The Filippov family alone has contributed sixty-one years to defending their country. The father, Alexander Filippov, fought in the Second World War from 1938 to 1945. Antonina, the mother, defended Moscow’s skies for three years. Yuri, the older brother and a retired Lieutenant-Colonel, has served for 26 years and has flown in combat. Valery, the younger brother and a 25-year veteran of the army, saw action in Afghanistan.
When Valery retired he was a member of the legendary Pokryshkin Guards Fighter Regiment. On 24 June 2011, the anniversary of the historic Victory-Day parade, Valery brought two army jackets bedecked with orders (his own and his mother’s) to the President’s reception office at 23 Ilyinka.
He said he was handing back the medals to the president to protest the bureaucracy omnipresent strangle hold on everything. A war veteran, Valery had asked the government to provide him with a flat, only soon to realise that his chances were nil. The family never brandished its combat record. The mother asked the authorities to fix the roof of her house as an ordinary person, not as a war veteran. She could not live for years collecting leaking roof water in bowls and buckets. She could not live with walls black with mildew and peeling wallpaper. Again, the whole flat episode has been going on for eight years running.
Eventually Valery decided to take advantage of the law that entitles him and his mother to one tenth of a hectare of land to build his own house. “We don’t need two-tenths. Give us one-tenth. I will build a house myself.” While he was engaged in an exhaustive clash with the Land Committee, the chief architect and other authorities, the law was annulled. Filippov was not put on the waiting list. The human rights commissioner at the time in the Kaliningrad Region, Irina Vershinina, said Filippov had missed his legitimate chance.
His mother (who will be 90 next year) was paralysed in 2004. All the while the country’s presidents have been sending her congratulatory postcards about the heroic feats of the people at the front. The years of feuding with the bureaucracy shocked the fearless soldier: “I have grown disillusioned with the regime. When we fought at the front we defended a different country, a country that does not exist anymore.”
He is returning his decorations and wants to “secede from the Russian Federation”. He needs the patch of land he is entitled to. He will give that patch of land a name and hoist his own flag on it.
In the reception room Tatyana Shabanova, who was making a record of our documents, said the decorations should be handed back to the whomever gave them.
“To Joseph Stalin?” Valery retorted.
And she also added: “All the people defended their Motherland, so what?”
Three hours later Alexander Kozyrenko played host to us. He suggested that we hand over the jackets and orders to a museum. Obviously, Filippov had not come all the way from Kaliningrad to be given this piece of advice. Confident that there is always a chance, the official asked me: “Do you think handing back the orders would help?”
And then it hit me: our authorities are unaware of how people suffer at the hands of the country’s arbitrary bureaucratic rule. Or they do not want to know about it. Yes, handing back decorations is of no use. But it is a gesture of despair. It happens when all other means have been tried and failed. “You are going to debar us from the Strasbourg Court, right?” Filippov told the official. He has only enough moral strength for a gesture, a gesture that restores human dignity.
The sides to the conflict are unequal: a mighty state and a lone individual who lives in a house with a leaking roof. But Valery Filippov’s gesture restores the balance. It is a challenge to the state on behalf of his father, mother and himself, a man who for 25 years had been taught to fight and not to be afraid of anyone. He is not afraid this time around. When they tried to stop him from leaving the office at the gate, when goons from some agency told him that he would have to go to a police precinct or some such place, the war veteran said he was ready for everything. Even to go to jail.
“Don’t make a criminal out of me. If you disrupt my plan I will take up arms when I am back in my home town”. The two army jackets with decorations remained at the president’s office. So did the letter to the President, which Filippov said was his last.