Nikolay Mitrokhin: God-Given “Extremists”

God-Given “Extremists”
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Takie Dela
April 26, 2017

I met Jehovah’s Witnesses in the mid 1990s in the former Soviet Central Asian republics. I was researching the region’s religious life. When I arrived at each regional capital, I would survey all the prominent communities in turn. The Witnesses were different in one respect from other western-inspired Christian communities. There were lots of them and they were everywhere.

Like now, many were certain back then the Witnesses were a product of the perestroika era’s freedoms. This, however, was not the case. The Witnesses were a legacy of the Soviet Union.

An American Salesman’s Religion

The Witnesses are a typical American eschatological religious group. Put crudely, they believe the world will end soon, during their lifetimes. They believe in one God, Jehovah, a name used during Christianity’s first century. On Judgment Day, Jehovah will destroy sinners and save the elect. The Witnesses reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit). They do not consider Christ God, but they revere him. The day of his death is the only holiday they celebrate.

“A History of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia,” a display in the museum at the Administrative Center of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, located in Solnechnoye, a suburb of St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Alexander Demyanchuk/TASS

A completely and regularly revised theology has produced a set of permissions and prohibitions aimed at maintaining the way of life and behavior of a decent traveling salesman from the lower middle classes.

The Witnesses are allowed the moderate use of alcohol (immoderate use is cause for expulsion) and the use of contraceptives. Premarital sex and smoking are forbidden. The Witnesses must not “rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s”: they are forbidden from being involved in elections, engaging in politics, honoring state symbols, and serving in the army. They are most roundly criticized by outsiders for forbidding blood transfusions and organ transplants. The Witnesses suddenly had something to say when the AIDS epidemic kicked off. They support blood substitutes.

Something like family monasteries—”administrative centers”—have been organized for the most ardent followers. The schedule in the centers is strict, but the conditions are relatively comfortable. The Witnesses can live and work in them, practically for free, for as little as a year or as along as their entire lives.

Waiting for the world’s imminent end is an occupation common to many religious groups, from Russian Old Believers to the Mayan Indians. Such groups isolate themselves from a sinful world, some by retreating into the wilderness, others, by restricting their contact with outsiders.

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The cover of a 1928 Russian-language edition of The Watchtower. When the Russian edition was founded in 1925, it was originally entitled The Guard Tower, but in 1964 the name was changed to The Watchtower. Photo courtesy of Boris Alexeyevich/Wikipedia

The Witnesses differ from similar movements in terms of how they disseminate and maintain their doctrine. The method is based on the commercial practice of distributing magazines in the nineteenth century. Essentially, the entire organization meets twice weekly to read its main journal, The Watchtower, which is produced by church elders in Brooklyn and then translated and disseminated in dozens of languages. Members pay a nominal fee for subscribing to and reading the journal, fees that are scrupulously collected and sent along the chain: from local groups to the regional office, then to the national headquarter and, finally, to the head office in Brooklyn. Free distribution of the magazine and going door to door asking people whether they want to talk about God are aimed at the same thing: increasing the audience who subscribes to and collectively reads the magazine.

Ninety-five percent of today’s public find these religious activities strange and ridiculous, although from a sociological viewpoint they barely differ from going to political party meetings, networked sales of cosmetics, visiting sports clubs, getting a tattoo, the Russian Healthy Lifestyle Movement (ZOZh) or stamp collecting.

If you believe the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own figures, they operate in 240 countries, which is more than belong to the UN.  At the same time, the organization is numerically quite compact, albeit growing rapidly. It has a total of 8.3 million members.

A Religion for Soviet Individuals

The story of how the Witnesses took root in the Soviet Union has been well told in a book published three years ago by Emily Baran, Dissent on the Margins: How Soviet Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It. Polish and Romanian peasants and market traders adopted the doctrine of the Witnesses at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, and before the war they unexpectedly were made Soviet citizens when the Soviet Union occupied parts of Poland and Romania.

