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Letters against Separation – Oxana Timofeeva in rural Russia

30.03.2020

Hi diary. It’s a beautiful day, lots of sunlight, but life is not easy when you have a toilet outside, get up in the morning and realize that the weather is -9 Celsius. Every morning and every evening I have to heat the house. I have an old stove that eats a lot of wood. There was a huge stack of wood here 12 days ago, when we – me and my beloved one – arrived from Berlin, and now it’s almost gone. I never count days, but now I have to, because we are in quarantine: all those who come back to Russia from abroad have to lock themselves for 14 days. Breaking this rule entails a felony. In two days, our quarantine will be finished; after then, we can move around.

We are in my countryside house in Lebedevka, a dacha village some 15 kilometres from Vyborg, Leningrad region, an old small town right by the Finland border. My permanent place of residency is in St. Petersburg, two hours by train, but we cannot go there, because of the risk of infecting my mom, 73 years old (we share an apartment). It so happened that we rushed to Lebedevka from Europe directly, omitting big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

These countryside holidays were not a part of the plan. Let me explain how we got here. I had the privilege of getting a 6-month sabbatical, starting this January. I was so burned out by the end of the last year, you cannot imagine: I literally became sick after all kinds of social activities. Therefore, I decided to self-isolate even before the pandemic started, and dedicate myself to something between thinking and rest. I came to A., who lives in Berlin, and planned to stay with him until mid-April. Of course, not without a break: I did accept some very kind lecture invitations – from Maska in Ljubljana, Tanzquartier in Vienna, Nieuew Instituut in Roterrdam, and the PAF residency in St. Erme, from where my tickets back to Russia via Paris were already booked at the end of January.

From this list, I only visited Ljubljana in the end of February, and came back from there with a bit of a fever, which I wrote off as a seasonal flu, although it continued with an unpleasant dry cough: I kept barking for three weeks after the fever was over. Upon my arrival from Ljubljana on the 1st of March, the situation in Europe started to escalate drastically. I was staying in our Berlin apartment, without really going out. At some point, the event in Vienna got cancelled. I am not sure about the dates, but, I guess, this happened already when the panic shopping started in Western Europe. We could not stop asking ourselves why people were buying tons of toilet paper. This was so weird. A. was gettin groceries at REWE and witnessed the process of its disappearance: the shelves were depleted day by day. At some point, they simply closed the border between Germany and Austria: as was explained by German authorities, this was because the neighbors started to do grocery tours to German stores.

One by one, all countries began to close their borders. A. had a business trip to the US in mid-April, but Trump decided to close the borders the day before his departure, and the flight was cancelled. All direct flights from Europe to St. Petersburg were cancelled too, including mine from Paris. I started to get worried: I could have stayed in Berlin, but my Schengen visa expires on the 15th of April. What would I do if they will closed the Russian border and stopped all the connections? It was hard to believe that such things are possible. I wrote to Berlin Ausländerbehörde (migration office), and got a reply that they were closed until the end of April, and making an appointment was not possible. So, there was a serious risk of being stuck in Germany and being deported when the visa expired.

Luckily, A.’s company shifted to the work-from-home regimen. On his way home from the grocery store on the 15th of March, he reported that even at our REWE at Ostbahnhof, all toilet paper was sold out. This triggered us to think about going to Russia together. There were still Air Baltic flights to St. Petersburg via Riga, Belavia via Minsk, and Aeroflot flights via Moscow airport Sheremetyevo. Sheremetyevo became a hell: as was reported by some friends, upon arrival, that travellers had to fill out tons of paperwork, pass through multiple medical cordons, and were treated really badly. We wanted to escape this latter option, but, suddenly, on that very day, Air Baltic connections stopped, and the next day Belavia, as well as all other connections to Russia except Moscow Sheremetyevo.

Well, not all. There was the last option: an Allegro train running between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. It was announced, however, that the border between Russia and Finland would be closed too, and the last train departed on the 18th of March. It was the 17th. We booked an early morning EasyJet flight from Berlin to Helsinki in order to catch this last train. It was A.'s first time in Helsinki. We took a walk along the seafront and around the city centre. It was cold, grey, windy, beautiful, and almost empty. We bought some cheese and nice Finnish bred in the supermarket, and took Allegro. Our final destination, however, was not St. Petersburg, but Vyborg, the first train stop in Russia, from where it is only 25 minutes by taxi to Lebedevka.

