National Guard and Riot Cops Face Protesting Truckers in Dagestan
Andrei Dubrovsky and Yulia Reprintseva Novaya Gazeta
March 31, 2017
Russian National Guardsmen and riot police (OMON) have surrounded truckers protesting the Plato freight haulage road tolls system in the city of Manas in Dagestan, according to Mikhail Kurbatov, a member of the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR).
Anatoly Shilov, coordinator of the OPR’s St. Petersburg branch, said the troops had surrounded the truck drivers on the morning of March 31, and they have been kettled for several hours. No one has been allowed in or out.
According to an eyewitness, around 600 truck drivers are involved in the protest. Their trucks are stretched along the roadside of the Makhachkala-Baku Highway in Manas.
“About 200 law enforcement officers and riot police arrived on the scene. The troops deployed their vehicles along a one-kilometer stretch of the highway, completely surrounding us. They have blocked our way out, and we have been stuck here for about four hours. The riot are wearing masks with shields, but they have been behaving calmly. There have been no provocations against the truckers,” said the activist.
He added that one of the policemen had suggested to the truckers to peacefully settle the situation.
“We have been promised that lawmakers would come here tomorrow, and that we would talk with them. We will definitely be here until tomorrow,” he said.
Our source also emphasized the fact the trucker drivers had parked strictly on the roadside and were not interfering with traffic on the highway.
Earlier, the OPR announced a nationwide protest by truckers would take place on March 27. Protests were scheduled for at least nine Russian cities, according to the OPR’s website.
Organizers did not cancel the protest despite the fact that on March 24 Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree raising rates under the Plato system only by 25%, whereas earlier the rate was to have been doubled. Thus, as of April 15, the toll for trucks will be 1.91 rubles a kilometer, not 3.06 rubles a kilometer, as had been planned previously.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Alexei for the heads-up. See my previous post in this series on the ongoing struggle of independent Russian truckers to abolish the draconian Plato tolls system.
Blind Student Interrupts No Extremism Forum in Samara by Singing Ditties to Officials about Potholes Takie Dela
March 30, 2017
Valery Remizov, a student at the law faculty of Samara State University, interrupted a speech by Governor Nikolai Merkushkin at the No Extremism Forum, held on March 30 at the MTL Arena sports complex, and sang ditties about the poor state of the city’s roads. Remizov related the incident to Takie Dela himself.
Local officials, legislators, and police were involved in the No Extremism Forum, writes Volga News. The audience included university and high school students, schoolteachers, and university lecturers. One of the people present in the auditorium broadcast a live feed on Periscope entitled “Brainwashing Students in Samara.”
At the nineteen-minute mark in the taped broadcast, as Samara Region Governor Nikolai Merkushin is speaking, we see an audience member get up and sing ditties, accompanying himself on the guitar. A woman approaches him and tries to confiscate the guitar, and she is joined thirty seconds later by police officers. The audience applauds. Merkushin suggests the young man go to the microphone and explain his complaints, but the police have already removed the man from the auditorium.
The blind man with the guitar was Samara State University student Valery Remizov. He told Takie Dela he went to the forum to voice his disagreement with the regional authorities. He explained that, several months ago, had tried to get an appointment with the governor, but he had been turned down.
“I don’t agree with the restrictions on the number of rides you can take if you use the free public transportation pass. I’m outraged by the condition of the sidewalks and roads, which are chockablock with potholes. I’m sick and tired of falling into a cold puddle in a pothole and catching cold. So I showed up and sang about it,” said Remizov.
He said the police showed him to the door of the sports complex and checked his ID.
“The minister for social policy came up to me. We chatted and exchanged phone numbers,” Remizov added. After that, the police released him, and he left the forum.
Volga News, which published a short item on the forum without mentioning Remizov’s performance, described a film show to the students at the beginning of the meeting.
“Carefully staged by spin doctors, mass events undermine society from within and break down national consciousness. Ultimately, this leads to tragic consequences and even people’s deaths.”
On February 1, 2017, Samara Region authorities limited the number of rides passengers could take on the free public transportation pass to fifty. A protest rally took place on February 18 in Samara. Protesters demanded the restoration of social benefits and called for the resignation of Governor Nikolai Merkushin. Approximately a thousand people took part in the rally.
The Samara news website Drugoi Gorod published a profile of Valery Remizov in late January. The young man is passionate about music and politics, and is studying to be a lawyer.
“It seems to me that if you really want to improve the city, it has to be comfortable for everyone right away. We are all people. We all want to walk on decent sidewalks and drive on good roads. But when you’re walking on broken pavement, it doesn’t matter whether you’re sighted or not. Everyone breaks their legs,” Remizov said in the interview.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up.
By the way, that was my 1500th blog post since I began telling stories about “other Russians” on October 23, 2007, which was when I launched the Russian Reader.
Then for five years, from 2008 to 2013, I told more such stories at Chtodelat News, with a slightly different twist, before returning full-time to the Russian Reader, where I’ve been translating and scribbling like a bat of out hell since 2013.
During that time, I’ve had nearly 468,000 views on both blogs combined.