The Soviet authorities did not tolerate large groups who maintained constant links with foreign countries, so it decided to send the core group of Witnesses, five thousand people, to Siberia. A considerable number were sent to the camps, while the rest were exiled. The crackdown was a misfortune for the victims, but it was a godsend for the exotic doctrine.

The Moscow Jehovah’s Witness community worshiping at the velodrome in the city’s Krylatskoye District, 2000. Photo courtesy of Alexander Fomin/PhotoXPress.ru

As early as the 1950s, the largest communities of Witnesses had emerged in the main place of exile, Irkutsk Region. In the 2000s, the official websites of Irkutsk Region and the neighboring Republic of Buryatia claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a traditional religious community in the region. Irkipedia provides the following figures for 2011: “Around 5,500 people in Irkutsk Region are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. Around 50 of their assemblies operate in Irkutsk Region, each of them featuring 80 to 150 members. The assemblies are united into three districts: Usolye-Sibirskoye, Irkutsk, and Bratsk.”

The camps proved a suitable place for proselytizing, the radically minded youth, especially Ukrainian speakers, eager listeners, and the half-baked amnesty of political prisoners, an excellent means of disseminating the doctrine nationwide. As early as the late 1950s, all over northern Kazakhstan, former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), who were banned from returning home, and former Russian criminals, who had taken jobs as farm machinery operators and welders, were digging dugouts in the steppes to hide DIY printing presses for printing The Watchtower.

Why did peasants, traders, brawny lads from the working classes, graduates of provincial technical schools, mothers of large families, and pensioners need to become Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have the same explanation as the preachers do: to radically change their selves and their lifestyles. The everyday frustrations of ordinary people, their perpetually predetermined lives, and their uselessness to anyone outside their narrow family circle (in which there is so often so little happiness) are things that torment many people. Prescriptions for effectively transfiguring oneself are always popular. However, they usually don’t work, because it is hard to stick to the program.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Minsk, 2015. Photo courtesy of Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters/Pixstream

Like other religious groups, the Witnesses offer their members a disciplinary model for joint action. You can sit at home, chewing through your miserly pension, and watching TV, or you can feel like a “pioneer” again (the title given to missionaries who proselytize on the streets and door to door), do the right thing, hang out with other enthusiastic people like yourself, and make friends with young people. You are a young bricklayer. You are facing a lifetime of laying bricks, but your soul yearns for change and career growth. After spending six months in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, our bricklayer might be leading a grassroots group, and two years later he might have made a decent career in the organization. His wife is satisfied. Her husband doesn’t drink, their circle of friends has expanded, and during holidays the whole family can go visit other Witnesses in other parts of Russia. The children grown up in a circle of fellow believers with a sense of their own uniqueness. Free evenings are spent on the work of the organization, but that is better than drunken quarrels, and better than what most “ordinary” Soviet and post-Soviet folks are up to in the evenings.

Wholehearted Atheists

In 2006, I interviewed Vladimir Saprykin, a former employee of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. His career had kicked off with a vigorous campaign against the Witnesses in Karaganda Region. I was able to get a glimpse into a period when the Party was on the warpath against the Witnesses. In the early 1960s, literally hundreds of people were sent to the camps as part of the campaign against religion per se.

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The Jehovah’s Witness Congress Hall in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of PhotoXPress

Saprykin had campaigned against the Witnesses wholeheartedly and passionately, and that passion still burned in him fifty years after the events in question. He had dreamed of making them “completely free,” of “returning them to their essence.” He was backed up then by a whole group of provincial demiurges from among the local intelligentsia. They had collectively tried to re-educate the local group of Witnesses through debate, and then they had intimated them and pressured their relatives. Subsequently, they had tried to buy them off before finally sending the group’s core to prison with the KGB’s backing.

Their rhetoric is surprisingly similar to the declarations made by the Witnesses’ current antagonists.

“We stand for individual freedom of choice in all domains, including religion. […] So read, compare, think, disagree, and argue! Critical thinking is in inalienable sign of a person’s freedom. Let’s not abandon our freedom so easily.”

