Victoria Lomasko: Truckers, Torfyanka, and Dubki

Victoria Lomasko
Truckers, Torfyanka, and Dubki: Grassroots Protests in Russia, 2015–2016

In late February 2015, politician Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Russian opposition, was gunned down near the Kremlin.

Grassroots activists immediately set up a people’s memorial, made up of bouquets, photos, drawings, and candles, at the scene of the crime, on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. For over a year, they have been taking shifts guarding the memorial from members of various nationalist movements and bridge maintenance workers, who routinely haul away the flowers and photos as if they were trash.

Slogan on man’s t-shirt: “Navalny didn’t steal the timber.” May 24, 2016

“The assaults on the memorial occur like pogroms in a Jewish shtetl: it’s the luck of the draw,” these two people on vigil at the memorial told me. “They pick a time when the people on duty have let down their guard, like three or four in the morning.”

Woman: “People will take to the barricades only when food runs out in the stores.” Slogan on her shirt: “The ‘Russian world’ has no use for science and education.’” Rally in defense of science and education, June 6, 2015

Headed by opposition leaders and attended by thousands of people, the 2012 rallies and marches for fair elections and a “Russia without Putin!” ended with the show trials of 2013 and 2014 against opposition leaders (Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov) and rank-and-file protesters (the so-called prisoners of May 6).

In 2015 and 2016, the Marches of the Millions have given way to small-scale rallies and protests. People far removed from politics have tried to defend their own concrete rights.

I made these drawings at a rally in defense of the Dynasty Foundation. An NGO founded to support scientific research and science education in Russia, it had been declared a “foreign agent” by the Justice Ministry.

“Today, they killed Nemtsov. Tomorrow, they’ll kill a nationalist leader.” Rally in defense of science and education

Torfyanka

In June 2015, residents of Moscow’s Losiny Ostrov (Moose Island) District came together to stop construction of a church in their local park, Torfyanka. The building had been planned as part of the Russian Orthodox Church’s 200 Churches Program.

“People need hospitals and kindergartens more than another church on the site of our park.” Torfyanka Park, July 1, 2015
“People need hospitals and kindergartens more than another church on the site of our park.” Torfyanka Park, July 1, 2015

Residents set up a tent camp in the park and stood watch in shifts to keep construction equipment from entering the site. They also filed a lawsuit, asking the court to declare the public impact hearing on the construction project null and void. The hearing had been held without their involvement.

“I have two kids, but no dacha. We’re here at the park morning and evening. We need the park.” Torfyanka Park, July 1, 2015

As I was drawing the people who were defending the park, nearly all of them made a point of saying they were interested only in saving Torfyanka, not in politics per se.

The Russian Orthodox Church and city officials were not expecting a fight. It is seen as something of a miracle when people in Russia engage in successful grassroots organizing. “Cossacks,” veterans of the military conflict in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, and members of the Russian Orthodox grassroots movement Multitude (Sorok sorokov) arrived at the proposed building site, which had been fenced off.

Orthodox volunteer, speaking to opponents of the planned church: “I don’t even know what is going to happen to you. The fifth column has already shown up here.” Torfyanka Park, July 1, 2015
Orthodox volunteer, speaking to opponents of the planned church: “I don’t even know what is going to happen to you. The fifth column has already shown up here.” Torfyanka Park, July 1, 2015

After the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, Russian TV and pro-Putin newspapers frightened their listeners and readers on a daily basis with stories of “national traitors” and a “fifth column.” For example, people who attended anti-war rallies were identified as part of the fifth column. Any protest against the regime was likened to a “fascist Maidan.”

Taisiya, an Orthodox activist: “I’m afraid if a Maidan like the one here at Torfyanka kicks off everywhere, I could end up an émigré in a boring country like France. The lives of the people who were unable to put things right in the Motherland [during the 1917 Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War] were lamentable.” July 1, 2015
Taisiya, an Orthodox activist: “I’m afraid if a Maidan like the one here at Torfyanka kicks off everywhere, I could end up an émigré in a boring country like France. The lives of the people who were unable to put things right in the Motherland [during the 1917 Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War] were lamentable.” July 1, 2015

The park’s defenders claimed only a handful of neighborhood residents supported building the church.

“We are also Orthodox and are in favor of building a church, but not in our park. Churches should not be like bakeries. There doesn’t need to be one on every corner,” they explained.

They also said people were going house to house and scaring pensioners by telling them they would go to hell when they died if they opposed construction of the church.

The Camp at Khimki

Russian long-haul truckers undertook the most notable protest campaign of the past year.

In November 2015, the Russian government introduced new regulations for calculating tolls paid by cargo haulers traveling on federal highways. A special system for paying the tolls, called Plato, was set up.