I know that hardly compares with the megastars of blogging and tweeting and facebooking. I hope, however, I’ve managed to persuade some of you there is much more to modern Russia than the vicious nonentity VVP and his ruling clique, and that you should be much more interested in all those other Russians than in the nonentity and his allegedly wild but basically useless (and, perhaps, altogether fictitious) “popularity” and its elusive (nonexistent) “sources.”
The Russian Reader is a completely unfunded, unaffiliated, all-volunteer, almost entirely solo effort, so there’s a lot I haven’t been able to do, stories that I’ve missed entirely, and an inevitable subjectivity to what I chose to write about and how I write about it.
Nevertheless, I hope it’s still worth my doing, but I won’t know that unless I get real feedback in the form of better readership numbers and comments, letters, and even offers of help from you, my actual Russian readers. TRR
Gazprom Refuses to Name and Shame Russian Authorities Falling Behind on Bills Moscow Times
March 29, 2017
Russian energy giant Gazprom has refused to name and shame regional governments for falling behind on their gas bills.
Previous press releases by the company had turned the spotlight on authorities who refused to pay up.
Gazprom’s last debt report in 2016 slammed local governments in Russia’s North Caucasus, reporting that officials in the region owed more than 48 billion rubles ($845 million)—more than 80 percent of all money owned to the company across Russia as a whole.
This year, the company took a less-confrontational approach, declining to name its main debtors despite a rise in outstanding payments. “Overdue payments remain an urgent problem,” the company said in a press release. “In 2016, it grew by about 6 percent, amounting to 161 billion rubles ($2.84 billion) as of January 1, 2017.”
Some have seen the change as part of a bid to appease Chechen leader Kadyrov after he locked horns with the energy company last month.
Kadyrov, whose government forms a vital part of Russia’s North Caucasus region, accused Gazprom of using “worn out” equipment. He said that the company’s “bad management” forced the Chechen people to live in “19th century conditions.”
“People pay for light, for gas, but the money just doesn’t get there,” Kadyrov said.
The Chechen government has long waged a campaign to see local energy assets handed over to Kadyrov’s safekeeping.
The Kommersant newspaper reported in February that Russian oil giant Rosneft could sell its assets to the Chechen republic in a multi-billion dollar deal.
The Chechen government also took control of property belonging to Chechenneftekhimprom—the state-owned company that controls the republic’s oil-refining and petrochemical industry—in December 2015 after repeated requests to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That’s certainly a curious article.
I was walking round town the other day and came across several instances of Gazprom’s engaged in quite the opposite behavior, that is, naming and shaming ordinary flat dwellers to their neighbors for the money they had failed to pay the gentle folks who “hold the world’s largest natural gas reserves.”
The funny thing is that the worst gas-bill shirker in this particular block of flats, the bourgeois wrecker who lives in flat no. 48, owes mighty Gazprom the equivalent of a whopping 35 euros. The bastards in flats no. 35 and no. 41 owe a bit over nine euros each, but they’ve already been tied to the same whipping post as the foreign saboteur in no. 48.
The circumstances at a nearby block of flats is a bit more dire. Flat no. 58 has seemingly gone rogue, racking up an unseemingly debt of 245 euros. And yet Gazprom, which, as the Moscow Times article, above, suggests, has learned the lesson that discretion is the better part of wisdom, has also ratted out flat no. 9 for owing it the equivalent of eight euros fifty cents.
So the takeaway is that if you’re a North Caucasian republic, you can get away without paying your gas bill, which, I imagines, amounts to more than nine euros a month.
For the record, my monthly gas bill amounts to a little over six euros a month and I always pay it on time, such a fervid patriot am I.
But not everyone is conscientious as I am, as I saw a bit further down the same street, where Gazprom had named and shamed packs of shirkers wholesale—alas, to no avail.
Sigh. These folks don’t want to pay their rates at all, apparently.
“We Don’t Want to Live in a Country Where the Regime Robs Its Own People”
Alexander Kalinin Rosbalt
March 28, 2017
High school and university students talked about why they went to the anti-corruption rallies and whether they feared a crackdown.
A huge number of university and high school students attended the anti-corruption rallies in Russia. It was the first time many of the young people had gone to a protest rally. Some protesters even wound up at police stations along with their older comrades. Some high school and university students told our correspondent what had made them take to the streets.
Kristina, 16, tenth-grader from Gatchina
This was my first protest rally. I came to the Field of Mars because, like most of the people here, I wanted to get through to the regime. After watching the film by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, many people had questions. Besides, I see how my relatives, acquaintances, and friends get along. We are often cheated. For example, a relative was illegally sacked from work, and campaigning for United Russia goes on at my school. There are party flags in the health and safety classroom. I argue about it with my teacher all the time. He says he’s a member of the party.
Have you heard the recording in which teachers give high-school students in Bryansk a dressing-down? Basically, the same thing happens at our school. I get D’s and F’s when I talk like that, and I’m sent to the principal for “disrupting class.”
I was wondering how many people would come to the rally. My parents tried to persuade me not to go. They said, “There will be ten people there, and you’ll waste your time.”
