14 сентября 2022

“They’ll eat me alive”: the story of man who made an anti-war wall newspaper — only to be squealed on by his neighbors

The town of Siversky near Saint Petersburg came into the spotlight this June when the popular blogger Rustem Adagamov published a photo of a poster displayed at the town’s public park. The sign read “You’re not Peter the First, you’re Adolf the Second.” DIY placards of this kind had been published in Siversky for a few years.

Paperpaper.ru tells the story of the poster’s creator, Alexander Pravdin: formerly a doctor at the local psychiatric hospital who was born in exile and built a startling house in the town, now up for demolition.

After Paperpaper.ru’s story was published, Alexander Pravdin was taken to the police station because of his anti-war wall newspaper. He was released for health reasons.

Yurii Goldenstein for Paperpaper.ru

In June 2020, a home-made monument appeared in the central area of the small town of Siversky in Leningrad Oblast: a piece of iron with words “Save and preserve” written on it. It was inserted into the mouth of a local statue, a metal crow. A closer look would reveal that the iron piece represented the Russian Constitution.

From June 25 to July 1, 2020 Russia held a plebiscite on constitutional amendments. Proposed modifications paved the way for Vladimir Putin to run for two more presidential terms.

The iron Constitution was removed after a few days. Another one swiftly appeared in its place. And another one after the second piece was gone. Finally, instead of “Save and preserve”, a new sign said simply “No”. It wasn’t removed.

The crow went on to entertain locals with comments on current events. The statue congratulated Zenith Football Club on winning the Russian championship, scolded uncleanliness (“Stop littering, you jerks!”) and supported Sergey Furgal, the popular former governor of Khabarovsk Krai, after his imprisonment. The crow was taken down in the spring of 2022.

“Foreign agent”

It’s a summer evening in Siversky, and a small crowd of locals is forming in a public garden near the railway station. Passers-by pause to watch an athletically built man with a grey beard tinkering over a large boulder, the former pedestal of the crow statue.

The man is wearing white ripped jeans and a black t-shirt with the words “foreign agent” on his back. Visibly nervous, he unfolds a placard and attaches it to the stone. People around him are taking pictures. A boy, about eight years old, runs up to read the sign aloud: “Russians, you are inhuman.”

A man photographs the sign. Another elderly man approaches: “What’s this crap? Come on, give it to me.” He turns to the photographer: “Hey you, fog your film!”

The man with the poster hides it behind his back and responds: “Stop making trouble, comrade.” His opponent summons help from the crowd to take the poster away but no one’s moving. He then tries to snatch out the offending object and fighting begins. A teenage girl approaches the men, plucks the sign and runs away with it. The brawler, who has a limp, is unable to pursue her.

The girl comes back in a few minutes and hands over a key to a supermarket storage cell to the poster’s creator. “The truth is hard to swallow,” she says as she is looking at the third character of this scene.

“No use arguing with the insane”

“Many are brainwashed. Many are just unsound,” says the 73-old Alexander Pravdin who created the poster. He has lived in Siversky for almost half a century since he was given a job as a psychiatrist in the town.

“Not only do I understand it, I’m well versed in the subject,” he remarks concerning his conflicts with aggressive locals. “I was taught there was no use arguing with the insane, because nothing good would come of it. I remember once when I was a young doctor, a patient with delirium tremens was brought in. There was a lot of police, many friends and family. The patient was very excited, he was screaming at them: ‘Look, there are turtles creeping!’ I told him: ‘Yes, there are turtles’, and that calmed him down.”

Pravdin moved to Siversky from Leningrad with his wife, a teacher. They had a child, were allocated a one-bedroom apartment by the state and stayed there, according to the former doctor, “involuntarily, to upgrade the breed.”

For twenty years Alexander worked in a psychiatric hospital. In the 1990s he quit, bought a warehouse with a plot of land and opened a grocery store. The business was good, and soon enough Alexander had resources to move back into the city. This time he consciously decided to stay in order to “do something in Siversky.”

Out of this aspiration emerged the town’s most unusual building, its new architectural landmark. In the early 2000s, Pravdin had the warehouse razed and hired an architect named Makarov to build a four-storey house in Dutch style. “The front porch — see that? — was basically ripped off from the Dutch Parliament building. Local blacksmiths had a hand in it too, of course,” says the project initiator with affection.