According to truck owners and drivers, Plato would collect 400,000 rubles annually from each truck. That would be tantamount to bankruptcy for them. The first fine for not paying the toll had been set at 450,000 rubles, and fines for each subsequent failure to pay were set at one million rubles. Fifty percent of the company running the Plato toll system is owned by Igor Rotenberg, son of Arkady Rotenberg, a billionaire from Putin’s inner circle.

Striking truckers' camp in Khimki, near Moscow
Striking truckers’ camp in Khimki, near Moscow

In late November and early December 2015, truck drivers from several Russian regions set off for Moscow in their rigs. Police stopped the drivers on the outskirts of the capital and made them turn their empty trucks around, but approximately twenty-five drivers managed to break through the blockade and set up a camp in Khimki, twenty kilometers outside of Moscow.

On December 4, 2015, the Russian government reduced the fines for nonpayment of tolls in the Plato system by ninety times.

I first traveled to the Khimki truckers’ camp before the New Year. It was the weekend, and people continually drove up to support the protesters. They mainly brought food and diesel fuel. The truckers were grateful, but they looked wary.

“In the early days, we pushed everyone away and were suspicious of each other. We didn’t know each other then,” trucker Sergei Vladimirov, a coordinator at the camp, would say a month later.

Andrei, a trucker from Petersburg: “After the New Year, everyone will come to their senses, but the truckers in Khimki will be gone. We need support now.” Placards on truck: “No to Plato,” and “I oppose toll roads.” December 26, 2015
Andrei, a trucker from Petersburg: “After the New Year, everyone will come to their senses, but the truckers in Khimki will be gone. We need support now.” Placards on truck: “No to Plato,” and “I oppose toll roads.” December 26, 2015

I drew a portrait of Andrei Bazhutin, who would soon emerge as a leader of the protesters. I could sense he was at a loss.

“We’re having a strike here, while five meters away people are getting ready for New Year’s.”

Decked out with placards bearing protest slogans, the trucks looked out of place next to Khimki’s huge shopping centers and crowds of people doing their holiday shopping.

I met a defender of Torfyanka Park at the Khimki camp. He was heartened by what was happening.

Dmitry, an activist from Torfyanka: “The authorities are putting too much pressure on people. We have an idea to link this protest up with the one in Torfyanka.” Placard on truck: “We want to feed the wife and kids, not oligarchs.” December 26, 2015
Dmitry, an activist from Torfyanka: “The authorities are putting too much pressure on people. We have an idea to link this protest up with the one in Torfyanka.” Placard on truck: “We want to feed the wife and kids, not oligarchs.” December 26, 2015

At that point, though, the truckers themselves just wanted Putin to pay attention to their campaign and abolish the Plato toll system so they could go back to their ordinary lives.

Anatoly, a trucker from Petersburg: “I have two loans, the apartment is mortgaged, and three kids. I am not interested in politics: let me work!!!” Placard on back of truck: “Remember, Rotenberg: the tire iron is under the seat.” December 26, 2015
Anatoly, a trucker from Petersburg: “I have two loans, the apartment is mortgaged, and three kids. I am not interested in politics: let me work!!!” Placard on back of truck: “Remember, Rotenberg: the tire iron is under the seat.” December 26, 2015

We are not involved in politics, the truckers would tell everyone who visited the camp.

One of them put it this way.

“You have to have the knack of politics to make political demands.”

Meanwhile, on the social networks, leftists and liberals were discussing whether to support the truckers. Many of them were disappointed the truckers were not organizing a revolution.

I happened upon Tamara Eidelman, a prominent member of the liberal intelligentsia and an award-winning schoolteacher, at the Khimki camp. She was giving a lecture on nonviolent civil resistance. (She had lectured on the same topic during Occupy Abay in Moscow in 2012.)

Tamara, a teacher and historian (left): “My acquaintances tried to scare me by saying the truckers were zombies.” Man in black hat (right): “They don’t even know us.”
Tamara, a teacher and historian (left): “My acquaintances tried to scare me by saying the truckers were zombies.” Man in black hat (right): “They don’t even know us.”

Eidelman wrote about her trip to meet the truckers in a blog post on Echo of Moscow radio station’s website.

“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.”

This is a portrait of Tasya Nikitenko, press secretary for the truckers. A twenty-year-old student at the Institute of Journalism and Literature, she had come to the Khimki camp at her own behest and lived there a couple of months, helping the protesters communicate with the press.

Tasya, press secretary: “At first, I expected the striking truckers to park their rigs on Red Square.”
Tasya, press secretary: “At first, I expected the striking truckers to park their rigs on Red Square.”

The liberal media (RBC, Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, TV Rain, and Colta) regularly covered events in the camp. But the campaign was virtually invisible on national television, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev dubbed the strikers “mediocre truckers” who “haul who knows what.” This caused the truckers to lose faith in Russian television and turn to online news sites.

The Camp after the New Year

After the New Year, the truckers set up a headquarters in one of the semi-trailers, which they equipped with a table, stools, a gas stove, and shelves for porridge and potatoes. Guests would stop by the headquarters, and nearly all of them tried to help out in some way. Ivan, an economist who lives nearby in Khimki, regularly brought the truckers hot meals he cooked himself.

