more — all kinds of community services meant to help tenants bridge from individual apartment life to a communal existence.
Spoiler alert: like a lot of things about the Soviet Union, it didn’t really work out.
The “transition” that the building was meant to bring about never came to pass. Instead, its residents moved further from collectivist ideals, and adopted life styles that looked suspiciously bourgeois. Residents had their laundry pressed and their meals prepared for them, so that they could spend all day and much of the night at work and their children could busy themselves reading Shakespeare and Goethe. There was a large staff, with one employee for every four residents. Slezkine compares the House of Government to the Dakota, in New York City—a palace of capitalism along Central Park, where residents could eat at an on-site restaurant and play tennis and croquet on private courts. A report prepared for the Soviet Union’s Central Committee in 1935 showed that the cost of running the House of Government exceeded the Moscow norm by six hundred and seventy per cent. To the extent that the House of Government facilitated a transition, it was the metamorphosis of a sect of ascetics into a priesthood of pampered élites.
After several years, life took a sharp turn for residents; the purge-ridden building had the “highest per-capita number of arrests and executions of any apartment building in Moscow.”
Before long, the arrests spread from the tenants to their nannies, guards, laundresses, and stairwell cleaners. The commandant of the house was arrested as an enemy of the people, and so was the head of the Communist Party’s housekeeping department. So many enemies of the people were being uncovered that individual apartments were turning over with darkly absurd speed. In April, 1938, the director of the Kuznetsk steel plant, Konstantin Butenko, moved into Apartment 141, which had become vacant after the arrest of its previous tenant, a deputy commissar from the Health Ministry. Butenko occupied the four rooms for six weeks before he himself was arrested, and his family evicted. Matvei Berman, one of the founders of the Gulag, took over the space. Berman was arrested six months later, and shot the next year.
Many apartments are inhabited by descendants of the original tenants; many others now house expats who enjoy its proximity to bars and restaurants. The weight of history sits very differently on the shoulders of these two populations.
File photo of Anzor, a gay man who spoke to the Associated Press on condition that he not be further identified out of fear for his safety and that of his family from Chechnya, the predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia. Rights activists from Human Rights Watch have said that high-level officials in Russia's Chechnya have visited detention facilities where gay people allegedly were illegally held and tortured.(AP Photo/Nataliya Vasilyeva, File)
As John Ibbitson reports at The Globe and Mail, there’s a new underground railroad to Canada. Through a safe house network, the Canadian government has been spiriting away gay Chechen men who face not only government persecution, but honor killings at the hands of their family. In this conservative Russian republic, the government not only looks away from these heinous crimes, it encourages them.
For three months, the federal government has been secretly spiriting gay Chechen men from Russia to Canada, under a clandestine program unique in the world.
The evacuations, spearheaded by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, fall outside the conventions of international law and could further impair already tense relations between Russia and Canada. But the Liberal government decided to act regardless.
Hamzat, a man in his mid-twenties, is a recent arrival to Canada. (Hamzat is not his real name. The Globe and Mail is protecting his identity because he fears repercussions for friends and family in Chechnya, and because he is concerned that some Chechen-Canadians might wish him ill.) In an interview with The Globe, he was cautious but calm, offering a brief smile from time to time. He described how his ordeals began: One day in March, men wearing green khaki uniforms appeared in his place of work in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. He was handcuffed, placed in the trunk of a car, and taken to a local police headquarters. “I don’t know how to express this. I was in shock,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.
Hamzat was taken into a room and, still handcuffed, placed on a chair. He was surrounded by men who kicked him with their heavy boots and beat him with the brass nozzles of hoses. In later sessions, he was subjected to electric-shock torture.
The men wanted him to reveal the names of gay men he knew, just as another man under torture had given up his name. “I didn’t give them any information,” he said. “I lied to them.”
Between interrogations, he said, he and other gay men were kept in a cell with drug dealers and users, and confined to a small area because they were considered unclean. The interrogations lasted two or three weeks.
It’s been a heck of a few days after a heck of a few months after approximately 900 years that got squeezed into this mutation of the space-time continuum we’re calling 2017.