I went to the rally with my boyfriend. We made a placard about Shuvalov’s dogs. We drew Welsh corgis against a backdrop of clouds and wrote, “Happiness if flying like a bird in the sky but without wings.” A man on the Field of Mars asked to look at our placard and was surprised we hadn’t unfurled it.
I had never seen such a huge crowd before. I was even a bit scared we would be trampled.
When we went to Palace Square, I heard the roar of sirens. I saw the riot police (OMON) in all their glory for the first time on the square. They formed a line and advanced on the protesters.
A policeman approached us and asked for our papers. We replied by asking him to identify himself and show us his badge number. He looked away from us and went over to detain a man holding a placard. I was ready to be detained. I had read all the posts on the topics and memorized all the articles about what to do when you’re detained by police.
When we went to the Legislative Assembly, people broke up into groups. Some demanded freedom for Oleg Navalny, others talked about what was happening with St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and still others chanted anti-corruption slogans. Then there were people who went to the subway or to a café.
After hanging out at the Legislative Asssembly, we had decided to go home, when we were again approached by a police officer. He asked to check our papers and wondered whether we had been at the rally. We answered that we had.
“Good going!” he said. “I would have gone myself, but I was on duty and I’m afraid of losing my job.”
We were stunned, but it was nice to hear.
My parents knew where I had gone. They followed the news. When I got home, we joked about what would have happened if the police had nabbed me.
I don’t want to be compared with truant schoolchildren (shkolota). The rally was not entertaining in the least, and we had to go to it. We realize this is our future. We keep a close eye on grown-ups. They regard what’s happening with desperation. It doesn’t scare me if the order comes down to give lectures in the schools about the current political situation. I expect it to happen. I love discussing the topic. It’s fun to argue when you are well versed on the subject. Although maybe I won’t be invited to these lessons. The thing is we had a session of the Leningrad Regional Youth Parliament at our school to which regional MPs were invited. The teachers rehearsed the event with us, and the questions were prepared in advance. But when I was going to ask my question, I was politely shut up. They realized I could cause a conflict.
Ivan, 16, ninth-grader from Kolpino
This was my first protest rally. I made the trip from Kolpino to Petersburg by myself. I was curious how folks would react to Alexei Navalny’s exposé film. I wondered whether people cared or didn’t care about what the powers that be were up to. I didn’t bring a placard with me, but I shouted slogans with the other protesters, although it felt awkward at first. When somebody chanted a slogan from far off, I kept my mouth shout. But I plugged into the process when people next to me shouted.
There were lots of young people, so I didn’t feel alone. At first, police dispersed the people who had climbed atop the memorial next to the Eternal Flame, but then they gave up. When the rally on the Field of Mars was over, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to keep going
When we marched towards Palace Square, I didn’t hear any negative feedback towards us. On the contrary, individuals supported us by smiling, laughing, and photographing us, while drivers honked their horns. Only the police were upset. They asked us why we had come out.
I felt more confident on Palace Square. I even started some chants first.
The “cosmonauts” (riot police) made their first appearance on the square, but they were very few in number. They didn’t do anything. It was only when the crowd pressed against them that they asked us to disperse, but no one was listening to them. Generally, the police behaved decently.
When we walked towards Insurrection Square, we were followed by police cars and paddy wagons. The arrests took place on the approach to the square. A lot of people were kettled opposite a building on Nevsky Prospect.
I want to watch the arrests, and then go home, but I accidentally bumped a riot cop with my shoulder. He said something about my being broad-shouldered. I probably did the wrong thing. I said to him, “Yeah, I’m broad-shouldered.” Right then, three paddy wagons drove up too the crowd. The cosmonaut grabbed me and put me in one of them. It was my first arrest.
Our ride to the police station was cheerful. No one was upset. We were taken into the station. We stood for around in a hour in the hallway, and then we were led into this weird basement. We were allowed to make a phone call. We chatted with the policemen about whether we had done the right thing by taking to the streets or not. They weren’t aggressive.
The voyage to the police station revved me up. At the precinct, I met a lot of kids. Human rights advocates helped us. They found the precincts where we’d been taken, brought us food, and advised us on how to behave. It was a tremendous feeling of support.
Then Mom came to get me. She and I left the station at 10:00 p.m. I was told only to write a statement, and I was given a report that I had been delivered to the station.
My parents had known I was planning to go to the rally. They told me I might be detained. When I telephoned Mom from the precinct, she was a bit peeved, but there no heavy discussions at home.
I don’t think there will be any blamestorming sessions at school. Most of our teachers say that Russian isn’t a very good country. I think they would have supported my trip to the rally.
The high school students who went to the Field of Mars shouldn’t be dubbed “truants.” Spring holidays had begun. There are lots of dissatisfied young people, so that was why, apparently, they attended the rally. We think about our future. We don’t want to live in a country where the regime robs its own people. But people who are older could not care less anymore, it seems. They’re too lazy to go outside in bad weather.