“My contribution is minimal,” said Ivan. “After I started coming here I began sleeping better.”

Vegan trucker Alexei, an activist, and Ivan, an economist from Khimki: “When the Kremlin clock chimed [at midnight on December 31], we listened to a video address by truckers instead of the president’s address.”
Vegan trucker Alexei, an activist, and Ivan, an economist from Khimki: “When the Kremlin clock chimed [at midnight on December 31], we listened to a video address by truckers instead of the president’s address.”

Ivan rang in the New Year at the Khimki camp. Activist Pavel Pechnik and his comrades organized a celebration for the truckers.

“There was a large table laden with homemade food. There was a freshly cut fir tree,” Ivan told me. “I expected it would be good, but it was grand. I felt like these strangers were my relatives.”

Ivan gave the truckers eleven copies of Plato’s Dialogues, because “they dialogue about Plato here every evening.”

The winter days were cold and dark. The truckers and their visitors sat in the headquarters in caps, jackets, and fur coats, warming themselves with tea served in plastic cups and debating philosophy, history, veganism, environmentalism, and politics.

This young entrepreneur visited the camp several times and gave the truckers money for diesel fuel. The camp survived on donations (an account was opened at the State Savings Bank), but many campers still had to go into debt or sell their trucks to survive.

Entrepreneur: “If they outmuscle all of you, they’ll slip their hands in everyone else’s pockets.” January 10, 2016
Entrepreneur: “If they outmuscle all of you, they’ll slip their hands in everyone else’s pockets.” January 10, 2016
Camp visitors. January 23, 2016

Elena, a reporter, provided a daily account of events at the camp on a Facebook group page entitled “Coordination of Truckers: No to Plato!” Tatyana, a singer, held concerts at the headquarters, and the truckers could go to her house to bathe and wash clothes whenever they wanted. Katya, a lawyer, helped out by giving them money and legal advice.

Truckers arrived from other cities to see the camp firsthand. Two truckers from Kursk were impressed.

“In Russia, people always look up to the big cities. We are going to tell our people back home, ‘Boys, the whole country is rising!’”

Anatoly, a trucker from Khanty-Mansiysk, recounted how truckers in his region had tried to fight back against the Plato toll system.

“We gathered in Surgut for a protest. A helicopter was flying overhead. Then the riot cops dispersed us. Nothing else happened after that.”

“If I couldn’t change anything at home, I had to go to Moscow,” Anatoly decided.

He had arrived by car with his friend Sergei, a trucker from Chelyabinsk.

“The police will use any excuse to keep us from making it here in our trucks. They break the law and confiscate our licenses.”

“The camp is a like a lighthouse. It has to be here.” January 10, 2016
“The camp is a like a lighthouse. It has to be here.” January 10, 2016

Andrei Bazhutin told visitors how life in the camp had been changing.

“In the early days, chaos reigned, but the guys are like soldiers now. We have figured out what ‘newsworthy’ means and how to give interviews, but the demand on us has been such it feels like we’ve been doing this for years.”

Dissatisfied with the existing Interregional Trade Union of Professional Drivers, the truckers had originally wanted to set up a new trade union. That proved impossible, because many of the protesters were workers and employers at the same time. They decided to establish an association of carriers instead. All the decisions were made at closed-door meetings.

Anatoly: “Thanks to Plato and Rotenberg we are now founding a real alliance.” January 10, 2016
Anatoly: “Thanks to Plato and Rotenberg we are now founding a real alliance.” January 10, 2016

Andrei, from Togliatti, brought over a hundred people to the meeting.

“Because our town is in ruins,” explained Andrei. “All that is left of industry there are two chemical plants, and they are on their last legs.”

Over fifty drivers and truck owners from Shenkursk, a town of five thousand people, joined the alliance.

“Trucking is the main occupation in our town. There is nothing else to do,” said Kirill, from Shenkursk.

The largest strikes by truckers took place in Dagestan, in towns like Manas, Kayakent, Khasavyurt, and Kizlyar. In November 2015, when the protests against Plato kicked off, Dagestani drivers also headed for Moscow. Truckers from Russia’s southern regions stopped at the ninety-first kilometer mark on the Kashira Highway. Dubbed the “southern” camp, it lasted for over three weeks.

During one of my trips to the Khimki camp, I met Rustam Mallamagomedov, interim representative of the Dagestan Union of Truckers.

Rustam: “After a meeting involving all of Dagestan’s districts, at which we elected our own representatives, the police visited all of them at home.” February 2, 2016
Rustam: “After a meeting involving all of Dagestan’s districts, at which we elected our own representatives, the police visited all of them at home.” February 2, 2016

A few weeks later, Rustam would accidentally find out he was on the police’s wanted list, charged with organizing an “unauthorized rally.”