Our president’s namesake has gotten himself into a bit of a pickle and the New York Times, as the saying goes, is on it. The first story, published on Saturday, noted how Donald J. Trump, Jr. said in March that he probably met with people that were Russian — who hasn’t, in today’s globalized world? — but no meetings “that were set up” and “certainly none” in which he was representing his father’s presidential campaign.
And then this beauty of a standalone single-sentence paragraph:
Jeff Sessions last testified at his confirmation hearing in January before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to testify in an open hearing today as part of the congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Some believe he may be more truthful this time than he was at his last public hearing, when he falsely claimed he never communicated with Russian entities. (Sessions met with the Russian ambassador twice, and will likely be asked about a possible third meeting.)
Others are concerned President Donald Trump may try to block Sessions’ testimony at the eleventh hour. He has until 2:30pm to make his decision.
A man waves to a member of the Syrian pro-government forces patrolling a street in the newly retaken Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood in Aleppo's Old City on December 8, 2016. (GEORGE OURFALIAN / AFP / Getty Images)
At The New York Times Magazine, Robert F. Worth reports from Aleppo, a city in ruins. Speaking with residents about the current state of existence, Worth also examines the social and political seeds of the Syrian War, now in its sixth year. The war has been supported by a cast of foreign sponsors on both sides. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have backed the Assad regime, which dropped bombs and chemical weapons on its own citizens, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have aided the rebels attempting to overthrow Assad. With Aleppo firmly back into the hands of the Assad regime, Syrians and exiled expats are starting to wonder whether backing Assad is their best chance at ending the war so they can begin to rebuild their lives.
I wanted to wind back the clock and make sense of how a city that seemed so averse to politics — of any kind — had been torn apart.
Even Syrians have trouble answering that question. In March, I met a lawyer named Anas Joudeh, who took part in some of the 2011 protests. Joudeh no longer considers himself a member of the opposition. I asked him why. “No one is 100 percent with the regime, but mostly these people are unified by their resistance to the opposition,” Joudeh told me. “They know what they don’t want, not what they want.” In December, he said, “Syrians abroad who believe in the revolution would call me and say, ‘We lost Aleppo.’ And I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ It was only a Turkish card guarded by jihadis.” For these exiled Syrians, he said, the specter of Assad’s crimes looms so large that they cannot see anything else. They refuse to acknowledge the realities of a rebellion that is corrupt, brutal and compromised by foreign sponsors.
All the same, Aleppo was a turning point, and in some ways an emblem of the wider war. Its fall appears to have persuaded many ordinary Syrians that the regime, for all its appalling cruelty and corruption, is their best shot at something close to normality.
All this may sound awfully precarious for Assad. But in a sense, it is just a more extreme form of the game Assad and his father have played for decades. The Assad regime arose after an unstable period during the 1950s and ’60s, when Syria was shaken by coups and countercoups. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, triumphed in part by managing a constellation of rivals who hated one another but were all dependent on him. They knew that without him at the center, chaos would return, and that would be bad for business. This is truer than ever today. And it has a secondary effect, not unimportant: Many ordinary people now see Assad as their only hedge against a far more toxic kind of chaos.
At Gizmodo, Josephine Hüetlin (writing under the pseudonym Emma Lantreev) reports on how Russia’s aversion to harm reduction as a strategy to combat drug addiction has led to an HIV epidemic. In Yekaterinburg — the fourth largest city in Russia, with a population of 1.5 million people — one in 50 are HIV positive. In Russia, addiction is considered a “moral sickness” and methadone is illegal, “a despised ‘narcoliberal’ idea.” The country has gone so far as to assert that drug addiction and homosexuality are notions imported from the West in a bid to corrupt ‘Russia’s “conservative ideology and traditional values.”’ For those who are suffering, the prospects are grim.
The government’s primary strategy for dealing with people struggling with addiction is “making them feel miserable,” Sarang says. “As if the social pressure will make them stop using drugs.”
In a country with the largest population of injection drug users, methadone therapy is illegal. Methadone distribution is punishable with up to 20 years in prison. Heroin addicts— “anti-social elements,” as they’re called—are expected to quit cold-turkey, perhaps in one of the jail-like “treatment” centers.