I had seen Allegro trains many times at the station when I was travelling between Lebedevka and St. Petersburg, but never took one. To try it once was one of my dreams. I could not imagine that this would amidst such an emergency. Our train was almost empty, with only Russian passengers on board: on the 18th of March, citizens of Finland, who usually escape to Vyborg for weekends and holidays, could only travel back to Finland, whereas Russians travelled back to Russia. That was so sad. I hope this train will start running again soon. We will take it, for sure, to go to Helsinki and buy that bread again – it was amazing.

There were some logistical problems that I had to solve on the way. For example, I did not have the house key. They were in St. Petersburg, at my mom’s place, but going there was a bad idea. Luckily, a neighbur from the same village had a copy of my key and could deliver it. But my biggest worry was about the well. Usually it gets frozen in winter, and the thick ice layer stays there until May. We do have a stock of wood to heat the house, but if the well were frozen, we wouldn’t have any water, and would have to go somewhere else. Again, luckily, due to the abnormal weather conditions – an extremely warm winter – the well was not frozen, and we could start managing our everyday life here in the woods.

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31.03.2020.

It was -9 degrees again this morning. I broke a crust of ice in the well to get a pail of water. There is no snow, but the earth is frozen. I am worried about the little tulip buds that had already begun to appear before this freezing weather. Hope they won’t die.

Yesterday night we had a seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It is a regular seminar, which I organized approximately five years ago. Usually we meet every Monday evening and simply read Phenomenology line by line, discussing every sentence. Nobody is paid for this work, there is no grant, no institutional support. The only reason why it continues is the good will of its participants – artists, writers, poets, philosophers, political activists. It is a collective exercise that keeps us sane. Usually seminars, gathering from 5 to 12 persons, take place in the laboratory Intimnoe Mesto (In Russian “Intimate Place”, or “Intimate Part”), an apartment and art space run by Marina Maraeva. We had a long break, however, since January when I left for Germany. When I came back to Lebedevka, I realized that we must make an effort and try an online format. The biggest disadvantage of it is that we cannot share tea and various sweets that we were all bringing to our offline meetings. This festive part of our work was important, but it’s ok, it seems that we can skip it. From yesterday on, we decided to meet every Monday at 7 pm in a “zoom” conference hall (let me call it like this).

Unfortunately, my copy of the book with all the marks is not with me, and I have to use an uncomfortable tablet version. We are now in the middle of chapter XI: “The struggle of the enlightenment with superstition.” At our previous seminar session (in January) we read a passage where Hegel explained how the object of religious belief – God, or the absolute essence – really exists. A pure insight of the Enlightenment is mistaken in that it ascribes the object of belief to clergy that simply deceive the people. No, Hegel says. God is not popped into people’s heads by insidious priests. The way it exists – really, objectively – is the spirit of the religious commune. Belief is not an individual thing, but a collective practice, so to speak. People go to church and observe rituals; this spiritual practice makes the object of their belief actual and real. In this sense, it is not possible to deceive people, as it is not possible to enlighten them by trying to explain that they are simply fooled in their idea of the absolute essence.

During yesterday’s seminar, we found a good example. Almost everywhere, quarantine measures include suspending of religious services and the temporary closing of churches. For believers, this looks like an apocalypse: closing the churches can only come from evil. Why? Hegel helps us to understand why: suspending religious services endangers the spirit of community that is, in practice, the absolute essence, or God himself. That’s the way it exists, through people’s commitment and day-to-day services. It is not surprising then that even Russian Orthodox Church, well known for its active collaboration with state authorities, tends to resist, even if minimally and locally, the restrictions imposed by the administration and, among other things, conditioned by the fact that the worshippers are mostly representatives of the generation with a fancy name: “the risk group.” You cannot get a virus in the church, they say. If you get it, accept it: God puts us on trial. People have to keep this social practice which, for them, is more essential than public health or other values of the secular world. Thanks to technology, now the service can shift online.

We discussed this example, together with some others (like, is the claim “wash your hands!” a pure insight or rather a belief?) for a while. “God cannot be killed by the virus; He has immunity” wrote one of the participants in the seminar in the chat window. I have trouble switching between speaking and reading the chat at the same time … The virus cannot kill him, of course, but WE can. I am sure we already did that; Nietzsche was right. And we keep doing that: I cannot say whether this good or bad. We definitely need to introduce some elements of clinical theology.


