May 01, 2023

Snapshots from Small-Town Russia


Snapshots from Small-Town Russia
Family in town.

Vladimir Volkov is a Russian professor of philosophy who has published widely on cultural semantics, sociology, history, political studies, ethics, and pedagogy. His books include Western Philosophy of the XXth Century (2000) The Ontology of Personality (2001), and Postmodernity and Its Interpretations (2017). He is retired and lives in Vladimir Oblast, where he taught children in two rural schools until he was fired from both for not supporting the “special military operation.” Since then, he has been posting searing social media commentaries about life in the Russian heartland. This text compiles several of Volkov’s posts and his responses to readers and are translated and published with his permission.


I have begun teaching kids at two rural schools, but for now I’m stuck in the hospital again. The medical and support staff are all attentive and take good care of you. There are eight patients in my ward. They make me feel as if I’ve landed in a prison cell.

My ward mates have all been in and out of jail, many served long sentences. They’re the men of Russia’s rural depths. Their interests are exactly what you’d expect. Most dropped out of school in third grade. All of them are pro-Putin. They talk nonstop. They reminisce about their military service, how they waged war in various “hot spots,” their life in detention centers, in jail, in the prison camps. Their main passion in life is fishing. Their income has always been modest and not guaranteed. For them, even thirty thousand rubles [approximately $390] is a huge sum. They watch only Russian TV shows. They dream of visiting the Urals, Siberia, Lake Baikal, and the Far East. They don’t have passports for foreign travel (only 20 percent of Russians have those), which is why they have no wish to see Italy, France, England, or the US. They’ve got no money for foreign travel either, of course. They’re all into sports. They’ve all trained in Sambo (Russian Self-Defense) or Judo, so that they could beat someone up real good, or kill them, if need be. All of them are tattooed head to toe.

They talk mostly about what hurts, how it hurts, why it hurts, and so on. They don’t read books and never have. They don’t shut their mouths, but the real subject of their conversations is nothingness – they are just making noise.

It doesn’t feel like my crowd, but this is where I come from. More than half of the kids I went to school with have done time – more than once, too. Natasha K, with whom I danced at the prom, killed her “rival.” Her younger sister killed her newborn twins. And those are just a couple of the stories I could tell – telling all of them would take till kingdom come. These people will never understand anything – they’ve got nothing to understand with… An individual is always an autonomous entity. Here, however, the one always dissolves into the many. They’re all interested in the same things: drinking, smoking, fishing, scraping together cash. They all have scores of relatives and friends. This one kicked the bucket, that one got jailed for eight years, another one became a drunk, yet another one overdosed. They don’t talk to their wives – they swear at them. And you expect these people to have a rich inner life?

And this, right in the center of the city of Vladimir. But it could be any Russian town, really. In Russia, most of the population has either done time, is doing time, or will be doing time.

‣▹▻

Man sitting in a chair.
Vladimir Volkov.

For the majority of Russians, everything that’s happening in Ukraine might as well be playing out in Mozambique or Uganda. “Yeah, they’re shooting somewhere out there, but why should I care?” “Someone’s son was brought back in a coffin from Ukraine, but it wasn’t my kid!” “My neighbor has sons and I’ve got only daughters. My neighbour is in tears, but I’m good as gold! And, anyhow, he’ll get compensation…” “Yesterday, we shot at the Afghans, then at the Moldovans, then at the Chechens, then at the Georgians, and today we’re shooting at the Ukrainians. That’s our profession – killing people. It doesn’t matter who we’re shooting at. What do we care? We don't care about ourselves either. Our life isn’t worth a damn.”

I saw a drunk man, who was explaining to his wife and son that Putin was doing a great job, that the West is scared of him, that America is a force for evil in the world and that we’ll put an end to all of them. These kinds of people never have any problem understanding anything in life. It’s all clear and simple to them. They’ve got special access to the absolute truth.

I was just told that 700 people are being “mobilized from” our small town (population 50,000).

I spoke to teachers and students today. Their understanding of the war is vague at best. Yesterday, they mobilized the boys from the village and sent them off – first to nearby Kovrov and then to Rostov (near the Ukrainian border). Their mothers are saying, “The Banderites are waging war on our territory, they’re bombing our cities, that’s why the Motherland needs to be defended. Our sons will be trained in Rostov and then they’ll return. They won’t have to fight.” Their brains are poisoned by television. There’s nothing there except for what television puts there.