“Ordinary people support us,” Sergei, another trucker from Dagestan, told me. “They realize that if haulage costs go up, produce will cost more. Bananas are imported to Dagestan from Iran. They cost twenty-three rubles a kilo, but after the new regulations were adopted, they went up to twenty-nine or thirty rubles a kilo.”

Sergei (Khasavyurt, Dagestan): “I would have not come here if it had been up to me. I realized things would only get worse. The police let my tiny truck through.” January 23, 2016
Sergei (Khasavyurt, Dagestan): “I would have not come here if it had been up to me. I realized things would only get worse. The police let my tiny truck through.” January 23, 2016

I met him again during my next trip to the Khimki camp. He was grim.

“My boss is selling the truck tomorrow. The business has become unprofitable. The Internet is awash with trucks-for-sale ads.”

The only woman at the camp was Nadezhda, from Vologda Region. She used to work as a manager in the housing authority, but left “because the whole business is dishonest.” She owned two trucks. She had been at the camp since day one.

Nadezhda: “I have three kids at home. I spend a week at the camp and a week at home.” February 2, 2016
Nadezhda: “I have three kids at home. I spend a week at the camp and a week at home.” February 2, 2016

“I’m grateful to Plato for helping me meet such a variety of people here,” said Nadezhda.

Carriers have many other problems besides Plato. Intermediaries are one of the biggest. This was how the truckers described the situation.

“The ‘stools’ (dispatchers) man the phones. They manage several trucks, so companies find it easier to contract with them. We truckers couldn’t agree on the haulage rates among ourselves. Tenders are organized among dispatchers. If they don’t have trucks available, they pass the job on, and they take a cut of the fee every time they do this. From the late nineties until the noughties, the ‘stools’ charged between five and seven percent, but nowadays no one knows how much they are charging.”

Many truckers are certain dispatchers take cuts of fifty to eighty percent.

Oleg in the cab of his rig
Oleg in the cab of his rig

Unsafe roads are another problem.

“The protection rackets have made a comeback. Rigs are getting broken into again, like in the nineties. I try to make stops only at paid parking lots or places that are tried and true,” said Oleg, a trucker.

Truckers who worked in the Far East talked about how they would ford frozen rivers and lakes, their doors open and their passports in their pockets. There are many “sinkers” (submerged vehicles) on the bottoms of these rivers and lakes.

The Strike
On March 1, 2016, the toll for a kilometer of cargo truck travel on federal highways was supposed to rise from one ruble fifty-three kopecks to three rubles six kopecks. The activists at the Khimki camp decided it was not enough to keep the camp running and hold meetings in the regions, so they organized a nationwide truckers’ strike.

“The days the big rigs stop running: February 20 to . . .” February 9, 2016
“The days the big rigs stop running: February 20 to . . .” February 9, 2016

The protesters were convinced toll roads for trucks were only the beginning. The tolls would destroy the existing cargo transport system, leaving it in the hands of monopolists.

“Trucker, You’re Not Alone! Nationwide Strike, February 20–March 1, 2016.”
“Trucker, You’re Not Alone! Nationwide Strike, February 20–March 1, 2016.”

I made a poster for the strike. The cities identified on it were places where truckers had held rallies, meetings, and strikes.

Nadya, Alexei, and Mikhail. Alexei: “Yesterday, we leafleted the truck stops. Many truckers didn’t know about the camp in Khimki.” February 2, 2016
Nadya, Alexei, and Mikhail. Alexei: “Yesterday, we leafleted the truck stops. Many truckers didn’t know about the camp in Khimki.” February 2, 2016

Truckers rarely use the Internet, and the protests were not covered on TV. Most of the drivers who talked to campaigners at truck stops supported the activists at the Khimki camp.

The truckers wrote a three-point list of demands:

1. Abolish the Plato toll system and punish those responsible for it.
2. Abolish fees for major repairs in apartment buildings and institute a two-year moratorium on increases in utility rates.
3. Reinstate discounted travel for pensioners and disabled people in all regions.

“These are basic demands, because they affect everyone. Everyone gets old, and everyone has parents,” the truckers explained.

Activist: “We’ve been able to convince many truckers to join the strike. There is nothing to lose now, and it is too late to worry.” Poem on wall behind activists: “He fed Rotenberg his fill, / And paid off Plato: / Meaning, he bent over doggie style / And opened his asshole.” February 9, 2016
Activist: “We’ve been able to convince many truckers to join the strike. There is nothing to lose now, and it is too late to worry.” Poem on wall behind activists: “He fed Rotenberg his fill, / And paid off Plato: / Meaning, he bent over doggie style / And opened his asshole.” February 9, 2016

Before the strike, the Khimki camp activists held meetings in several cities where they shared their self-organizational know-how.

“In the regions, they want to see the truckers from Khimki, because they trust us,” said the activists. But they didn’t have the money to keep making these trips.