My mom just called me: she is out of bread and potatos. In St. Petersburg, there is already the regime of strict self-isolation, but people are still allowed to go to grocery stores and pharmacies. She is not happy with the idea of food delivery. No, she says, I have to choose good potatoes myself! No one can forbid my mom anything.

Another update: Vyborg is closed. It is the only place around where we could buy food. We still have a supply that will last one week.

01.04.2020

Just came back from amazing walk – it’s is sunny this morning, and plenty of snow. There is a small river very near, by the forest that surrounds our settlement. It’s a mixed wood, mostly of old birch and fir trees, up to 50 meters high. Bright-green boughs of fir trees are covered with snow pillows. Believe me, dear diary, it is too beautiful to be true.

Good news is that Vyborg is not isolated. A person from there was tested for the COVID-19, but the result is negative. So, we can still go there. There is a train that connects Vyborg and St. Petersburg. Our Lebedevka is one of the stations on its way. From here, we can go both ways: 17 min to Vyborg or 2 hours to St. Petersburg, Finland Station – yes, dear, the very same railway station where, in April 1917, Lenin arrived from Finland, from his long exile, or, as we say today, self-isolation, in order to organize the October Revolution. The place where he was hiding in Finland is actually much closer to St. Petersburg than we are now. 100 years ago, Vyborg and all neighboring territories, including our current location, belonged to Finland. It passed to the Soviet Union in 1940, as a result of the war between Russia and Finland. In place of our village, there were Finnish farmsteads.

Another piece of good news is that our 14-days quarantine is over, and we can take this train, if needed, and go either to Vyborg to get some food, or to St. Petersburg, in case my mom would need anything. She won’t accept my assistance though. She thinks we should stay where we are, just to be on the safe side.

There is also bad news. Two neighboring villages – Perovo and Goncharovo – are isolated, because someone there was diagnosed with corona. There was a disinfection there. What does this mean for us? I don’t know. I learned that there is a mobile shop that runs between all our little settlements each Thursday. It sells bread, milk, butter and other stuff. I am really waiting for it, and hope that this wagonette will keep running. We can, indeed, go to Vyborg for groceries, but this is a long journey: 20 min walk to the station, then 17 min train, and then we have to find a taxi back. With the mobile shop, it is much easier.

St. Petersburg is under quarantine, nothing works except supermarkets and other basic things. My mom went out to buy some bread and potatos. She went out, a bit scared: is it really allowed to go to the nearby grocery store? What if she goes not to this store, but to the other one, that is a little father away, but has nicer products? What if a policeman stops her? She notes that the street is empty, but, still, kind of relaxed. Only one passer-by comes from the opposite direction. “Is the shop open?” she asks. “Yes,” he says, “everything is fine. In the shop, nobody wears masks or gloves.”

My sister Helena lives in Surgut, Western Siberia. She has engaged herself in volunteering – bringing food and medicine to elderly people who live alone. I am very proud of her.

Another piece of bad news is that A. might have to go back to Berlin, but there is no way. Literally. No trains, no planes, not even via Moscow Sheremetyevo. We are planning to come to Vyborg rather soon and check if there is a way from there, maybe there are still buses. I also found information that there is only one section of the border, in Svetogorsk, which citizens of Finland that got stuck in Russia can cross by foot. Don’t think that the border between Russia and Finland is something like the one between Netherlands and Belgium (I used to cross the latter every morning for nice walks ten years ago, when I lived in Maastricht – there was not even a sign).

The border of Russia is serious. When we took the Allegro train from Helsinki, we saw in through the window. There is barbed wire, and a no-man’s-land around it. I am sure people with guns observe it carefully. Can a person cross it? No. Maybe some smaller animals can – mice, a snakes. A bird can fly over, for sure. I must learn sorcery: I will then transform A. into a bird, and he will fly back home. Which kind of bird? A swan. The name of our village translates from Russian as the “Swan place,” because it is situated by the Swan Lake, where migrating swans usually do stopovers, in autumn and in spring.