Those suffering from both addiction and HIV complications face a torturous dead end. According to several reports by the Rylkov Foundation, doctors have often refused to treat HIV patients who use heroin, on the grounds that they won’t be able to follow their treatment regime.
The City Without Drugs organization is still active, as is their YouTube channel. It features hundreds of videos of drug addicts being dragged half-conscious through the street, their faces not blurred, or confessing their alleged worthlessness, their hopelessness, their shame.
Protesters wave a national flag as they crowd in downtown Moscow on March 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
The Russian presidential election is a year away, but protests have already begun. Last week, images of Russians being carried and even dragged from Moscow’s Red Square spread throughout the Western media. Then came the crackdown—blocked access to web pages and social media showing the photos, and a criminal case against the protesters. Earlier this week, the square was nearly empty despite another planned action.
The protests demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and objected to widespread corruption, but they also served as a rare moment of rebellion in a country that rarely dares defy its leader, President Vladimir Putin.
But when BuzzFeed News went to Krivov’s address, listed in the NYPD’s files, at 11 E. 90th St., it wasn’t a residence. It’s a Smithsonian-owned office building for its neighboring Cooper Hewitt design museum. It’s located a block behind the Russian Consulate, which is at 9 E. 91st St. One of the consulate’s public entrances is 11 E. 91st St.
Asked about the discrepancy, the NYPD insisted that 11 E. 90th St. was the address they had been given for Krivov, apparently by Russian consular officials.
“No one is living here — this is where my desk is right now,” a Smithsonian employee at the address said when BuzzFeed News called.
Most geographical definitions of Europe do, in fact, exclude Georgia. A modified version of the border that Herodotus’ contemporaries agreed on—along the Tanais River, today’s Don—is still the most commonly accepted version of the Europe-Asia border, following the Don, Kuma, and Manych rivers from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Other geographers put it along the ridge of the Caucasus Mountains, which separate Russia from Georgia—a particularly cruel irony, given that Georgia’s embrace of a European identity is focused largely on distinguishing itself from Russia.
In the 1950s, Soviet geographers undertook an effort to finally eliminate confusion about where the border between Europe and Asia lie, and as part of that they solicited opinions from the geographical societies of the three “Transcaucasus” republics: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The first two argued that they should be placed in Asia, with only the Georgian opinion dissenting, on “historical-cultural” grounds, that the southern border of the Soviet Union, separating it from Iran and Turkey, was the proper border with Asia. But Moscow disagreed: “That sort of radical decision would hardly be accepted by the scientific community either in the USSR, or outside its borders. In geographical, historical-ethnographic terms the Transcaucasus belongs to Asia,” wrote geographer Eduard Murzaev, summarizing the debate in a Soviet journal.
And so Georgians since then have preferred to demur on the question of where exactly the border of Europe lies. Even Georgian textbooks don’t argue that Georgia is geographically in Europe, instead offering varying definitions of “political” Europe, “geographical” Europe, and so on. “In Georgia, there’s no interest in discussing this,” Gverdtsiteli tells me.
In Roads & Kingdoms, Joshua Kucera travels to the nation of Georgia, along the border of Russia and Europe, to examine the longstanding debate about whether it belongs to Asia, Europe or the Middle East, and why it matters.
These days the museum has no ticket office, schedule, or employees. An elderly Georgian man named Soso, who introduced himself as a former KGB colonel, guides the tours. Soso said that when he returned to Tbilisi from Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was unable to obtain a pension or an apartment, so he moved into the museum. He survives on donations from tourists.
“There are sometimes no tourists for two weeks,” he complained.
While we were talking, kids from the neighboring houses dashed into the museum. They said it was the first time they had seen the museum’s gates open, and they wanted to see what was inside. They looked at the numerous portraits and busts of Stalin and Lenin.
“Do you know who that is?” I asked, pointing to a bust of Lenin.
They said they didn’t know.
n+1 publishes an excerpt, with illustrations, from Victoria Lomasko’s 2015 book, A Trip to Tbilisi. Journalist and illustrator Lomasko was first noticed in the West for her graphic reportage from the Pussy Riot trial. In Tbilisi, Georgia, she spoke with historians, artists, journalists, activists, squatters, and local clergy about the political and cultural climate in a former Soviet republic that continues to have a tense relationship with Russia.