I was not in Russia during the strike. When I got back, I went straight to the Khimki camp to hear the news. Trucker Mikhail Kurbatov summed up the strike’s main outcome.

Mikhail: “The government has frozen the rates. We have not formed an alliance yet, but we have done this for the country.”
Mikhail: “The government has frozen the rates. We have not formed an alliance yet, but we have done this for the country.”

The toll rate per kilometer remained unchanged.

According to the activists at the Khimki camp, between fifty and sixty regions were involved in the strike. Ninety percent of drivers in Dagestan struck, forcing hypermarkets to prepare in advance for the strike. Truckers set up temporary protest camps in Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Vologda, Tyumen, Khakassia, and Orenburg. A new temporary camp also sprang up in Tyoply Stan on the outskirts of Moscow.

Most TV channels totally ignored the strike.

Maxim, a trucker from the Khimki camp, went to the new camp in Petersburg for two days.

“They have as many trucks as we have. Most of the people were from Petersburg. There were truckers flying the slogan ‘Down with the government.’ Then they left, and the regular guys stayed.”

There were ninety people in the new truckers’ alliance before the strike, but around three hundred afterwards.

The truckers also took part in the memorial march for opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

“When they said we were a ‘fifth column,’ we realized how easy it was throw mud at anyone.”

Anatoly and Alexei. Alexei: “Killing a man in Red Square is a brazen thing to do.” March 21, 2016
Anatoly and Alexei. Alexei: “Killing a man in Red Square is a brazen thing to do.” March 21, 2016

Torfyanka after the New Year

After talking with several defenders of Torfyanka, the truckers went to visit their camp. They realized they would need to unite to change things in Russia.

Darya, an activist: “The truckers brought us oranges and canned meat. We have been supporting each other on a personal level.” February 6, 2016
Darya, an activist: “The truckers brought us oranges and canned meat. We have been supporting each other on a personal level.” February 6, 2016

The battle for the park had been going on for eight months. The residents proved the public impact hearing had been fictitious, and the authorities did not extend the developers’ permits to do excavation work on the church building site.

“They have been allocated another lot, but it cannot be expanded. They were planning a sports complex for Multitude and a house for ministers here,” said Darya. “The new site is in a more heavily populated area, but the locals would never attend church here after so many travails.”

Darya also talked about an assault by men from Multitude and the inaction of the police.

“I’m a believer, but now I’ve stopped going to church. I won’t baptize my children: they can decide for themselves. And of course I will tell them the story of Torfyanka Park,” Darya said.

The residents on duty at Torfyanka invited me into their tent. It was a cold day, and my hands and feet were numb after twenty minutes. During the winter, the watches lasted three hours. People kept themselves warm with blankets and hot tea. An activist whom everyone called Aunt Valya would bring trays of pancakes and pies to the people on watch.

“We rang in the New Year here. There were a lot of people in the tent.” February 6, 2016
“We rang in the New Year here. There were a lot of people in the tent.” February 6, 2016

“We used to be estranged from each other, but we are friends now. We socialize and visit each other at home. We’re involved with our neighborhood. We got the roads improved and new elevators installed. We even got the stairwells painted,” the local activists said.

They also talked about their attempt to march onto Red Square in t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Movement for Torfyanka Park.” Ten people took part in the protest. The police detained all of them, and each was fined ten thousand rubles.

The residents said that, initially, they had a ban on talking about politics in the camp. But, unfortunately, we seem to have been involved in politics for a while now, they said with a sigh.

Multitude continued to hold prayer meetings at Torfyanka in support of building the church. Composer Andrei Kormukhin, a leader of the organization, spoke at one of the meetings.

Andrei Kormukhin, a leader of Multitude: “People who support Maidan and Radio Svoboda were here. They were counted as local residents for some reason.” Multitude rally, Torfyanka Park, February 6, 2016. Placard on left:
Andrei Kormukhin, a leader of Multitude: “People who support Maidan and Radio Svoboda were here. They were counted as local residents for some reason.” Multitude rally, Torfyanka Park, February 6, 2016. Placard on left: “Build the church!” Placard above Kormukhin: “The more churches, the fewer gays.”

He also asked people to pray for the Orthodox activist Lyudmila, who had vandalized several works by the famous sculptor Vadim Sidur at the Manege, Moscow’s central exhibition hall. She had been sentenced to house arrest.

“No crackdowns on the Orthodox!” shouted Kormukhin.

Multitude rally, February 6, 2016
Multitude rally, February 6, 2016

I heard this conversation between a married couple during the religious procession.

“What if we make the sign of the cross at them [the pro-Torfyanka activists]?

“We already did. And we whacked them upside the head. It didn’t work.”

On February 13, 2016, Multitude was scheduled to hold another rally. But the night before the rally, members of the organization attacked the tent where the residents were on watch. The Torfyanka activists telephoned the truckers, who immediately came to their aid.