Mikhail, 16, tenth-grader, Moscow
I had already been in the Boris Nemtsov memorial march and the protests against the Yarovaya package. Like any sensible person, I don’t like the fact our official steal, accept bribes, and build themselves enormous castles in Italy and palaces in Russia. The corruption schemes in Russia are no different from the ones used by the now-ex-president of South Korea. She also laundered money through charities.
The authorities have not reacted to the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigation. All that happened was Medvedev banned Navalny on Instagram.
After watching Navalny’s film, I had questions and I wanted answers to them. The Anti-Corruption Foundation argues that the rally was authorized in keeping with the Constitutional Court’s ruling. I consider my arrest illegal, although I was ready for it to happen.
I was walking down the street with my friends. We weren’t shouting slogans, but we were carrying placards featuring Zhdun and the Rubber Duck. Apparently, I was arrested for carrying a placard. My arrest sheet said I had been waving my arms, grabbing people, and running out into traffic. But they wrote that in everyone’s arrest sheet. The only thing they changed was people’s names. Eleven hours passed from the moment of my arrest until I left the police station, although I’m a minor. I should have been released as quickly as possible.
No one told my parents I was at the police station. I telephoned them myself. The police charged me with me violating Article 20.2 of the Administrative Procedures Codes (“Violation of the established procedure for organizing or holding a meeting, rally, demonstration, march or picket”). There will be a court hearing. I imagine the verdict will be guilty. I will appeal it to the European Court of Human Rights.
My parents knew I was going to the rally. They reacted differently to my arrest. My father took it lightly. He remembered his brother, who back in the day had been involved in the events outside the White House. But Mom was upset because I was unable to go to a relative’s birthday party.
I’m glad so many people showed up to the rally. People realize that corruption is an evil, that something has to change. I hope the teenagers who went to the rally will keep involved in civic activism and fight to make our country law-abiding. I don’t think this is the last time you’ll see young people taking to the streets.
As for the consequences, I don’t think there will be a crackdown at my school. I hope the Moscow Education Department doesn’t apply any pressure.
Svetlana, 17, first-year university student, Petersburg
This was the first protest in my life. I had wanted to attend the rally against transferring St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Orthodox Church, but it didn’t work out. The reason I attended the rally was Navaly’s exposé film. I didn’t want to stand on the sidelines.
I saw lots of indignant people at the Field of Mars. Initially, I didn’t want to stand out. I even felt uncomfortable chanting with everyone else. Then I went and stood next to some young activists. I felt comfortable with them. Of course, I didn’t want my university to find out I’d been involved in the rally. They don’t like it when students start “uprisings.”
When we were walking down Nevsky Prospect toward Palace Square, I was already in the front. I took the subway to Insurrection Square. When I came out, I saw the police had blocked the road. I didn’t see any of the arrests myself. Friends told me about them.
There is nothing extraordinary about the fact that young people came out for the rally. It’s not the first time they’ve been called a driving force. It is always young people that kick everything off. Lots of people are now talking about what happened. I was pleased to be involved in the beginning of the big fight against corruption.
Victoria, 18, 2nd-year university student, Petersburg
I used to go to rallies mainly dealing with educational problems. I had been to rallies in defense of St. Petersburg State University, the Publishing and Printing College, and the European University. As a student, I take this issue to heart. I wouldn’t want to find myself in a situation in which my university was being closed.
As for the topic of the March 26 rally, corruption is on everyone’s minds. There is corruption in Petersburg’s universities and colleges, too. Everyone has seen Navalny’s exposé film. It was no longer a question of going to the Field of Mars or not. I had to go. Naturally, I realized the police could nab us, but I didn’t go looking for trouble. I didn’t provoke the police indiscriminately.
I don’t understand, for example, why people had to climb on the monument. But painting one’s face green was a completely innocent gesture.
What I liked about the rally was the spirit of unity, the sense of belonging to a common cause. Ultimately, I went with everyone else from the Field of Mars to Palace Square, and then I went home. I was freezing.
I don’t think there will be crackdowns in the schools and colleges after something like this. First, the teachers and lecturers are themselves dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Second, none of them wants to find themselves in the role of the Bryansk schoolteachers. After all, high school and university students record all preventive discussions and then post them on the internet. No one wants to be a laughing stock on the web.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Except where indicated all photos courtesy of Alexander Polukeyev/Rosbalt. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up
At the same time as he has been getting ready for the anti-corruption protests, Navalny has been opening election campaign headquarters in different cities. These events have also been subject violent attacks. In Barnaul, Navalny was doused with Brilliant Green antiseptic (zelyonka). In Petersburg, the door of his headquarters was set on fire. In Volgograd, Navalny was dragged by his feet and nearly beaten.
Not Only Navalny: Crackdowns on Freedom of Assembly
Long-haul truckers have planned a nationwide strike for March 27. Around twelve people were detained during a meeting of truckers in Vladivostok. Police claimed they had received intelligence on a meeting of mafia leaders. In Krasnodar Territory, an activist got three days of arrest in jail for handing out leaflets about the upcoming strike.
Moscow City Court ruled that meetings of lawmakers with their constituents should be regarded as the equivalent of protest rallies.