02.04.2020

I am worried about my nephew who lives in a suburban settlement near Moscow: he came down with a fever and cough. I called him this morning and told him about my experience of coming through seasonal viruses: staying in a warm bed as much as possible, and drinking lots of tea.

I remember, half a year ago, I felt ill while hiding here in Lebedevka. I came from Leningrad for a few days to pick up a huge harvest from an old apple tree that lives in my garden, but, all of a sudden, I began to feel really terrible with fever, nausea, and vertigo that continued even when I was staying in bed. I had to burn the wood and bring water from the well, but was not really able to do that. I had no idea what it could be, and, thinking through the possibility of dying here alone, called for a doctor, who came from Vyborg very fast, gave me some paracetamol and reassured me that this is a regular virus that won’t last long. Finally, a friend rented a car, came here, picked me up and brought back to Leningrad.

Now, however, the situation is much more complicated. What should we do if something happens to our family members? We are locked in our places and cannot move around. Let me tell you how it works in Russia. We have a system of registration: everybody must have a permanent residence address, almost like everywhere (in Germany, too, one has to have a so-called Anmeldung, you know…), but there is one nuance. In Russia, the residence – propiska – is stamped in the passport. Now, in the conditions of the new regime, everybody must stay at their places of residence. If you want to buy cigarettes, you go to the shop that is the closest to the place of your residence, and, indeed, take your passport along. A policeman can stop you and check where you live. If you live somewhere else, you’ll get into trouble. What kind of trouble? With Russian police, you never know. We are afraid of cops more than criminals. The police system in Russia is famous for making an interesting cocktail of violence and corruption with the most unexpected effects. Who is not afraid of the police and can travel anywhere without registration? The virus. From your hand, it will jump on your passport, from there, onto the policeman’s hand, from there, onto my hand, etc. Believe me, the policeman does not care about the virus. He is interested in the stamp in your passport. The more our president transforms into a tzar, the more privileges and competences are given to the police. These days, after the decision of the state power to rewrite the constitution for the sake of a life-long presidency, Russians discuss two major things: corona for Mr. Putin, and corona for all of us.

We keep checking the internet – are there ways for А. to get to Germany? It seems that he got stuck. I hope we will find a way. Then there will be another problem: I might not be allowed to visit him in Berlin for a while, because I do not have German residency. What if those in power like it like this, and we finally lose the right to travel internationally? It’s like the Berlin Wall, I don’t know…

Meanwhile, it’s so beautiful outside. The snow falls and falls; everything is white. Tchaikovsky is on the radio: Swans Lake. We change the music and listen to a song from the last album by the Russian punk band Porn Movies: “My Russia is in jail… / Everything will pass, everything passes at some point / In a year, in a day, in a moment / In a solitude, in a mortuary, yesterday’s dictator / But now simply a dead oldman. / They will remove the doors of Lefortovo prison, / And Russia will awake from its dream, / As exploded, tortured Malaysian aircraft, / A spring will burst into our icy hut.”


Good news is that the mobile shop arrived today. There were five or six fellow villagers waiting for it – some women and a little old man in high felt snow boots. Someone put on a simple protective mask, but looked a lit embarrassed. People were trying to keep their distance, but everybody got engaged in nice small talk. The latest rumors were discussed: there is a checkpoint on the road to the villages of Perovo and Goncharovo; the disinfection might have to be spread around our settlements from helicopters, etc. I bought a lot of fresh cow milk, local cottage cheese, yogurt, and wonderful gingerbreads with marmalade.

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03.04.2020

My sister called me yesterday. She is working on the radio; they cannot stop the broadcast, and people still have to work on the production facility. The radio lives by selling advertisement, but everybody is in the crisis; no incomes. My mom is worried. She lives by Liteyny bridge, and usually walks along Neva embankment, but now she cannot do that: for elderly people it is prohibited to leave their apartments. It is hard to stay inside all the time, and we do not even have a balcony. She can only look at the window or watch You Tube.

It is already one week of total quarantine in Russia; however, it is not even called quarantine. Officially, we all have a holiday break. Putin gave a speech yesterday and said that the decision was taken to continue the holidays until the end of April, which means, nothing will work. I was trying to reach my bank yesterday – their phone number does not reply, and there is no info about whether there are offices that are still open. Life goes on, however. We will get used to this; our species may be even more adaptable than these viruses. You want to know how things can work? Let me give you an answer: corruption. Imagine you are a small company that does apartment renovations. Would you stop your work? No, because if you stop, you and your brigade will have no money to feed your families and pay their bills. So, you can continue at your own risk, and if the policemen come, dudes will make a deal.