This is not an excerpt from a statement by a libertarian group, but an excerpt from a declaration published by a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen attached to the Holy Martyr Irenaeus of Lyons Center for Religious Studies. It was these clergymen who have now got the Jehovah’s Witnesses banned.

In the early 1960s, the KGB and such local enthusiasts managed to deliver several serious blows to the infrastructure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Soviet Union. Successive leaders of the organization and hundreds of grassroots leaders and activists were arrested and convicted, and archives, correspondence, and printing presses were seized.

“Is there an end to your suffering? Take a copy for free in your own language.” Tuchkovo, Moscow Region. Photo courtesy of Alexander Artemenkov/TASS

This, however, did not lead to the eradication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Besides the three regions where they had constantly been active—Western Ukraine, Moldova, and Irkutsk Region—groups and organizations emerged in the sixties and seventies throughout nearly the entire Soviet Union from Arkhangelsk Region to the Maritime Territory, and from Turkmenistan to Uzbekistan.

The movement was spread by ex-camp convicts, labor migrants from regions where the doctrine was strongly espoused, and missionaries.

Soviet construction sites, new cities, and workers’ dorms were propitious environments for the spread of new religious doctrines. The young people who arrived to work there were cut off from their usual lifestyles, family ties, and interests. They wanted something new, including self-education and self-transfiguration—to gad about in suits and have their heads in the clouds. Most of these cadres were promoted through the ranks by the Communist Youth League and other authorities, but there were plenty of pickings for the religious organizations.

By the way, in 1962, Saprykin campaigned to get not just anyone to leave the Witnesses, but Maria Dosukova, a chevalier of the Order of Lenin, a longtime Party member, a plasterer, and an ethnic Kazakh. During an assembly at her construction company, Dosukova had refused to support a resolution condemning the religious organization in which several people in her work team were members.

Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sochi, 2007. Photo courtesy of Natalya Kolesnikova/PhotoXPress

After Krushchev’s resignation, the systematic arrests of the Witnesses stopped, although some were sent to prison as a warning to the others.  Everyone else was subject to the decree, issued by the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, on March 18, 1966, “On Administrative Responsibility for Violating the Legislation on Religious Cults.” You could be fined fifty rubles—a week’s pay for a skilled worker—for holding a religious circle meeting in your home. In his book About People Who Never Part with the Bible, religious studies scholar Sergei Ivanenko records that, during the seventies and eighties, attempts to combat the Witnesses by fining them and tongue-lashing them at assemblies were just as useless. 

Wholehearted Anticultists

Perestroika legalized the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the post-Soviet space. This freedom did not last for long, however. The new states of Central Asia and the Transcaucasia followed the Soviet Union’s path in their treatment of the Witnesses, achieving similar outcomes.

In Russia, the Witnesses were officially registered in March 1991 and had no serious problems for a long time. They built their central headquarters, Bethel, in the village of Solnechnoye near St. Petersburg, as well as several dozen buildings for prayer meetings.  Of course, due to their activity, relative openness, and American connections, the Witnesses (along with the Hare Krishna, the Mormons, the Scientologists, and the Pentecostals) were targeted by the various hate organizations that emerged in Russia in the late 1990s, including the Cossacks, neo-Nazis, and professional anticultists.

Protest rally against the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in St. Petersburg, 1997. Photo courtesy of TASS

Anticultism was imported to Russia by the ex-Moscow hippie Alexander Dvorkin, who emigrated to the US in the 1970s and got mixed up in Orthodox émigré circles there. In the early 1990s, he left his job at Radio Liberty and returned to Russia, where he made a successful career at the point where the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate and Russian law enforcement agencies intersect. The above-mentioned Irenaeus of Lyons Center is, basically, Dvorkin himself.

Professor Dvorkin has worked for several years at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. Until 2012, he was head of the department of sectology. In 2009, he headed the council for religious studies forensic expertise at the Russian Federal Justice Ministry. (He now holds the post of deputy chair). It is curious that Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov is also a St. Tikhon’s alumnus and is quite proud of that fact.