Truckers: “We got a call from Torfyanka in the middle of the night. They said, “They’re beating up the gals!” When we arrived, the police were already here.” February 13, 2016
Truckers: “We got a call from Torfyanka in the middle of the night. They said, “They’re beating up the gals!” When we arrived, the police were already here.” February 13, 2016

Darya recounted what happened.

“Around fifty men in masks cordoned off the entire area. They wanted to deliver logs to the construction site on the sly, under cover of night. The police just stood and watched, until someone from Multitude threw a log at the police. Then about twenty-five of the Multitude guys were detained.”

Multitude went ahead with their rally that afternoon. Enraged by the nighttime assault, a large crowd of area residents also gathered in the park. They blew whistles and sang the Internationale, drowning out the speeches and prayers at Multitude’s rally. Police formed a human chain and set up fences to separate those attending the rally from the locals.

Women (left): “Get the hell out of the park!” Striking truck drivers (right): “The authorities have gotten pretty brazen, and the Church is doing their bidding.”
Women (left): “Get the hell out of the park!” Striking truck drivers (right): “The authorities have gotten pretty brazen, and the Church is doing their bidding.”

On their VKontakte group page, Multitude described the confrontation as follows:

“Everyone who attended the rally today came face to face with the gaping maw of Maidan and the Devil’s whistle. Rushing to the scene at the first beck and call of their leaders, activists from the wormy Yabloko Party, PARNAS, the ‘truckers,’ and their ilk decked the local gang of ecclesiaclasts in the green ribbons of their organization and stuck a whistle in each of their mouths!”

Dubki

In March 2016, in addition to the clashes at Torfyanka, conflict flared up at another Moscow park. Residents of the Timiryazev District opposed construction of a huge twenty-two-story residential building, with an underground parking lot, on the edge of Dubki Park. Developers planned to build the high-rise on the site of a former kindergarten and an avenue of oaks.

Rally at Dubki Park
Rally at Dubki Park

On March 26, locals held a rally to save Dubki Park. Children’s drawings from a competition entitled “I Love Dubki” were hung on the park’s fence. Many people came with their children (who were the competing artists, apparently) and enjoyed perusing the drawings before the speeches began. Recordings of “The Grasshopper Sat in the Grass” and other Soviet tunes played over a loudspeaker. I heard old women reminiscing.

“There used to be little houses here, and a grove inhabited by nightingales.”

Several activists from Torfyanka and the defenders of Friendship Park (where a stadium has been under construction) came to support the campaign. Mikhail Barbotkin, a Friendship Park defender, said it was dangerous if there were too few men on the night vigils at threatened parks, because private security guards were used to doing their dirty work at night.

After the rally, I quizzed Mikhail about the defense of Friendship Park. He recounted serious clashes between private security guards and residents in which both sides had suffered injuries.

Friendship Park activist Mikhail Barbotkin: “For the time being we are holding on like Leningrad during the Siege, but the state has more resources and can wait us out.” Placard: “Friendship Park and the Defense of the Left Bank District Support Dubki!”
Friendship Park activist Mikhail Barbotkin: “For the time being we are holding on like Leningrad during the Siege, but the state has more resources and can wait us out.” Placard: “Friendship Park and the Defense of the Left Bank District Support Dubki!”

Sergei Mitrokhin, a leader of the Yabloko Party, and members of several other political parties spoke at the rally. Residents reacted sluggishly to them. But they applauded when an activist from the Save Dubki pressure group said, “We don’t need politics. We have a concrete issue!”

Placard: “Bring the oaks back to the park!” Inscription on back of t-shirt: “Let’s Save Dubki”
Placard: “Bring the oaks back to the park!” Inscription on back of t-shirt: “Let’s Save Dubki”

After the rally, I met Dmitry, one of the people who stood watch along the fence erected by the developers. At the outset of the campaign, the activists stood watch in the daytime, going home at night. One morning, however, the locals looked out their windows and the trees were gone. The developers had chopped down the avenue of oaks overnight.

Dmitry, an activist: “When the private security guards were here, it was as scary as being in a war.”
Dmitry, an activist: “When the private security guards were here, it was as scary as being in a war.”

As I drew him, Dmitry talked about his parents, who had lived on the street, in the Ivanovo Barracks, and about his grandfather, who had left from here to go to the front.

“My history is here, and they want to take it away.”

When the conflict was over, Dmitry was sure his know-how as an activist would be huge. After victory in Dubki, he would be able to help defenders of other parks.

“I also should also say thanks to the developers for acquainting me with so many wonderful neighbors,” he concluded.

At the spot where Dmitry and several other activists were keeping vigil, I met two very tiny watchmen. Albert and Nargiza, brother and sister, lived in the neighboring district. They had come to walk in their favorite park and accidentally happened upon the rally. Albert had read about the defense of Dubki on the social networks, and the children decided to join the vigil.

“I called Mom, and she gave us her approval,” said Albert.