As for my work, it never stops. I am writing texts and teaching philosophy. Even on the sabbatical, I have to supervise AM students, work on the educational programs, edit a journal, read a lot of stuff and make many other academic things that I won’t bother to list here. All these things must be done regardless of the quarantine. Moreover, the coronavirus emergency and all social changes that it introduces actually increases the workload of people like us. The social activity online becomes extremely high. All real conferences were cancelled, but academics rush to organize even more online things. As a result, you cannot leave your work table; you do not even take breaks for travel to your workplace and back; you are just locked inside and chained to your laptop. “I am working 14 hours per day,” a colleague tells me in a private conversation. I cannot work for 14 hours; I must sleep at least 10 hours; that’s my tempo; plus, some time for cooking and eating, plus some other things that I still have besides work. But yes, this is my biggest anxiety: the workload becomes absolute.

To be honest, diary, I like isolation. I am a loner; that’s my thing. That’s why it is crucial for me to have a good window view: I am staying inside as much as I can. My ideal regime is staying at home alone, looking through the window, thinking and writing. However, usually, my homework is interrupted by the necessity to go somewhere. I am fine or even happy with going to my university, because a living encounter with students is something really great. I am also fine with seeing friends from time to time. But I hate socializing, and generally miss all the venues that are not related to my work. Most of the people around me usually go out every night. Now, when this is not possible, they feel extremely unhappy or anxious. For me, however, quarantine is a kind of relief: as least I do not feel guilt of not attending this or that exhibition, seminar, or party. Sometimes friends are saying to me: you should socialize! I don’t think so. Solitude is my remedy. But now I feel attacked online. Everybody wants to organize something, to discuss, to reflect together on the current crisis; people compete in making statements and producing content. I have to find a way to reduce the noise. Hiding in a countryside is a good solution: you have to interrupt this work flood for some other practical activities; otherwise you won’t survive.

I will tell you how our life is organized here. I have a small garden with three wooden buildings on it. First of all, there is an old two-storied wooden house with a terrace. The winter part of the building comprises two rooms with a furnace and a fireplace that are connected with one chimney. This is the heart of the house. I stoke the fire every morning and evening, so that the two rooms are kept warm. The terrace, which is also our kitchen, is much colder, though there are two infra-red lamps. I mostly cook things in the furnace: it is easy and very delicious. You just put whatever you want in a cassolette, and leave it in furnace for a couple of hours. If you put semolina, millet, or rice, together with milk, and leave it in furnace for the whole night, you will get the best porridge ever for your breakfast.

I also have a remote room with a bathtub in the house. There is a local waterpipe, a pump that is connected to the well outside, and a 50-litre boiler, so that we have hot water. It cannot be used in winter times, because, if the water freezes, the entire system will break. When it is cold, the plumbing is off: we just bring icy water from the well and heat it in small plastic containers: this is quite annoying. After one week of doing that we got tired and activated the pump, in spite of the cold. Now, we have to check the temperature on the terrace: the water can freeze if it gets below zero C. If the infra-red lamp is on all the time, it is fine. The pipe that goes underground between the house and the well is wrapped into a warm electric cable.

Another building has two sections: a toilet, and a barn with all the utility supplies for the house and the garden. The toilet is as simple as this: a wooden construction upon the dump well.

Finally, I have a banya (sauna) house – a black little hut with four sections: a steam room, a bathing room, a warm dressing room, and a cold dressing room. Each few days are bath days. Preparations take 3-4 hours. First, you have to bring some buckets of water. The boiler is placed on the furnace: you stoke it with wood, and the water boils. When the temperature in the steam room is about 80-90 Celsius, the bath is ready. I make a birch bath broom in a wash-basin by pouring boiling water over it, et voila! Usually I stay in the banya there for 2-3 hours. This ritual drives out all bad things. I might do it today.