The Constitutional Court ruled the police can detain a solo picketer only if it is impossible to ensure security. The very next day, two solo picketers bearing placards on which Vyacheslav Makarov, speaker of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, was depicted as a demon were detained by police.
Criminal Prosecutions and Other Forms of Coercion
Sergei Mokhnatkin, whose spine was broken in prison, was sentenced to two years in a maximum security penal colony for, allegedly, striking a Federal Penitentiary Service officer.
As for talk of a new Thaw, two Ufa residents, accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, had their suspended sentences changed to four years in a penal colony.
In Stavropol, Kirill Bobro, head of the local branch of Youth Yabloko, was jailed for two months, accused of narcotics possession. Bobro himself claims police planted the drugs on him.
A graduate student at Moscow State University was detained and beaten for flying a Ukrainian flag from the window of his dormitory. In addition, he was forced to sign a paper stating he agreed to be an FSB informant. Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbalyuk was detained while trying to interview the graduate student.
What to Read
LGBT activist Dmitry Samoilenko describes how he has been persecuted in Kamchatka for a brochure about the history of gender identity in the Far North. Activist Rafis Kashapov, an activist with the Tatar Social Center, who was convicted for posts on the social networks, sent us a letter about life in a prison hospital.
The Week Ahead (March 26—April 1)
Closing arguments are scheduled for March 27 in the trial of Bolotnaya Square defendant Maxim Panfilov, who has been declared mentally incompetent. Prosecutors will apparently ask the judge to sentence him to compulsory hospitalization.
On March 29, an appeals court is expected to hear the appeal against the verdict of Alexander Belov (Potkin), co-chair of the Russians Ethnopolitical Movement.
Thanks for Your Attention
We continue to raise money for our monitoring group, which collects information on political persecution and takes calls about detentions at protest rallies. Thanks to all of you who have already supported us. You can now make monthly donations to OVD Info here.
If “hysterical Russophobia” were a real thing, instead of a talking point for crypto-Putinists and just plain Russians who don’t know how to explain to their non-Russian neighbors why their homeland has become so “odd” in the past several years, you would have heard about Russian immigrants to the EU and US suffering the same main violence and putrid discrimination that Muslim, Asian, and African immigrants and asylum seekers suffer there, not to mention the relentless violence and staggering discrimination suffered by such absolutely 100% native Americans as Aboriginal Americans (i.e., Native Americans), African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in a land their peoples have been inhabiting from several centuries to several thousands of years.
But no, you never hear of such violence and discrimination against Russian immigrants, and the fact there is no such violence and discrimination against Russians (at least, not enough to show up on anyone’s radars) is a good thing, of course.
It does, however make you wonder what exactly this “hysterical Russophobia” is that has so many tongues wagging, but has absolutely no negative effect on the ability of actual, individual Russians to lead happy, productive, and violence- and discrimination-free lives in the countries where they have chosen to settle.
That’s an easy riddle to solve, however. “Hysterical Russophobia” is a non-phenomenon invented by a motley coalition of people with various political axes to grind, including sections of the mostly hilarious current western left, who for some reason have not heard the news about what has been happening in the Socialist Motherland the last twenty-five years or so or feign not to have heard it. They’re still defending Russia long after it became the world center of the blackest social and political reaction. That is, they’re defending a corrupt, oligarchic capitalist tyranny.
Why actual Russian immigrants might feel defensive about the old homeland is understandable, but they should figure out what’s worth defending and what’s not. The Putin regime, for example, literally has no redeeming features whatsoever, as a perusal of this blog, for example, and its predecessor, Chtodelat News, should persuade you, although there are thousands and millions of more credible sources of information out there that are even more persuasive than my occasional, half-baked efforts to knock some sense into your heads.
People who nevertheless hotly defend the Putin regime, wherever they’re from, immediately strike me as suspicious or hopelessly naive. And I’m not alone.
Well, you’ve probably guessed I’m just being facetious.
I think it’s great that Russians can go anywhere and make new, happy, productive lives for themselves. It should be that way for everyone, of course. No one is illegal, and all that.
Yet, simultaneously, the Russian government has been working overtime over the last year to exacerbate the Syrian refugee crisis. But you’d be hard pressed to hear any of the nattily dressed émigrés, described in the Financial Times article, quoted above, or their countrymen saying anything whatsoever about that nasty business and their country’s role in it. Mum’s the word, I’ve got my life to live, and all that.
However, a fair number of Russians, in my experience (and not only mine), have had lots to say, paradoxically, about Germany and other European countries being “overrun” by refugees from Syria and other war zones. It turns out these “black” unfortunates, who come from completely other galaxies, apparently, don’t have the same right so seek a safe place to live and work in Berlin, Paris, London et al., as the now-“white” (as opposed to White) Russians do.
“I Peeled Myself from the TV and Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Planning to Join the Nationwide Strike
Yekaterina Vulikh 7X7
March 22, 2017
In early March, a video was published in which Sergei Ovchinnikov, an activist and long-haul trucker with the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), announced a nationwide strike that would kick off in fifty regions of the country on March 27. As Ovchinnikov said, the strike would continue until the government sat down at the negotiating table or most goods had disappeared from store shelves.
