How I Gave a Lecture to Truckers
December 26, 2015
When I informed my near and dear that I had been asked to give truckers a lecture on civil disobedience, their reactions were basically the same.
“They won’t understand a thing.”
“They support Putin and won’t give you the time of day.”
“Update your vocabulary,” someone even said to me.
“Haven’t they left yet?” asked a woman who knows her way around politics quite well.
All these statements were not very encouraging, and in any case I was badly dithering. I knew I was capable of giving interesting lectures, just not to truckers. I pictured burly men who yawned as they listened to my arguments and might even, for all I knew, shout, “Why are we listening to this? We are not interested.”
But it turned out they were interested.
My friend, who had dreamed up this whole thing, and I slowly and painfully made our way to Khimki. The shuttle bus dropped us off on the wrong side of the Mega shopping center, so we had to walk through it. Holiday lights were shining, people were hurrying to do their New Year’s shopping, but no one wondered about the big rigs parked in the parking lot.
And we still had to find the parking lot. We walked a long way through enormous spaces crammed with the cars of happy Mega and Ikea customers. Finally we saw the trucks: the word “lonely” came to mind. They were parked in the back of beyond. True, they had to be visible from the road, not far from the anti-tank obstacles, but who would see them there?
The trucks sported homemade placards reminding Rotenberg that the tire iron was under the seat. There was a New Year’s fir tree with only a few decorations on it. We were looking for Viktor with whom we had arranged the lecture. We were told Viktor was in the “cafeteria.” Oh, they had a cafeteria? The cafeteria was yet another truck, where you could have tea. We discovered only two or three fellows there. The rest had gone off to have lunch, obviously, to a more suitable place for such things. Were they really going into Mega? What did they think about the happily occupied shoppers, who had arrived as it were from another world?
We stood and chatted. It transpired we were not the only guests there. There was a bus driver who had brought a load of passengers to Mega and in the meantime had stopped by to see how things were going. It seemed it was not his first visit. He talked about how much money people who drive buses had to shell out for no reason at all.
Young women who wanted to draw what was happening at the truckers’ camp and post the drawings on Facebook showed up, as well as a woman with a camera. They said it was not their first visit, either, and that there were even old women who brought the lads borscht.
Meanwhile, the guys had started to gather. They really were big and strapping, and I found it hard to picture them listening to the lecture. But as soon as Viktor said the lecturer had arrived, they immediately happily formed a circle round me and listened.
I told them about Parnell and the first boycott in the world, against Captain Boycott, about how the landlords in Ireland had pitilessly raised the rents and complaining was useless.
“It conjures up certain associations,” commented one of the listeners. “Only there is no point in boycotting Rotenberg.”
“Hang on and let us listen. This is interesting,” the others said, stopping him short.
I looked around and could see they really were interested.
I saw I was surrounded not by ferocious wild men, but by attentive listeners with intelligent faces. I continued.
We moved on to Gandhi. The interest grew. The slogan “fill the prisons” provoked healthy mirth. One of the men was told he would be their Gandhi and would go to prison first. Another man asked whether there was not a difference between Russia and India: in Russia, where so many people had perished in Stalin’s camps, it would hardly be possible to fill the prisons. He was told that no one was forcing him to go to prison: he was just being told how things had been in the past. Someone immediately said they did not have to repeat what had already been done, but could come up with something of their own.
We had an intense discussion of what exactly they could come up with. This was the problem. So far they had not come up with anything than blocking the road to Moscow, and even then far from everyone agreed with this plan. The drivers gathered in Khimki were supposedly supported by their comrades in dozens of regions, but the majority was inclined to “wait and see.”
Discussions broke out after almost every sentence. Meanwhile, Shamil, an intelligent-looking Dagestani, and Sergei, a short, energetic man, had joined us. Everyone had his or her say. Someone said it was a pity that his schoolteacher, Raisa Demyanovna, had not talked about things as emotionally as I was.
The conversation became more and more relaxed. When I said that Gandhi had called on his supporters to refrain from sex, everyone gleefully hooted that I was talking about them, that they had long refrained from sex. All of them had very unhappy wives waiting at home, some of whom had threatened divorce. They had no money and their husbands were away from home, so of course you could understand them. Some of the men had gone home, while others said they could not, because “what would the guys say.”
We segued to Martin Luther King. The story of the busy boycott by Montgomery’s Negro population elicited cheers of approval.
“That’s great! They hit them in their wallets!”
Sergei commenced on a fairly coherent account of Gandhi, but he was interrupted and told the “speaker” had just told them about Gandhi.
The questions rained down one after the other. Of course they mainly boiled down to the famous “What is to be done?” We tried to discuss how to break through the media blackout. Some said we had to establish a public television channel.
“Do you have a website?” I asked.
It turned out a site was being created.
Everyone unanimously chewed out Channel One. Everyone wanted more lectures. Everyone was interested.
An hour later we said goodbye. We were asked to come back again, and we promised to do it.
We headed back home, our emotions overflowing. What a joy it had been to converse with completely sane, intelligent, energetic people, to establish a rapport with them, to see the look in their eyes, and hear their questions.
I would love for them to get an answer to the question “What is to be done?” I would love it if as many people as possible went to see them, if they did not feel worthless and abandoned on New Year’s Day, if they won.
By the by, as for the issue of “updating my vocabulary,” not a single truck driver swore even once when I was there.
And the man who asked about Stalin’s camps also asked me why I thought that, unlike in Europe, each new Russian regime wanted to “bend” us. I said there was a really long answer, but I would give the short answer: because we put up with it. Everyone applauded.
Tamara Eidelman is an Honored Teacher of the Russian Federation and a historian.
December 26, 2015
Yura, Mikhail, Anatoly, Andrei, and Vitya are all truckers and arrived in Moscow from different cities almost a month ago. After an unsuccessful attempt to paralyze the Moscow Ring Road, they are stuck in a parking lot in Khimki. They can leave if they like, but the police will not let them back. In Khimki, almost all the protesters against the Plato toll payment system are individual entrepreneurs. After making all the various deductions, their take-home income is around 20,000 rubles a month [approx. 250 euros]. If they earn even less, they won’t have enough to feed their families, and some of them have three or even four children. This is their first large-scale protest and coordinating with their brother and sister drivers has not been so easy, because it is a big country and very few of them know each other personally. There were many provocateurs at the beginning, and the know-how of cooperating accumulates only gradually in a new protest arena. “The economy must be changed” is a phrase that you hear them saying along with disappointed remarks about the government and those commentators who depict them as savages. In fact, it is very pleasant and interesting to converse with the truckers in Khimki. They are interested in lots of things and are open to communication. And they need support. In addition to information support they mainly need diesel fuel, 300 liters a day. One Moscow activist showed up with his own canister. Everyone can do this: you don’t have to have your own car. So let’s support the truckers both emotionally and materially!
To see the rest of Anatrrra’s photo reportage, go to her LiveJournal blog.
Compared to A Chronicle of Resistance, which I compiled in 2011-2012, this is a more modest series. I have neither the drive nor the resources to regularly document protests, nor are there inspiring scenes of rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of people, but there are certain kinds of pressure groups I still want to sketch.
What do they have in common?
- The people involved are self-organized and there is a lack of obvious leaders.
- The people involved constantly emphasize they are “normal, ordinary people, remote from politics.”
- They have specific social demands, caused by a violation of their rights.
Notable examples are the protests by residents of the Moose Island (Losinoostrovsky) District of Moscow against the construction of a church in Torfyanka Park and the protest by truckers. The protest camp in Torfyanka and the truckers’ camp in Khimki continue to function.