04.04.2020

We went to Vyborg today. The train was almost empty – only two of us, and one more woman. Inside the railway station, too, there was no one – only a group of police officers looking attentively at those who arrive; but they did not stop us. Rare people on the street also wear protective masks: some persons from Vyborg were diagnosed with the COVID-19, and everybody tries to get protected. We began our journey from “Ulybka Radugi” (“The Rainbow Smile”), a chain cosmetic store: there was a news that they sell facial masks, 2000 roubles for 50 masks. These are simple hygienic masks that do not protect anyone of anything, but we bought them, just to respect the social ritual.

Everybody knows that masks do not work, but everybody wears them or at least buys them. Why? Because it is an important part of a ritual. The mask is an ancient piece armour. Whatever enemy or evil spirit comes, we are ready to face them. Facial masks show this readiness to face, paradoxically. And it gives us the feeling that we are the group, we are together here against something that we face. Since high antiquity, masks served as a crucial element of ceremonial clothing. Their social significance is extremely important. A mask cancels personality; now we are all like one war or even revolutionary anonymous crowd (don’t forget bandannas and balaclavas in the leftist tradition). When we wear masks, for the enemy, we are all the same. Human beings demonstrate similar mechanisms of social behaviour facing different challenges.

When we were at the Soviet school, we had classes on so-called civil defence, where we were taught to sew gauze and cotton facial dressings. We were supposed to do that in case of emergencies, such as nuclear explosion or chemical attack. We were preparing for events that would never happen. Today, people have a possibility to exercise all these crafts from the era of the Cold War. Some people that we met in Vyborg were wearing their self-made gauze and cotton dressings.

After “Ulybka radugi” we went to the hypermarket. There is enough of everything. Nobody is buying tons of toilet paper or anything of this kind. You know why? Because they are poor. People in Germany, Switzerland, or the USA buy so much toilet paper simply because they can: they have extra money, and in a situation of danger they in fact try to protect themselves with something similar to ancient sacrifice: they literally waste money. As Georges Bataille wrote, what was sacred in the ancient world now becomes unconscious.

I have to go to the sauna now. Before I go, however, I will tell you one thing, dear diary. Nobody reads us anyway, therefore I can share with you now the most intimate thing: I am happy with A.

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05.04.2020.

It’s a proper winter outside. Cold and sunny, and the snow is sharply white.

Yesterday our group “Chto Delat” had a zoom meeting. Everybody was there: Nikolay from Moscow, Gljuklja from Amsterdam, Alexey from London, Alexander from Leningrad, Nina from Pushkin, Dmitry, Olga and Artemy from Siversky – a village on the other side of Leningrad region. I was there only shortly from the sauna, where the connection is not good, but I was happy to see everyone. Artists are in trouble and total financial uncertainty, because most of the plans break down. The school of engaged art and Rosa house of culture that our group runs for the last few years is suspended. No meetings, performances, exhibitions. It comes with a bonus, however: plenty of free time.

My situation is different. I receive a monthly salary from my university, plus, sometimes, honoraria for publications. I only lose the fees for lectures and talks in various cities and towns, which is usually a part of my income, but I can survive without it. My problem is that now I have even less time than before, and more conversations, which is not really my thing. My tendency to self-isolation is paradoxically disturbed by everyone else’s isolation. But my love for solitude is not absolute. I actually do miss the moments when my friends were visiting here, in Lebedevka. We were sitting in the sauna, playing cards, making barbecue in the yard, drinking vodka and tea with preserves that I made from my garden apples.

People say that situation is not safe in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. The probability to get robbed is very high: men gang up on empty streets around grocery stores, stop lonely passers-by and take their bags with food products. Meanwhile, more and more people are getting arrested, but not for robbery. The police take random people for being on the street. A person was arrested in Moscow for walking a dog. They grabbed the man and forced him into the police car. The dog was left alone outside. “Please, let me keep the dog!” – he cried, but the police did not react. Now it is reported that, luckily, the dog somehow found its way back home, and someone found it. I hope it’s true.

The virus is our enemy, they say, but we know that it’s not. The enemy is always visible, and human-like. Who will definitely benefit from the virus, here in Russia? Cops, that’s the answer.