Albert (left): “I go to the school across the street from the park, and I hang out in the park with friends.” Nargiza (seated): “Dubki Park makes children and squirrels happy.” Inscription on Nargiza’s vest: “Friend of Dubki Park”
Albert (left): “I go to the school across the street from the park, and I hang out in the park with friends.” Nargiza (seated): “Dubki Park makes children and squirrels happy.” Inscription on Nargiza’s vest: “Friend of Dubki Park”

On March 31, 2016, the locals were unable to stop construction vehicles from entering the site. Several of the residents were injured in a clash with security guards. Some of them were taken to the hospital, while around fifteen activists were detained and taken to a police precinct.

Under Party Flags

In early April 2016, an anti-Plato rally, featuring such political parties as PARNAS, Democratic Choice, Yabloko, and the Communist Party, was announced. The Khimki activists and their allies among the regional truckers’ alliances decided not to take part in the rally after voting via Skype.

There were several reasons for this. One of them was that the rally’s organizers were not truckers and did not know their problems from the inside. The campaigning truckers had also decided not to march under any flags. It was crucial ordinary people trusted them, but ordinary people no longer trusted any of the parties. Finally, it was too early for them to jump into politics before they had founded their new association.

“We have to talk not as individuals with other individuals, but as an alliance with other alliances.”

After starting out with the problems of truckers, nearly all the speakers quickly segued to calling for the regime’s overthrow.

“Down with Plato! Sack the government! Down with Putin!”

Among the speakers was Ilya Lvov, chair of the Petersburg branch of Democratic Choice, and Svetlana Stosha, director of a transportation company and president of the alternative Union of Carriers. Both Lvov and Stosha had periodically attacked the Khimki campers on the social networks for what they saw as a wrongheaded campaign, for “compromising with the ruling party” and “sabotage and betrayal.”

Ilya Lvov: “Don’t forget! Don’t forgive! We’ll take our revenge on election day.” April 3, 2016
Ilya Lvov: “Don’t forget! Don’t forgive! We’ll take our revenge on election day.” April 3, 2016
Stosha: “Down with monopoly! Up with competition!” Placard (left): “Send Plato to the trash! Sack the government!” Placard (right): “Civic Initiative for Free Medicine and Education.” April 3, 2016
Stosha: “Down with monopoly! Up with competition!” Placard (left): “Send Plato to the trash! Sack the government!” Placard (right): “Civic Initiative for Free Medicine and Education.” April 3, 2016

Alexander Kotov, head of the Interregional Trade Union of Professional Drivers, and Nikolai Matveyev, chair of the Miass local of the Union of Professional Drivers, spoke out in support of trucker Alexander Zakharov, who had been charged with murder on flimsy evidence and sentenced to nine years in a maximum security prison.

“By sentencing Zakharov, they were telling all truckers, ‘Don’t make waves! Do as you’re told!’” April 3, 2016
“By sentencing Zakharov, they were telling all truckers, ‘Don’t make waves! Do as you’re told!’” April 3, 2016

At the rally, I saw Yevgeny, a trucker from Vologda, whom I had met at the Khimki camp. He told me how the strike had gone in Vologda.

“There were twenty-five trucks in the camp from February 20 to March 1. The police chased us around in earnest the first two days and tore down our posters. Charges have been filed against the campers, and they are facing fines. During the strike, three people in Vologda were ‘de-Platonized.’”

Meaning they had stopped using the Plato toll system.

Yevgeny from Vologda: “They are right to say, ‘Down with Putin!’ It was he and his cronies who dreamed up Plato.” Placard: “Vologda vs. Plato.” April 3, 2016
Yevgeny from Vologda: “They are right to say, ‘Down with Putin!’ It was he and his cronies who dreamed up Plato.” Placard: “Vologda vs. Plato.” April 3, 2016

Ten or so other Vologda truckers had come with Yevgeny to the rally. They even rented a van for the trip to Moscow. It was apparent they were proud to be involved.

“You have to take advantage of every conflict. We’re not ashamed of ourselves. We didn’t lie home in bed.”

The Khimki camp activists were not happy about the fact the Vologda truckers attended the rally, and that offended them.

“Politics and life are dirty. What, do you want to be squeaky clean? What difference does it make whom we unite with? What matters is they’re also opposed to Plato,” argued several of the outraged Vologda truckers.

But for the Khimki campaigners, the hows, whys, and whos mattered when making alliances. Their main goal at that moment was establishing their own alliance.

“Our alliance will be like socialism within a democratic society,” said Mikhail Kurbatov when describing the future association.

Mikhail and Rustam. Mikhail: “Only reliable, decent people should remain in our association.”
Mikhail and Rustam. Mikhail: “Only reliable, decent people should remain in our association.”