Yurii Goldenstein for Paperpaper.ru

In front of the Dutch house Alexander made a public garden complete with benches and sculptures created by locals. A Dutch windmill neighbors a statue of storks and a head-shaped boulder with a smoking pipe, dressed in a top hat. Atop of the hat stands a crazy-eyed human figure holding a vodka bottle. The tiny man has the words “Crimea is ours” on his stomach. Attached to the hat itself is an iron plaque that reads “No to war”; the inscription is painted over. Alexander explains that the statue was made in 2014 when the Yabloko Party protested against war in Ukraine. Recently someone painted a Z sign on the plaque; Pravdin wiped it off.

The bizarre art gallery’s next exhibit is another boulder that used to be the crow’s pedestal, and a third one with a crown atop.

The latter rock, Alexander recalls, was brought from an old aristocratic mansion. “I put it there and figured: well, this is some royal stone, I need to make a thick iron crown for it. I made a crown and then the coronavirus happened.” The boulder is now popularly known as “the coronavirus monument.”

For a few years Pravdin rented the Dutch house out to a consumer service center. In September 2021 a court ordered the building demolished.

According to Alexander, the ruling came after years of litigation with local authorities, who had long resented the businessman’s activities but avoided an open conflict over the locally popular Dutch house and the garden. “But there’s no hope left now, after what I’ve been posting.”

“No water, but hang in there”

Alexander is strolling the town, saying hi to almost everyone he meets.

“It all began with the reset [of Putin’s presidential terms]. That was when I began writing on the crow,” says Pravdin of his first message in Siversky public garden. During preparations for the referendum on constitutional amendments, he hired blacksmiths, ordered an iron copy of the Constitution the size of a paper sheet and inserted it into the crow’s mouth.

“I had much more support back then,” he reminisces. The authorities weren’t thrilled, however: the iron Constitution was several times removed; Alexander would commission a new one and came up with inserting a metal bar in the bird’s mouth in order to weld the insert permanently onto the statue.

Alexander was then taken to the police and threatened a fine of 120 thousand rubles for defiling a state symbol. After this, he decided to act in a more sophisticated way. He posted a collage of Putin and Lukashenko for February 14, and for Easter, the words “Christ is risen” next to an image of eggs painted in blue and yellow. The current exhibit is a black-and-white photo of people on the streets with a caption that reads “The beginning”. It takes some knowledge of history to surmise that the picture is of Soviet people listening to the radio announcement of the Nazi invasion.

He was getting away with his trickery for a year and a half. In March 2022, during the first few weeks of the war in Ukraine, the crow was toppled together with the iron bar and the latest message.

Yurii Goldenstein for Paperpaper.ru

This time the police gave Alexander a warning for “anti-social behavior”. “That hurt. I’m no drinker, I try helping people, I made this public garden,” he complains.

Pravdin kept hanging his messages on the boulder itself. A sign in May 2022 said “No to fascism”. For Victory Day, Alexander posted a sign with the word “Ruscists”: he says he nearly got beaten for it and only managed to escape unharmed thanks to some women’s intervention.

One day when water was cut off in Siversky, another local posted his own issue of the “wall newspaper” on the same rock: “No water, but hang in there”, referring to the viral awkward phrase by Russia’s ex-president Dmitry Medvedev. On that particular day the police decided to catch the samizdat publisher. They took down the poster and tracked down who made it: “They came to him, that saved me.”

On the birthday of Russia’s first emperor, the words “You’re not Peter the First, you’re Adolf the Second” were posted on the boulder. The message was a reference to Putin’s speech about Peter the Great’s “reclaiming” territories that Russia had lost. “It seems that our destiny is also reclaiming and strengthening,” Putin had said; the sharp answer to that claim was viewed by over 70 thousand people through the photographer Rustem Adagamov. That someone took a picture of it before it was gone was pure luck: the placard lasted barely an hour.

Some time later, another poster reminded of the failed coup d’etat in August 1991 when several high-ranking officials made an attempt to seize power in the USSR while television broadcasted the ballet Swan Lake instead of news reports.

In early July, a few days after Bumaga’s first interview with Pravdin, he was visited, according to his own words, by the FSB. “Two guys came who looked exactly like Petrov and Boshirov,” he recalls, comparing the duo to alleged agents of Russian military security who perpetrated the infamous, failed poisoning in Salisbury, according to Scotland Yard. “I couldn’t tell them that [they were lookalikes]. And I had ‘foreign agent’ written on my back. They came to me smiling.” After introducing themselves the officers told Alexander to clean up his social media and stop posting anything on the army and the authorities.