“My Russia is in jail…” This year is the 75-year anniversary of the WWII, which Russia planned to celebrate sumptuously. Among other things, a general amnesty was planned, and those in prisons were impatiently waiting for it. It seems, however, that the amnesty is cancelled. Instead, there is an epidemic in prisons. Russian prisons are hell, you know…

Thinking about Vyborg. This is one of the most beautiful small cities I’ve ever seen. It is situated on a gulf, and has a big medieval castle, surrounded by water. Its history is great. In different periods of time, Vyborg was Russian, Soviet, Finnish, Swedish, and even German. All these epochs are eclectically inscribed into its architectural ensemble, and its rocky landscape hosts all kinds of dreamlike ruins. I love Vyborg with all my heart; it’s almost physically painful to observe how it has been destroyed recently: under the guise of renovation, they go as far as destroying some historical buildings and cutting 300-years old oak trees in famous romantic Mon Repos park. Going to Vyborg is always a happy adventure: I have brought there all the guests who come to visit me at Lebedevka in the summer; we walk around its fairytale streets, buy amazing brezels, made from a special local recipe, and visit their fantastic restaurant by the seaside. But it is also a frontier town. It generally lives off its extreme proximity to Finland. Usually, Finns come here for their weekends and holidays. Streets, cafes, restaurants, and small souvenir shops of the old town are usually full of foreign guests. Now that the border is closed, everything has collapsed. The city looks depressed. We were talking to our taxi driver: there is no work, nowhere to get money to pay a credit for the car; moreover, soon there will be no money to buy food.

You know what Russians buy in all critical times, when apocalypse is at the gates? No, not toilet paper. Russians buy buckwheat. It’s cheap and popular; we all love it from our early childhood. I have 2 kilos of buckwheat, canned spurts in oil, home-made preserves from apples and red currant, and some other great things in my cellar, with which I can survive for a while even when the zombie-apocalypse will happen. My mom wants me to plant potatoes. I am not good in vegetable gardening, but maybe this is a good idea for the summer – if there will be summer.

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07.04.2020

Busy time: my students have submitted the drafts of their theses. I have to read them very carefully and write comments. This year, I am supervising quite a few term papers and two MA thesis. The one I am reading right now is on the figure of childhood. The second is on the philosophical aspects of the Freudian idea of the primal scene. Both students are really good writers. I love them all, and do my best to bring their exceptional work in accordance with boring academic standards.

Supervising students is the biggest part of my work. In philosophy individual work is extremely important. For me, it is closer to art than to a positive science: there are no universal rules; philosophy perplexes different people in different ways. If there is no perplexity, anxiety, doubt or other negativity – there is no philosophy. What I am trying to do is work with these perplexities. Some students are really good; I feel happy when I see how, after some intense work, they manage to find their way of thinking. When I was younger, I wanted to become famous. I thought I would be writing great texts, and everybody would love me. When I started teaching, I realized that my resources are limited: I cannot do both. All the books I wanted to write must be abandoned, because teaching is emotional work that does not leave room for the solitude necessary for writing books. Instead, I am engaging with the work of other people. My hair is getting grey, and this new idea makes me happy: not me, but my students can become famous. I want to be proud of them.

I am a little bit worried: what if all teaching really moves online? Hegel’s seminar works well, but of course, offline meetings were more exciting. When we all meet in one room, there is something that even the most perfect online platform cannot reproduce. I don’t want to mystify this presence. I think the room itself produces this effect: tables, chairs, windows, and the air that we all share because we all breath. What if the Spirit is the air animated by the shared act of breathing? Elements spread. You think it is dangerous; the other is dangerous. But what if there is no other, no me, but only “we,” a viral community of teachers, students, and other living and non-living things?

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08.04.2020

Today is sunny, the snow is melting, and I decided to dig up my compost. I have three big compost bins where I put all mowing and organic waste, except meat and fish. Theoretically, this mixture must attract earthworms (they are vegans) and other creatures that will come and transform this humus in to a good natural fertilizer. I began to make it last summer. It takes two years for the humus to mature. So, I must wait one more year to have it ready. I realized that I quite like digging it from time to time. In the process of fertilizing, gases emerge that keep the compost warm. Life re-emerges from its own leftovers. It’s amazing. Here in the countryside, I learn to respect the labour of the smallest creatures: earthworms, bees, and others whose name is Legion.

Hegel used to say that earth is a universal individual. I find this idea more convincing than today’s Gaia hypothesis. What the latter misses is dialectics. Hegel’s earth is a dialectical organism, both universal and particular: it gathers everything, but at the same time it is a concrete essence: you can touch it and smell it. It’s like, I don’t know… incarnated EVERYTHING, and a perfectly indifferent constant passage between death and life, that is the opposite to the imperative of sterility imposed by contemporary living standards.