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Professor Alexander Dvorkin. Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Mukhtarov/Wikipedia

By supporting the Justice Ministry’s campaign to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Supreme Court has not only put the “sectarians” in a difficult position but also the Russian authorities. In Russia, the Witnesses have over 400 local organizations and around 168,000 registered members. Only full-fledged members are counted during registration, but a fair number of sympathizers are also usually involved in Bible readings, The Watchtower, and other religious events. We can confidently say the ban will affect at least 300,000 to 400,000 Russian citizens. Labeling them “extremists” does not simply insult them and provoke conflicts with their relatives, loved ones, and acquaintances. In fact, this means abruptly increasing the workload of the entire “anti-extremism” system the Russian authorities have been setting up the past twenty years.  The soldiers of the Russian National Guard will find it easy to raid prayer meetings and spread-eagle these “extremists” on the floor. However, given the scale of the organization, they will have to do this a lot and often. And, as experience shows,  there won’t be much point to what they are doing.

Not a single country in the world has forcibly dissolved the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is hard to imagine that these 400,000 people will all emigrate or otherwise disappear. Even now, as news of the ban has spread, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have received completely unexpected support from all manner media and numerous public figures, including Russian Orthodox priests. Given these circumstances, the successful state campaign to discredit, dissolve, and brush a major religious community under the rug is doomed to failure.

Marquee being taken down from the Surgut office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in connection with their ban in Russia, April 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexei Andronov/Ura.Ru/TASS

The authorities will have to decide. Either they will sanction the mass arrests of the organizations leaders and activists and send hundreds and thousands of people to the camps, which ultimately will facilitate the growth of the movement’s reputation and dissemination, as in Soviet times, or they will pinpoint those who, according to the Interior Ministry and the FSB, are “especially dangerous” while turning a blind eye to the actual continuation of the organization’s work.

I would like the country’s leadership to have second thoughts and find a legal way of rescinding the Supreme Court’s decision. There is little hope of that, however.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Extremism” Ruling against Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Popular Will?

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Was it the “popular will” that 500 hectares of land be reclaimed in the Neva Bay right off Petersburg’s Vasiliyevsky Island and developed into densely built high-rise estates, causing untold amounts of environmental and aesthetic damage? No, it wasn’t. In fact, locals were bitterly opposed to the project and they mounted a loud resistance back in the day. But their will was roundly ignored by Petersburg city hall and developers. Under the present authoritarian regime, “popular will” is a friendly phantom, at best, an irritant, at worst. Photo by The Russian Reader.

The Russian Supreme Court has gone ahead and banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered their property confiscated. This is a colossal insult to hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Russian citizens. A huge new underground has been generated. Massive crackdowns for their faith, new political prisoners, and mass immigration are around the corner. The Russian authorities and Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who is personally responsible for this operation, have curious ideas about the joy of Easter.
—Nikolay Mitrokhin, Facebook, April 21, 2017

Perhaps this is what is most disheartening about the recent legal battle. The state may be the central actor, but its actions reflect the popular will of Russians who, by and large, have decided that Witnesses have no place in their society.
—Emily Baran, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban Spells End for Russia’s Religious Diversity,” Moscow Times, April 24, 2017

When did Russians decide this? Did they hold a referendum recently? Are most Russians even aware of how the Justice Ministry has used the Russian Supreme Court to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists,” allegedly, at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill? I very much doubt it.

Professor Baran only mentions actions by state or quasi-state actors, such as the central press in Soviet and post-Soviet times. Yet they were and have been somehow acting on behalf of the “popular will,” a symbiosis she makes no real attempt to prove in her op-ed piece for the Moscow Times, as quoted above.

As for real popular sentiment, I imagine there are as many Americans as Russians who have reflexively negative attitudes toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just think of all the jokes about JWs you have heard in your lifetime that cast them in a negative or ridiculous light, or how many times you have seen their likenesses figuring as the villains on TV medical dramas who refuse proper care for desperately sick children? Then why aren’t they banned in the US? At worst, the American “popular will” sees them as outsiders and obscurantists, at best, as an annoyance.