The truckers’ demands:
1. The Plato road tolls payment system should be abolished or reorganized for transit transport and turned over to the state.
2. The transport tax should be cancelled. (There is already a fuel excise tax for this purpose.)
3. Work and rest schedules of drivers should adapted to real conditions in Russia.
4. The government should resign, and no confidence in the president expressed.
5. Weigh stations should be made to do their job properly.
6.Carriers should be given grounds for how the fuel excise tax is calculated.
7X7‘s correspondent went on a run with Alexei Borisov, coordinator of the OPR’s Ryazan branch, to check the validity of these demands.
“I Didn’t Want to be Father Frost Anymore”
“I have an old Kamaz. It rattles and growls, and the wind blows in through the door. It runs slow. Do you have motion sickness? It can give you motion sickness,” Alexei warns before our trip.
How do I know whether I have motion sickness? I don’t ride the big rigs every day. Honestly, I’ve never ridden in a big rig. I’ll be happy if I can climb into the cab.
Before the trip, Alexei and I agree we’ll address each with the informal “thou” (ty). It’s extremely hard to maintain etiquette when you’re bouncing over bumps in the road and your teeth are chattering from night frosts. Also, Alexei repeats to me several times that he is a carrier, not a long-haul trucker. There is a difference.
9:00 p.m. We leave Ryazan headed for Moscow. Twenty tons of reinforced concrete slabs rumble on the nearly 14-meter-long trailer behind us. It’s dark and drizzling. The cab is hot and drafty at the same time. I hadn’t imagined the romance of the open road like this. I should have listened to an experienced wheelman earlier, instead of singer Tatyana Ovsiyenko’s tender voice.
Tatyana Ovsiyenko, “Long-Haul Trucker” (1993)
We have left the remains of Ryazan’s pavement behind and are traveling down a good road illuminated here and there. Round midnight, the trees, ravines, and hoses on the roadsides merge into one continuous blur, and my eyes close.
“Did you get in some good sleep before the trip?”
“No, I had a lot of things to do.”
“As long as I’m talking, I’m fine. But I usually stop in a side lane and doze for fifteen minutes or so. It helps.”
“Another half an hour.”
So we talk about roads and school pranks, fuel prices and children, the remnants of green zones and the nuances of professions.
Alexei is a “hereditary” driver, as they say. His favorite pastime in childhood was riding the bus his father drove. Immediately after graduation, he got a job as a vehicle mechanic in Motor Convoy No. 1310, and then a job as a bus driver. He finished his studies to be licensed to drive articulated buses and, at the same time, trailer trucks.
“I transferred to Motor Convoy No. 1417, which services the passenger route between Ryazan and Moscow. They had just purchased Setra buses. Compared to our ancient Russian buses, they were simply a dream. And I was entrusted with one of these buses. I would sign off on the manifest and I go off on my route in a white shirt and blazer. It was great, but after a while they cracked down on us. They made our work conditions harsher in the stupidest way, and in some cases they would just take the piss out of us,” recounts Alexei, irritated.
That was about six years ago. The stewardesses on the long-distrance buses (not to be confused with airplane stewardesses) were forbidden to relax after they handed out food and drinks. They had to keep serving passengers for the entire trip, and smile to them even if they were drunk. Drivers were forbidden from getting free rides to work on buses from their own motor convoy. The next-to-last straw was the Father Frost suit Alexei was obliged to wear over the New Year’s holidays. (The stewardesses were dressed, respectively, as Snow Maidens). The last straw was a fine for stretching his arms over the steering wheel for a couple of seconds. His back had gone to sleep, and he needed to move around a little. An observer saw him do this.
“I couldn’t stand it and I quit. Some might find it stupid. For example, a friend of mine still works there. After every new twist on the part of management, he would sigh and say, ‘They know better. If we’re not dealt with strictly, we’ll lose all fear.’ Why should I fear anyone? I was a responsible employee. I never argued with the passengers. I don’t drink. I don’t even smoke,” Alexei tells me buoyantly, meaning we’re going straight through without stopping.
12:00 p.m., Moscow Region. Through the murky window I notice road workers and convenient multi-level parking lots. A lot of new buildings are going up at a fair distance from the Moscow Ring Road, not as in Ryazan, where they are built right next to the the roads. Speaking of the roads: they exist, and they’re very good.
The big rig alternates between buzzing and barely dragging along, and calming down and cruising more briskly.
“My Kamaz truck is a bit old, and the trip is rough on it. On the other hand, it’s easier to maintain. Spare parts for foreign-made trucks cost so much the guys have to take out loans. The transport tax on them is higher. On the other hand, old trucks like mine won’t be allowed into cities. Right now, this truck feeds a family with two children. I haven’t thought about what I’ll do next.”
We turn off the Ring Road and drive into a pitch-dark neighborhood. The road has been paved with concrete slabs, but none too smoothly. Here and there, we bump along as if we are driving up steps. There is a shaft of light ahead and the outlines of high-rises.
02:05 a.m. A construction site in Mitino, our destination.