You know what I think of sterility? The smell of chlorine is the worst. I cannot imagine anything more disgusting. Also, sanitizers are evil. Yes, the doctors say that we must wash our hands. Some of us take it literally, as if obsessive hand washing could make us any healthier. But health does not equal sterility. We conceive ourselves as separate individuals, but in fact we are not: we are communities of multiple various organisms, huge machines of their encounters, collaborative efforts or struggles. Let us be Spinozean in this regard: some of these bodily encounters are productive, others destructive. Productive is good, destructive is bad, we say. But if we are Hegelian, we must add that the other side of the good is the bad, and vice versa. There is no good and bad, but only a passage between them, a fertilizing process.

09.04.2020

Yesterday, Putin made the funnies statement. “Our country has many times passed through serious tests,” he said. “The Pechenegs and Cumans tormented it — Russia dealt with them all. We will also defeat the pest of coronavirus.” For Russians, this sounds screamingly funny. Let me explain you the context. It was so long ago; no one really knows, except historians, who are Pechenegs and Cumans, and what was the story. We can learn from Wikipedia that they were the Turkic warrior hordes that used to invade Russia in the X-XI centuries. These names only resonate with lessons on Russian history from my Soviet primary school, from the age when I could not make a clear difference between Pechenegs or Cumans, and, say, fairytale goblins.

There are two things that I have to tell you, diary, in this regard.

The first one is that Putin already gave a similar speech in 2010, when terrible heat and forest fires killed many people. I remember that summer; it was a nightmare in Moscow – mortuaries were packed; people were suffocating in the smog, but the government could not do anything about that. Simple things like distributing oxygen masks or providing air conditioners in some areas would have been enough to save lives, but those in power were just waiting for the autumn when the weather would get colder and the fires would stop. So, that was the moment when Putin referred to Pechenegs and Cumans for the first time; the formulation was pretty much the same, except for the last sentences, where, in place of coronavirus, there were fires and heat. Doesn’t this sound like a conjuration that he repeats every 10 years? I can imagine, in another 10 years, in 2030, something will happen again, and Putin, almost as old himself as Pechenegs and Cumans, will cast the same spell. A comedy of endless repetition.

The second thing is that this statement was borrowed from Fyodor Plevako, a legendary Russian lawyer of the XIX century, who ironically used this reference in his speech in defense of an old lady accused for the theft of a kettle. Along with Pechenegs and Cumans, two other nations were mentioned in Plevako’s speech as those who tormented Russia – namely, Tatars and Poles, but Putin reasonably dropped this reference to really existing nations. However, we remember the source of the quotation!

Why is this important? Pechenegs and Cumans were really existing people, just like Tatars and Poles, or, to continue, they were people like us. “Imagine we were Pechenegs,” A. says at the breakfast, while I am taking a pot of the buckwheat porridge from the furnace. We die laughing. Putin claims that COVID-19 is the people. There is a huge grain of truth in this animist statement. I could not formulate it better: COVID-19 is ‘the people,’ like us. Yes, it is nonhuman, but still, the people. It is, to borrow Timothy Morton’s term, the nonhuman people. Morton suggests that we only can save the world if we accept and develop solidarity with the non-human people on the level of the biosphere. Can we, putting together Putin’s and Morton’s claim, develop a sort of solidarity with the people as nonhuman as COVID-19? Or should we at least invent some forms of diplomacy with them, instead of proclaiming the war as if we were at the age of Pecheneg’s invasions? We see that Putin, Trump and other rulers of capitalist states cannot elaborate such a diplomacy. They cannot handle the virus. But who can? Let me refer to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who, in his essay “The Crystal Forest” says that shamans are the diplomats of the nonhuman: they negotiate between various bodies, souls, and spirits. Indeed, we need a shaman. We even have some in Russia. One of them, shaman Alexander, had already begun his march on foot from the far east to Moscow, through the whole Russia, with the aim to kick Putin off of his throne. He was arrested on the way and returned back to Yakutsk, but people say that he doesn’t give up. We Russians, Pechenegs, Cumans and other human and nonhuman people love Alexander the shaman, believe in the incredible force of his personality, and keep our fingers crossed.