The Founding Congress

On April 30, 2016, the Khimki camp activists organized and held the founding congress of the Association of Russian Carriers [Ob’edinenie perevozchikov Rossii or OPR] at the Lenin State Farm in the Moscow Region. According to their tally, approximately three hundred drivers from thirty-one regions attended the congress.

A report on the Plato system listed its flaws, in particular, erroneous debits, problems with registering, and the inability to use Plato in areas with no Internet coverage.

“The rates for cargo trucks were calculated based on the assumption that a truck travels 8,000 kilometers annually, while actual annual mileage is between 100,000 and 150,000 kilometers,” said one of the speakers.

Placards on curtains: “Association of Russian Carriers.” April 30, 2016
Placards on curtains: “Association of Russian Carriers.” April 30, 2016

46_dalnoboy_meeting

The truckers voted unanimously to establish the OPR. Andrei Bazhutin was elected chair of the OPR by a majority vote. One representative from each region was elected to the association’s council. The congress was designated the OPR’s main governing body.

Posters on trucks: “No to Plato,” “For Alexander Zakharov,” and “Carriers vs. Unemployment.” April 30, 2016
Posters on trucks: “No to Plato,” “For Alexander Zakharov,” and “Carriers vs. Unemployment.” April 30, 2016

After the congress, its delegates and the activists who had supported the truckers went to the Khimki camp. The camp had never looked so festive and animated. The headquarters was too small to accommodate people, so they socialized outside.

Both joy and sadness were palpable at a small banquet late in the evening. It was clear it was time for the truckers of the Khimki camp to leave for home. Nearly all of them had gone heavily into debt and incurred the wrath of their wives due to their long absence.

48_dalnoboy_bazhutin

They had wanted to take part in a May Day rally, but all three applications they made were rejected on the pretext all the venues were taken. So the camp dispersed the day after the OPR was founded.

Dozens of activists, people who had become their friends during the time the camp was in operation, gathered to say farewell. The truckers of the Khimki camp departed in a single column, their rigs sporting the blue flags of the Association of Russian Carriers.

The Support Group

After the truckers departed, their most loyal friends—the journalist Elena, the economist Ivan, and the lawyer Katya—met to celebrate the singer Tatyana’s birthday. I was also invited.

We were united by our memories of the Khimki camp, and we spent the whole evening talking about it.

Ivan cooked “protest food” for us. That was what we called the potato pancakes and red tea he would often bring to the truckers.

“I just knew you would be nostalgic about the camp,” he said.

Ivan: “When the camp was depressed, I would make extra-large beef cutlets to brighten the mood.”
Ivan: “When the camp was depressed, I would make extra-large beef cutlets to brighten the mood.”

I knew Katya spent her free time volunteering at orphanages and nursing homes. She was also involved in her district’s grassroots pressure group, and was moderator of a group opposing paid parking.

Katya: “The truckers came to support a rally against paid parking where I spoke. After that, we saw each other every day.”
Katya: “The truckers came to support a rally against paid parking where I spoke. After that, we saw each other every day.”

The conversation kept returning to the question of why so few people had understood how important the events in Khimki were.

“People like being good angels to the sick and unfortunate. Most people don’t understand why they should help the strong, but the strong end up pulling everyone else along with them,” argued Elena.

“When you help out in an orphanage, you’re helping only that orphanage. When you help the truckers, you help everyone,” Katya said, agreeing with Elena.

We decided to keep helping the truckers as much as possible.

On the table: protest potato pancakes and protest tea
On the table: protest potato pancakes and protest tea

Afterword

After the Khimki camp broke up, police began selectively detaining OPR members. In June 2016, the Khimki camp activists made a trip through Central Russia, Southern Russia, and the Urals, their rigs decked out in posters and banners. During the trip, they evaluated the condition of the roads on which they now had to pay to travel. Ninety percent of the roads were in disrepair, which the Transportation Ministry was forced to acknowledge. In August, the truckers were planning to travel through Siberia. According to Andrei Bazhutin, the OPR currently has around five thousand members.

Despite the court’s decision for the residents of the Losiny Ostrov District, prayer meetings and attacks on local activists continued in Torfyanka Park. On August 28, Multitude’s lease on the plot where it planned to build a church ran out. Residents were hopeful the confrontation would finally end.

Construction has begun on the edge of Dubki Park. This was preceded by numerous clashes between residents, security guards, and the police. Several residents have suffered fractures and concussions, and many have been fined. The local activists have continued to fight back by filing legal briefs, and holding pickets and protest rallies.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Victoria Lomasko’s first book in English, Other Russias, will be published by n+1 in December. “Truckers, Torfyanka, Dubki” is the epilogue to the book, and has been reprinted here with the kind permission of the publishers and Ms. Lomasko.

See my previous posts on the struggle of Russian truckers against the Plato tolls system.

Yesterday, the conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church and local residents opposed to its stubborn plans to build a church in Torfyanka Park flared up again as a dozen or more of the park’s defenders had their apartments searched by police and were hauled into the Investigative Committee for questioning.

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