According to Alexei, we must “now unload quickly and hightail it back,” to make it through Moscow during permitted hours. He disappears behind mountains of slabs, bricks, and god knows what else.
Another multi-ton rig is already waiting to unload.
My legs numb, I clamber out of the cab. There is frost. The puddles no longer chomp underfoot, but crackle. After stretching my legs and strolling round the half-deserted construction site, I climb back into the cab and look for the thermos.
Alexei comes back in a very bad mood.
“They’ll unload that rig over there now, and then the crane will be busy. They won’t get to us till morning, so we’re hardly going to get through Moscow before the Ring Road has been closed to trucks. There’s the option of bypassing the city on the A107, but that’s an extra 100 kilometers. So this run will be a loss for me. Or . . . We’ll wait and see. I’m going to pull down the bunk for your now. Do you want the sleeping bag?
Oh, what a sinner I am. Remembering all the unprintable expressions I know, I climb up on the bunk located behind the seats. At first, I “modestly” cover myself with my down jacket, but within five minutes I realize my ear, back, and feet are freezing, and I give up, asking Alexei whether I can have the sleeping bag after all. I warm up instantly and doze off. Through my drowsiness I can hear the rumble of a construction crane, the occasional shouts of workers, and the roar of caged packages of bricks being loaded.
Alexei settles down on the seats to sleep.
Marriage, the Photo Shoot, and the Big Bosses 05:50 a.m. Nearly sea-like pitching wakes me up. They’ve finally begun unloading our Kamaz. Nearby, a scandal is brewing.
It turrns out one of the slabs is defective. The first “big boss” flatly refuses to sign for it. The second boss, who is even bigger and more important, orders it removed from the trailer and tossed “in that pile way over there.” He says the supplier has already sent them several defective slabs, but it’s not a disaster and not a rarity. It’s just that building material has to go back to the supplier on one of their own trucks. We still cannot head home, because Alexei has to sign several papers, and they won’t be available until eight o’clock. Eight o’clock! Apparently, we’ll have to hang around in some dump until 10 p.m.
For a while, I take pictures of the old Kamaz, the beautiful sunrise, and landscapes near and far. That is when I am detained until they “discover the purpose of the photo shoot.”
“Why are you shooting the construction site?” asks a heavyset guard.
“No reason,” I reply sincerely, “I’m shooting the truck.”
“You infiltrated the construction site in this truck?”
“Excuse me, what did I do? I infiltrated the site like a spy, and now I’m openly snapping pictures?”
I laugh, but just in case I hide my camera behind my back.
I’m asked to report to the boss, and then to another boss. The biggest security boss is surprised when I tell him the Plato toll rates have not been decreased, but are scheduled to go up. He clicks his tongue in sympathy, but still asks me to delete the shots where it is clear what residential complex this is.
“The tenants walk around shooting, and then they discuss the whats and wherefores on the internet. They complain regulations have been broken here. You can’t shoot here. It’s forbidden.”
“What regulations have been broken? Let’s talk about it.”
The boss politely but silently escorts me to the truck.
“What now?” I hopelessly ask my traveling companion.
“What now? We’re out of here!”
And yes, we’re driving on the Moscow Ring Road. It’s 7:40 a.m.
“We Wanted to Explain It All to Putin”
“We’re going to be fined,” I predict.
“What’s the difference? Either we pay the fine or we fuel up for a 100-kilometer bypass. Or we wait until nightfall. You want to do that?”
I don’t want to do that at all. I ask Alexei how he get involved in the OPR and became a coordinator for them.
“It all kicked off in late 2015, when the authorities informed us Plato would be introduced. Working and surviving got noticeably tougher then: the dollar went up, and prices skyrocketed. Fuel and spare parts were suddenly like gold. But instead of instituting preferential terms of some kind for carriers, they hit us with Plato. [The system’s name in Russian, Platon, is, technically, an abbreviation for “payment for tons,” but what comes to any Russian speaker’s mind when they hear the name Platon is not freight haulage tolls, but the great ancient Greek philosopher. Hence, throughout the numerous articles on the struggle of Russian truckers to band together and defeat what they regard as a death blow to independent trucking I have posted on this website, I have consistently translated the term as “Plato,” because, in part, this is the only way to convey the boundless cynicism of the Kremlin insiders and cronies who christened their system for fleecing hard-working men and women with the name of a brave man who willingly accepted death rather than betray his convictions. — TRR.] It was then that many headed to Moscow to seek the truth. We weren’t thinking about politics. We just wanted to explain to Putin we couldn’t work this way. Everyone would go bankrupt. We sincerely thought he didn’t know anything, and we would tell him how things were, and he would get to the bottom of it. Now it sounds funny, but that’s what believed then. Reporters and volunteers, friends and families, sympathizers and fence-straddlers came to our strike camp in Khimki, but no one in the government bothered to talk with us. Most of the media either said nothing about our protest or cooked the facts. I spent four and half months in that camp. I figured out a lot of things. I peeled myself from the TV and saw the light. I met outstanding people. The camp broke up on May 1, 2016, but on April 30 we held a founding congress and the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR) was established.