After the second conversation with Bumaga, the same two officers called Alexander to warn him against hanging up new posters. They told Pravdin someone had reported on him for “offending an indigenous people”, and also that it was “the last warning.”

“Yes, I’m being squealed on. Now I know first hand what it feels like. They were like, ‘You see, in 1937 you would already be… See, we’re improving’. I didn’t answer. Douchebags.”

Why does he keep posting the placards? Alexander’s response: to give people an opportunity to let off steam, pro-war or anti-war.

“Some people approach me to say thanks for my escapades, because they are unable to speak out, although they understand the situation. It’s too difficult for me to estimate visually [who supports the war and who doesn’t]. When someone comes up and thanks me, of course that’s… I need some support, I’m so sick and tired.”

“I’m fearing they will burn it down”

Alexander is pointing to benches in front of the doomed Dutch house. The benches are painted in national flags’ colors: Russia’s, Tajikistan’s, Uzbekistan’s, Armenia’s, and Ukraine’s. He says that, for a while, the blue-and-yellow bench was avoided by locals. However, as we walk by, there’s a large group of teenagers sitting on it. One of them comes forth to say hi to Alexander. Pravdin introduces him: “A local football player.”

Yurii Goldenstein for Paperpaper.ru

Two more boys come up running. Alexander begins a small talk:

“I hope you won’t get drafted to become cannon fodder. You don’t want to be cannon fodder, do you?”

“I don’t.”

“They don’t have a way out, really,” says Alexander quietly as we walk away.

The building looks abandoned, its walls covered by graffiti tags. When Pravdin and Makarov began their project, there were no modern buildings around. Alexander says that elderly women passing by would cross themselves and protest: “What are the authorities thinking? This thing is going to crumble one day!”

“A commission came, inspecting every floor,” the house owner recalls. “But the mayor had a creative side to him, so he said, let them build so long as I’m the mayor. After he left to Moscow, more harassment ensued, but the house made a hit when the region’s chief architect arrived in the summer. The look he gave! The house then became a photo spot, it was on postcards and fridge magnets.”

Pravdin almost finished a second building next to the Dutch house, with an intention to open a hotel. Now it is also up for demolition. Almost a year has passed since the court’s ruling. Renters vacated the building, leaving Alexander with no income. However, nothing has happened so far. “They have to tear it down, but they’re afraid some fool up high won’t like it,” Alexander conjectures.

Pravdin walks inside through a side entrance: “I’m sneaking into my own property like a thief,” he comments. Behind the door is a workshop where he makes the placards.

Alexander says that he used to have them printed until Siversky’s only printing shop refused him — out of fear, he assumes.

“It’s complicated here in the countryside: I had to go to [the larger nearby town of] Gatchina to print something nasty. The guy over there told me that, if I’m so political, then I must be prepared for political struggle and pay extra. His staff giggled. Apparently they’ve also gotten under pressure now: last time I came in, they asked me right away what I was going to print. I said: not much really, just two words. So it goes. What are we coming to?”

Offices inside the building are abandoned, as is the light-filled photo studio. Old calendars hang on the walls. “I’m fearing they will burn it down — there’s so much aggression towards me,” says the owner bitterly.

Two rooms on the top floor host a “poster gallery”. In one room, old placards lie on a billiard table, in the other, more posters hang on the walls. Alexander says that he is embarrassed with some posters and proud with the others — those that “made a hit”: for instance, “United Russia is an occupant party”, a slogan that predated the war.

“It’s hard to invent a coded language. Then there are also the irreversible aging changes. Coming up with something new to avoid imprisonment is hard,” Pravdin confesses.

“Back in the Soviet times I was already under pressure: ‘Pravdin, you get the Poland situation wrong’. That was in the late 1980s. When Afghanistan happened, I was fired. With a character reference they gave me I was no good even for prison — I was against that war.”

“I got cold feet and came back”

Pravdin never met his father, who was arrested soon after Alexander had been born: “I was still an infant when he was imprisoned under the country chief’s order.” Vyacheslav Pravdin survived on the World War 2 front only to be sent to a prison camp and die there: “He fell ill at the mine.”