In the warped thinking of those mothers, their sons are heroes: they will be defending the Motherland against the Banderites. I tried to find out from them who these Banderites are. They don’t know. I asked them, do they really think the Banderites are closing in on Moscow? They don’t know.

One of the school’s former students has already been killed in Ukraine. His coffin arrived recently. That did nothing to clarify the picture for them. They’re still sending their sons to fight.

You keep hearing how we don’t abandon our boys on the battlefield. But we do! We do it all the time. Those boys with the St. George ribbon tied across the hood of their car, with the painted-on slogan, “We can do it again!” (referring to the defeat of the Nazis in WW2) and with a big fat Z, keep being thrown into the furnace of war. This isn’t some first-person-shooter computer game. There’s a steady flow of coffins with their remains, the so-called “Cargo 200,” arriving in Russia.

Recently, I saw a video out of Ukraine. Boys from Ivanovo are sitting under a birch tree and talking about how they were just shelled. They’ve got no artillery or tanks, nothing except for an assault rifle and a knife. They have no food either. They haven’t eaten for days. Their commanding officers have all run away, simply disappeared. The boys are saying goodbye to family and friends and are calling themselves cannon fodder.

Sooner or later, you’ve got to pay for everything. For deifying the leader, for “I’m-okay-with-it,” for infantilism, for “it’s-not-my-problem,” for #CRIMEAISOURS! For “rally to the cause!” They’re killing your sons? Well, you’ve done everything possible to get them killed.

Rural school in snow covered landscape.
Rural school in Vashutino.

‣▹▻

In our schools, the teachers aren’t focusing on lessons now. All the talk is about mobilization.

This is, after all, a society where they not only falsify election results, but where they’ve also instituted “military-patriotic education” years ago. They’ve been teaching students “patriotism” – loyalty to Putin, that is.

Our patriots can’t be imagined without an assault rifle. In our school, the teachers run a weekly class, “Conversations on Important Topics.” But few students have ever seen a play. They’re taught to take apart an assault rifle and put it back together from the time they can barely walk, but the State has no money to take these students from the villages and rural areas to the theater. The students don’t know who Shakespeare is, never mind who Moliere, Griboyedov, and Ostrovsky are. They’ve never heard of Fonvizin, Dickens, Hugo, Stendhal, Thackeray, and Zola. I’m not certain that all the teachers themselves have been to the theater even once. But everyone is involved in the “military-patriotic education.”

Today the vice-principal, pale as a ghost, told me that her son was being mobilized. Her son told her that he would never be able to shoot another human being. Not even if he was in mortal danger himself. Never.

It's not the first time we’re going through this. In 2014, one woman I knew became a fervent supporter of #CRIMEAISOURS. Some time passed and she turned to me for help in hiding her nephew, so that he’d avoid being conscripted into the army of the Luhansk People’s Republic.

I was sitting in the school cafeteria today. Right beside me sat some second graders. What were they talking about? “My brother went to fight in Ukraine… We’re bombing Kyiv… Zelensky… Kharkiv… Fascists… Our army is better… D’you support Putin?.. We’ll beat them.” And those are the little kids. Second graders.

People relaxing on park benches.
Public space in Gus Khrustalny.

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I was fired today. They accused me of corrupting the young. Just like Socrates. The parents of my students complained that I do not respect our president, that I refer to the special military operation as a war, that I call the liberation of “our territories” aggression against Ukraine, and that I call the bombing of Kyiv and Zaporizhzhia murder of civilians. The principal and the vice-principal decided to have “a chat” with me. Their arguments are the usual ones – all taken directly from television: Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine, but it was always ours, dating back to Catherine the Great… You’re not a patriot if you don’t love Putin… The Banderites are bombing our cities; Nazis destroy our bridge; you shouldn’t be allowed to come anywhere near our school, and so forth. I’m expecting a knock on my door any time now.

I have to somehow get out of this country. But how? I have neither health nor money… I don’t belong in this school, but I feel bad for the kids. Many of them were shocked to hear that I was fired. We managed to build a great relationship over this past month-and-a-half. They were motivated to learn, they were discovering many new things, they were trying to think independently. I just started a new unit today and suddenly…

This isn’t about Putin. Will Putin die? Of course, he’ll die. What will happen next? No one knows. When it comes to Russia, we’re not dealing with a people, or a nation, but with a multitude, a black hole, a silent majority. The best the so-called analysts can do is read the tea leaves.

[Article translated by Maria Bloshteyn.]


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