On April 14, 2021, the offices of the Russian student-run journal DOXA were raided by the Russian police. Its four now-former editors—Natalia (Natasha) Tyshkevich, Vladimir (Volodya) Metyolkin, Armen Aramyan, and Alla Gutnikova—were charged with “involving minors in committing actions that pose a threat to their life.” Their crime was posting a three-minute video expressing support for students threatened with expulsion for participating in anti-government protests. After the police finished searching DOXA’s office, they moved to the then-editors’ apartments, confiscating their family members’ phones and laptops. The question “why so many books?,” which a policeman asked while suspiciously looking through Armen’s library, instantly became a popular meme reproduced on stickers and social media stories as a motto of the war that Vladimir Putin’s government is waging against Russian youth and education.
Natasha, Alla, Volodya, and Armen were put on pretrial house arrest. For almost a year now, they have only been able to leave their houses between the hours of 8 AM and 10 AM. They have also been prohibited from using the internet. These measures have not only disrupted their lives and caused serious psychological strain, but also effectively put an end to their studies and research. Before their arrest, Natasha was working as an archivist at the largest textile factory in Moscow; she is a historian of the Soviet period and is a specialist in the digital humanities. Armen is a student of philosophy, sociology, and anthropology; he is also the Russian translator of David Graeber, whom Armen names as his biggest influence. Alla was planning to defend her thesis on Walter Benjamin at the time of her arrest; she is also a poet, a dancer, and a model. Volodya is a student of history and pedagogy.
The final hearings for their case concluded on April 12. Natasha, Alla, Volodya, and Armen were sentenced to two years of collective labor.
Founded in 2017 as the student journal of the Moscow campus of the Higher School of Economics, DOXA quickly outgrew its original mission to become the voice of Russian youth and then one of the most important oppositional outlets. (Because students have been the main and the most active presence in the anti-governmental and anti-war protests since 2017, “youth” and “opposition” have become synonymous in Russia.) DOXA’s first brush with censorship came in 2019 when it was deprived of the status of a student-run organization. Since then, it has been independent, operating on private donations.
Over the past three years, DOXA has become the central media platform speaking to and for this generation of highly politically active young people. DOXA collects information about the harassment (in all its forms—political, sexual, social) of high school and university students nationwide, gathers data about arrest statistics, provides legal advice, and collects and distributes legal funds.
Since February 24, 2022 DOXA has emerged as one of the most active, reliable, and popular sources of information about the war in Ukraine. Like all independent Russian media outlets, it was banned by Roskomnadzor (the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) shortly after the beginning of the full-scale war, yet it continues to invent ingenious methods to reach its audience. Right now, DOXA subscribers can access their newsfeed by using a VPN, via Telegram1, or by subscribing to a daily newsletter2.
I won’t be talking about the case, the police raid, the interrogations, the court files, or the trials—this is boring and pointless. Lately I’ve been attending the school of fatigue and frustration. Yet before my arrest, I managed to enroll in the school of knowing how to talk about truly important things.3
I wish I could talk about philosophy and literature. About Benjamin, Derrida, Kafka, Arendt, Sontag, Barthes, Foucault, Agamben, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks. About Oxana Timofeeva, Madina Tlostanova, and Maria Rakhmaninova.
I wish I could talk about poetry. How to read contemporary poetry.4 I wish I could talk about Mikhail Gronas, Grigori Dashevsky, and Vassia Borodin.
But this is neither the time nor the place. I will hide my small delicate words on the tip of my tongue, in the back of my throat, somewhere between my stomach and my heart.5 And I’ll just say a few things.
I often feel like a little fish, a small bird, a school kid, or a baby. But recently I was astonished to learn that Brodsky, too, was only 23 at his trial. And since I, too, have been put in the ranks of humanity,6 I will say it like this:
In the Kabbalah there is the concept of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. I see that the world is imperfect. I believe that, as Yehuda Amichai wrote, the world is beautifully made for doing good and for resting, like a park bench (a park bench, not a court bench!). I believe that the world was created for tenderness, hope, love, solidarity; for passion and joy.
But there is a terrible, unbearable amount of violence in the world. And I do not want violence. Not in any form. I do not want teachers’ hands down schoolgirls’ underwear. I do not want drunken fathers’ fists beating the bodies of their wives and children. Were I to list all the violence that I am aware of, there would not be enough days, weeks, or years. To start seeing violence one simply has to open their eyes. My eyes are open. I see the violence, and I do not want it. The more violence there is, the more I do not want it. And most of all I do not want the greatest, the most terrible violence.
I love to learn. From hereon I will speak in the voices of others.
In high school I read Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind, Bulat Okudzhava’s The Closed-Down Theater, Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat. I especially loved one poem by Okudzhava:
Conscience, noble ways and dignity—
There it is, our sacred host.
Reach out your palms to it.
You’ll walk fearless into fire for it.
Its visage lofty and amazing.