Alexander does not know why he was born in Siberia. “It’s hard to say why my mother’s father wound up in Siberia: either he was banished, or they wanted to go there voluntarily, being communists. I went to school together with Germans, Latvians, all deportees. Imagine how multicultural it was. After the ‘father of nations’ had died in 1953, everyone was permitted to leave, so we moved to Krasnodar Krai and then elsewhere.”

For years, the family didn’t even know where exactly Vyacheslav had died. That wasn’t found out until Alexander had an opportunity to travel to a capitalist country and had to go through a KGB security check.

“They found out where [my father] was buried. It was one of the Far Eastern settlements with Chinese names where the mines were. Sadly, I never got to visit.”

Yurii Goldenstein for Paperpaper.ru

He managed to travel in the opposite direction, however. In 1983, Pravdin was chosen to accompany a hundred Soviet fans to the ice hockey world championship in West Germany as the delegation’s doctor.

“We traveled by plane to Frankfurt-on-Main. When I came out from the airport and saw the BMWs, the roads… I thought I was going to stay in Germany. But [my wife] was here with my son. I figured they’d put the heat on her, so I got cold feet and came back to Siversky. Here, I found dust and no roads. Of course I got depressed. A psychiatrist with depression. I’d walk around the forest. Well, I walked my way out of dismay.”

Pravdin kept his job at Druzhnoselskaya Psychiatric Hospital. The atmosphere at the facility was far from cheerful. He recalls that, in the run-up to the 1980 Olympics, unconventionally-looking Leningrad youth, such as men with long hair or earrings, were banished to the hospital from the city and kept there until the games ended.

During the last years of the USSR, Alexander remembers, there wasn’t enough food to feed the patients and meals were served in tin cans in the absence of dinnerware. Among Pravdin’s patients were dissidents, “querulents”, and people who were under trial for robberies and murders but paid a bribe to go into hospital instead of prison: “We’d get a forensic report saying that a patient had schizophrenia, whereas in reality there was no sign of schizophrenia.”

Alexander recalls the most tragic incident in his tenure: “A dissident was admitted. There was a police squad assigned to guard him day and night in addition to the medics. But the insane are clever: they gave the guy a spoon, so he managed to break the lock open, sneaked past a sleeping policeman and escaped from the ward. There was a big fuss in the morning: where is he? An emergency! A patient like that ran away! And then… The guy couldn’t find his way out and hanged himself somewhere in the attic. I was very impressed at the time by the patients’ solidarity: they saw he was guarded by a squad and helped him run away.

“I’m canceled everywhere”

“That’s how it goes in this country. It’s even worse now. Or maybe I’m wrong,” says Pravdin pensively, or, perhaps, in regret that he didn’t stay abroad.

Alexander’s wife died seven years ago. He now lives on his pension and the aid his son sends him: “It’s a hard life. Of course it is. It can’t be helped.” His relationship with his son isn’t very warm: “He has his own opinions that I can’t side with. I can’t argue, because I’m dependent on him. Whereas he’s a little afraid of me, because his upbringing was rough.”

Alexander Pravdin steps out from his Dutch house. Between this and his other building two teenagers are unceremoniously relieving themselves on the brick wall.

Alexander resolves to display yet another poster on the boulder. This time he calls upfront the security agents who visited him, in order to have the inscription approved. The poster reads “Ioann the Precursor”: Russian Orthodox name of John the Baptist. A day earlier, after shelling of Belgorod resulted in five deaths, Metropolitan Archbishop Ioann of Belgorod urged “to beat swords into plowshares,” emerging, as it were, as a precursor of peace.

Pravdin says he fears nothing and makes no plans. Despite his vigor, he looks despondent, exhausted by posters being torn down, by threats and accusations. “I’m canceled everywhere in Siversky. Cancelled throughout. What I’m doing is a fool’s errand, sure. They’ll eat me alive. Might even kill me.”

Paperpaper.ru — is independent media from Saint-Petersburg, Russia. We’ve been reporting on the Russian-Ukrainian war since the day it started. As a result, our website was blocked by the Russian government.

For 10 years we’ve been writing about the local community, business and initiatives. Yet, our main goal was always to improve life in the city we love.

We are Russian-language media but now we translate our the most significant articles to share it with our English speaking audience. Help independent journalism — save the freedom of speech!

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Авторы: Бумага
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