“Maybe It’s Better Not to Make Them Angry?” 11:10 a.m. We are leaving the Moscow Ring Road behind.
I silently rejoice in the fact that no one stopped us and fined us. True, along the way, we encounteredd several Plato system monitoring detectors, but more about that a bit later.
The conversation turns to profits and expenses. From everything Alexei tells me, it emerges that the better your rig, the more you earn, and the more you have to give back.
“I’ll get 15,000 rubles [approx 240 euros] for this run. That’s not a lot: it should be at least 18,000. Out of that money, I’ll spend 7,500 rubles on diesel fuel. An excise tax of 6,500 rubles has been added to the price of each liter. Plus, wear and tear on the tires costs another 1,000 rubles. So I end up making 6,500 rubles. It would be a good thing if I set aside some of this money for changing tires. I buy the cheapest tires I can find, Chinese-made, but even for them I’ll have to pay more than 250,000 rubles [approx. 4,000 euros] to ‘reshoe’ the tractor and trailer. I should also set aside money to pay the transport tax. I pay around 13,000 rubles, but my truck is low-powered. The rate for multi-ton tractors with 400 to 500 horsepower engines is around 40,000 rubles [approx. 645 euros]. Next comes the annual insurance payment. That’s 10 to 12 thousand rubles. Then there are the annual payments individual entrepreneurs make to the pension fund (23,400 rubles) and for the obligatory medical insurance policy (4,590 rubles). So when you set aside money for this and that, it means you haven’t earned anything. If you don’t set aside money, you’ll have to take out a loan to make all the insurance and tax payments. Finally, you have to rely only on luck in this job, because you might have to send your rig in for repairs for an indefinite period. You might be ill, and a client might not pay you.
The average price of the tachograph truck drivers are now required to install is 60,000 rubles. We have driven 380 kilometers on a federal highway, so the Plato system toll should amount to 580 rubles. From April 15, the rate will climb to 3.06 rubles a kilometer, so the same run would cost 1,163 rubles in tolls. [Fontanka.ru reported earlier today, March 24, 2017, that Prime Minister Medvedev, after meeting with a group of unidentified truckers, had agreed to reduce the planned per kilometer tariff to 1.91 rubles. When I pointed this development out to a civic activist working closely with the OPR, he told me, “That circus won’t stop the guys. They weren’t involved in the negotiations.”— TRR.] According to Alexei, it is seemingly not that much, but if you add each payment to all the previous payments, you wind up with a whopping sum of money. Alexei says many carriers resort to the help of logistics companies, who also have to be paid for their services.
“Can you earn more?”
“You can. You can get three or four orders a week, but then your expenses go up, too, on fuel and depreciation. You can take orders that have to be unloaded in Moscow itself. But to get into the city you have to buy a pass. If I’m not mistaken, the starting price for it is 35,000 rubles a month.”
That’s probably what matters most. Carriers cannot count on earning a stable living. You can’t guess how many runs you’ll get, but you have to pay all the bills.
“Is everyone used to Plato?”
“Almost no one pays,” says Alexei, noticeably coming to life. “They dupe the system as they’re able by paying much less than the mileage they’ve traveled, and many drivers don’t pay at all. It’s a sort of tiny rebellion. But that’s for the time being, because the bugs haven’t been worked out of the system. We’ve been promised a crackdown in April such that we’ll paying out more than we earn. And those aren’t empty threats,” Alexei says confidently.
“How can you not pay the road toll if those detectors, which are equipped with video cameras, are out there?”
“Well, they don’t see our license numbers,” my companion utters mysteriously. I realize he won’t say anything more on the subject.
We pull into roadside cafes, simply stopping to down the tea in our thermos. Then we head to Kolomna for loading, but that job has nothing to do with the earnings from today’s run. They’re just old obligations. The road drones continuously in my head, and my legs and back seemingly no longer belong to me.
4:00 p.m. Ryazan, Village of Yuzhny.
Alexei drives the big rig into a parking lot (another expense), located in a field next to a cemetery. He tidies up his “work area.” The last thing he does is turn off the radio, which broadcast the strike notice and the strikers’ demands the whole time we were on the road. Drivers reacted in different ways. Someone confidently said, “The Rotenbergs won’t stop here. They’ll push through a systematic increase in tolls for travel on federal highways, just as they have made a tradition of increasing rates for utilities and housing maintenance.” Others were blatantly afraid and suggested not angering them: otherwise, they would stop employing the truckers. Still others awkwardly feigned they had no idea what was going on.
“How many Ryazan trucks will go on strike?” I ask finally.
“I’m hoping around twenty, but it’s better not to guess beforehand.”
Alexei closes the tractor’s doors and checks to make sure they’re shut.
“Do you believe in change?”
“If I didn’t believe in it, I would pay my rates and keep my mouth shut.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“I’m tired,” he replies, partly closing his eyes. “I’m tired in general and tired of being afraid.”
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. All photos courtesy of Yekaterina Vulikh and 7X7. See the original article in Russian for many more photos from Ms. Vulikh’s road trip with Mr. Borisov