Devote to it your humble life:
You’ll never be victorious,
But you’ll die a human being!
At MGIMO University, I studied French and learned the line from Édith Piaf: “Ça ne pouvait pas durer toujours [“It could not last forever”]. And another from Marc Robin: “Ça ne peut pas durer comme ça” [“It can’t go on like this”].
When I was 19, I went to Majdanek and Treblinka and learned how to say “never again” in seven languages: never again, jamais plus, nie wieder, קיינמאל מער, nigdy więcej, לא עוד.
I studied the Jewish sages and there were two sayings that I came to love the most. Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” And then there was Rabbi Nachman who said, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is to have no fear at all.”
Then I entered the HSE School of Cultural Studies and learned a few more important lessons. First, words matter. Second, one has to call things by their proper names. And finally: sapere aude—that is, have the courage to use your own mind.
It is ridiculous and absurd that our case has to do with schoolchildren. I have taught humanities to children in English, worked as a babysitter, dreamed of taking part in the Teach for Russia program—of going away to a small town for two years and sowing the reasonable, the good, the eternal. But Russia, in the words of Public Prosecutor Tryakin, accuses me of involving minors in life-threatening activities. If I should ever have any children (which I definitely should have, because I do remember the greatest commandment), I’ll hang on their wall a portrait of the Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, so that they will grow up neat and clean. Procurator Pontius Pilate standing there washing his hands—that’s the right kind of portrait. Indeed, if thinking and not being indifferent is now life-threatening, I do not know what to say regarding the substance of the accusation. I wash my hands.9
And now is the moment of truth. The now of legibility. My friends and I are all undone with horror and pain, but when I go down into the subway, I do not see faces streaked with tears. I do not see faces streaked with tears.
Of all my favorite books, not one—neither children’s books, nor books for adults—taught me apathy, indifference, cowardice. Not one taught me phrases like these:
we are little people
I’m just a simple person
nothing’s that simple
you can’t trust anyone
I’m not particularly interested in all that
I’m not involved in politics
none of this has anything to do with me
I can’t change anything
the people in charge will deal with it
what could I have done about it on my own
No, instead I know and love completely different words.
Hemingway speaks in the words of John Donne:
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
Mahmoud Darwish says:
As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).
As you pay your water bill, think of others
(those who are nursed by clouds).
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you liberate yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: “If only I were a candle in the dark”).
Gennady Golovaty says:
The blind cannot stare in rage.
The mute cannot scream in fury.
The armless cannot hold weapons
The legless cannot march forward.
But: the mute can stare in rage.
But: the blind can scream in fury.
But: the legless can hold weapons.
But: the armless can march forward.
I know some people are afraid. They choose silence.
But Audre Lorde says, “Your silence will not protect you.”
On the Moscow subway, the public announcement says:
“Passengers are forbidden to stay on trains headed to a dead end.”
The lyrics by the Petersburg band Aquarium continue:
“This train is on fire.”
Tarkovsky speaks in the words of Lao Tzu:
“The most important thing is that they believe in themselves and become as helpless as children. Because weakness is great and strength is null. At birth people are supple and weak; at death, they are tough and stiff. When trees grow they are soft and flexible, and when they become dry and hard, they die. Stiffness and strength are the concomitants of death; softness and weakness express the freshness of being. Thus what has grown hard will not conquer.”
Remember that fear eats the soul. Remember the character from Kafka, who saw “a gallows being set up in the prison yard, mistakenly thought it was for him, escaped from his cell at night and hanged himself.”
Be like little children. Do not be afraid to ask (yourselves and others) what is good and what is bad. Do not be afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. Do not be afraid to scream, to burst into tears. Repeat (to yourselves and to others): 2+2=4. Black is black. White is white. I am a human, I am strong and brave. We are strong and brave.
Freedom is the process by which you develop a practice for being unavailable for servitude.
—Translated from the Russian by Karina Papp, Galina Ryazanskaya, and Mikhail Konovalenko, with Ivan Sokolov and Ainsley Morse
A reference to a poem by Ekaterina Sokolova. ↩
A reference to “How to Read Contemporary Poetry,” a 2012 essay by Grigori Dashevsky. ↩
A quote from a poem by the contemporary Russian poet Mikhail Gronas. ↩
A reference to Joseph Brodsky’s answer during his 1964 trial, as transcribed by Frida Vigdorova: “Judge: And who recognized you to be a poet? Who put you in the ranks of poet? Brodsky: No one. And who put me in the ranks of humanity?” ↩
A slogan written by two Soviet artists, Yuli Rybakov and Oleg Volkov, on the wall of the Peter and Paul Fortress in Leningrad on August 3, 1976. ↩
A traditional Polish motto written on one of the banners during the 1968 Red Square demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. ↩
This passage is a slightly modified quotation from Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki, here in H. William Tjalsma’s translation (published as Moscow to the End of the Line). ↩