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"We are part of an aggressor country". Leave St Petersburg and open a bookshop in Istanbul


"I hate all this positive thinking, all this crap about 'today I'm the best version of myself', to find profit and zato in everything. There is no “on the other hand”, no benefit from this war, no good from a police state. The likelihood that at any moment we will be hit by a wave from a nuclear explosion has made me think about how, with whom, and what I do to spend my hypothetical last day."

Sasha Chernousova published this post on her Instagram on October 4. A little earlier, together with her spouse, she left her hometown. For good.

In St Petersburg the Chernousovsovas were known to the couple. Oleg was chief marketing officer and curator of the Hermitage bookshops. Sasha was an artist and designer.

Lately she has been painting heroines of our time: Politkovskaya, Shulman, Eidelman...

Now the guys live and work in Istanbul, where they have opened a bookshop - Black Moustache - literally translating their last name into English.

We decided to talk to Sasha about business in emigration, the war and, of course, books.

- We met Oleg 18 years ago in St. Petersburg at a course for applicants to the State University's history department. But apart from our parenthood, this is our first experience of working together and so far we are enjoying it very much.

Oleg has been involved in books for a long time. He has worked in the Hermitage bookshops. First as a salesman, then he opened them himself and supervised them completely. During the pandemic, he opened an amazing art bookshop in St. Petersburg, MOST. I worked as a shoe designer for many years in the biggest factories in our city, and I still do. But, of course, our shop now takes up almost all my free time.

"Traitor to the Motherland"

- When and why did you decide to leave?

- Almost immediately after the outbreak of war.

Medvedev had made an official announcement about the possible lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty - and for us that was a red line.

Even if it was only a threat, we couldn't take any more risks.

- Were you afraid of something? Were you afraid for your future?

- It seems to me that you have to be completely "in the tank" to consider life in modern Russia safe for you and not be afraid of anything. You are the author of this terror yourself. We haven't got a single independent media outlet, we have no opportunity to criticize or even question the actions of our government. Besides we could not see any future for ourselves in such isolation in which we all risked.

- How did your friends and relatives react to your decision?

- Most of our acquaintances supported us. Even my parents, who have hardly parted from the television for the past eight years, were eventually in agreement. I think they still had a modicum of understanding of the situation at the time, despite the propaganda that was working.

Now my poor dad calls me a traitor to the motherland. But it's obvious to me that it was he who betrayed me.

It is very hard for me to go through this. My husband's family is supportive and understanding. We did not and do not have any bad and/or stupid people among our friends.

"Left plans and dreams for the future."

- What did you have to leave behind in your hometown, what did you take with you?

- We left home, work, studies, friends, parents, beloved city, plans and dreams for the future. But the most important thing we took with us was each other, our daughter and our cats. The most important thing is that we are together.

- Why did you choose Turkey?

- We chose Istanbul. It's an amazing city where everyone can find a place. There's a lot of punk, a lot of history, a lot of amazing people from all over the world. It's a timeless city that's so old and yet always very modern.

I was here for the first time about fifteen years ago and I fell in love with it already then. We were going to come here as a family just before the pandemic, but our trip was cancelled. Now we have made the most of it. Hopefully we can stay here for a long time.

Our shop is in Kadikey - it's a very cool area that we recommend everyone to stop by or even live in for a while.

"It's not for us to complain about discrimination."

- How did the locals treat you? Did they feel discriminated against?

- We hardly ever encountered any problems or aggression in Istanbul due to the fact that we are from Russia. The Turks understand everything very well.

Sometimes you're just sort of part of the aggressor country, but you can't do anything about it, except die under the total ignorance of the whole world around you.

Generally speaking, it is not for us, the Russians, to complain about discrimination. I have not encountered more chauvinism and racism than in Moscow, for example, anywhere else in the world.

- When did you decide to open a bookshop? And why?

- Oleg has been in the book business for many years, he is an art historian by training, but he has been in the business for a long time and he is really very cool. I admire him. I really like books on design and I am quite good at it. So we realised that we could create something interesting and cool together.

I have long wanted to work with him and did not want to part with him when I emigrated. Besides, Istanbul people really love books; there is a huge book market here. People love beautiful and clever publications and appreciate them very much.

"It is difficult for a Russian person in Russia too”

- Was it difficult to understand this idea?

- The decision, as I see it, was not as difficult as the implementation. Of course, it wasn't easy, we are immigrants, foreigners.

Oleg is a genius, what can I say. He was the one who went through all these bureaucratic difficulties. And, of course, the support of loved ones means a lot, it gives you confidence in your own abilities and faith in the future.

We needed the help of a lawyer. We followed his advice. But you also need it when opening a business in Russia.

- Is it difficult for a Russian in a time of sanctions to open and run a business?

- You know, of course it is. But it is also difficult for a Russian person in Russia to open and run a business because of corruption, ineffective economic policy, and the inability to protect oneself and plan for the future. If sanctions were our biggest misfortune, it would be paradise.

- Who is your shop for? What kind of books can you buy there?

- We sell books on art and design. Mostly in English. They are terrific albums, books for development, for inspiration, and sometimes they are simply works of art.

Our books are for everyone, because everyone has a yearning for beauty and a need to find that source of inspiration and to become an artist in themselves.

We have a big collection of books on design of footwear, clothes and textiles, there are editions from Fashionary, for example, these are books and manuals for professionals in their branches.

We select each book personally, we do not take any of them at random. We study full lists from publishers and form our own selection. It's a lot of work, so we treat all our books with the utmost respect. They're not just beautiful folios, they're also very clever.

- Will there be any events for emigrants in your bookstore? Is there an idea of making it a point of attraction for Russians?

- We've already had one evening of letters to political prisoners, and we'd like to do it regularly. In fact, we can always get free postcards, which I make especially for that purpose.

We don't have the idea of making our shop a magnet for Russians. I don't think that in such a stunningly multicultural city it makes sense to be so closed in the Russian-speaking community.

If the Russian hangout around here was so critical to us, we wouldn't leave. But we do get a lot of amazing people who have left Russia. Many come back to have tea with us, to look through books, to chat - and that is incredibly valuable.

"I don't like being in prison for an absurd case at all".

- Are you in Turkey for good? What has to happen for you to return to Russia?

- I do not know whether we are in Turkey forever or not. It does not only depend on our will. The planning horizon has become ridiculously small. We just do what we can to make this world a better and more beautiful place. We just act where we are lucky enough to be. We love our city from where we are from very much. But we like living life to the fullest, and on the contrary, we don't like being in prison for an absurd case at all.

- What advice can you give to young people who have left Russia?

- Cheer up, lads!

Media Loft editorial team
Photos from the Chernousov archives


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