I can imagine that tenure-track professors in the US have a hard time understanding how disempowered and disconnected the grassroots are in a country that now has the world’s largest income inequality gap, and a long, brutal history of minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, getting hammered by the powers that be while putative “majority” either did not mind, looked the other way or did not even notice.

But does Tennessee, where Professor Baran teaches, have an utterly different history when it comes to protecting the rights of its minorities?

The Russian Supreme Court’s decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses extremist is completely despicable in every possible way, but Russians who bother to care about minorities and “minority” interests (like the environment, civil and social rights, corruption, labor rights, migrant rights, and historical preservation and sound urban planning) are often too few and far between to fight every battle and put out every fire. And many of those fighters are themselves currently under the state’s gun. The same Justice Ministry that has gone after Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses like a pit bull has also been branding NGOs, research institutes, and grassroots organizations “foreign agents” like it was at a fire sale.

That is no excuse for the judicial execution the Russian state has just performed on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was a decision made at the top by the political, ecclesiastical and judicial elites, including the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill. It was not the state’s response to a nonexistent, utterly imaginary “popular will.” TRR

Life on the Installment Plan

“Sovcombank. Are you a pensioner? Your loan is approved!”

Half of Russians in Arrears Take Out New Loans to Repay Old Loans
Takie Dela
April 18, 2017

In 2016, according to the statistics of the United Credit Bureau (UCB), 45 million Russians with current loans took new loans from banks. More than half of these people intended to use the money to pay off outstanding loans.

The bureau’s analysis showed that 53% of borrowers took a new cash loan that was used to fully or partly repay existing loans. 27% spent more than half of the new loans to pay their debts.

On average, Russians borrow between 101 and 126 thousand rubles [between 1,650 euros and 2,080 euros, approx.] to repay debts. According to statistics, around half of the borrowers (56%) take the money to repay debts of 50 thousand rubles or less or debts over 500 thousand rubles (47%).

33% of those who take new loans before repaying old loans have a debt of 100 thousand rubles. Nearly a fifth of all borrowers (18%) have three outstanding loans and a total debt of 278 thousand rubles, while every tenth borrower has five or more outstanding loans and a total debt of 575 thousand rubles.

71% of those who have five or more outstanding loans have taken a new loan to repay the interest on the existing debt. 65% of those with four outstanding loans and 60% of those with three outstanding loans have done the same thing. Those who have only one outstanding loan are the least likely (42%) to use a new loan to make interest payments.

“The trend may indicate the growing popularity of loan refinancing programs, which many Russian banks have vigorously brought on line in the past year,” commented UCB’s director general Daniel Zelensky. “Borrowers who took out loans at high interest rates in 2015 naturally have wanted to refinance them on more favorable terms.”

He added that many borrowers have realized that now it is “irrational to service several loans in different banks at the same time.”

In May of last year, the National Credit History Bureau analyzed 3,700,00 Russian creditors and reported that the most indebted Russians were schoolteachers and physicians. Employees of the social sector and education sector spend 33.39% and 33.3%, respectively, of their income paying back loans. The highest ratio of monthly loan payments to income (33.56%) was recorded amongst pharmaceutical and medical workers.

According to UCB’s report, no fewer than 600,000 Russians are currently bankrupt. That is, they owe more than half a million rubles and have not made payments on their debts for three months.

Translation and photograph by the Russian Reader. If you found this article interesting, you might want to read “Kotlas: Russia’s Bankruptcy Capital,” posted here in December 2016.

The Singer Not the Song

Yakovlev
Boris Yakovlev. Screenshot from YouTube video

Pskov Region Singer-Songwriter Boris Yakovlev Charged with Calls for Extremism
Grani.ru
April 20, 2017

The FSB’s Pskov Region office has charged Boris Yakovlev, a 44-year-old resident of Dno, under Article 280.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (public calls for extremism using the internet). Grani.ru was informed about the case by lawyer Dmitry Dinze, who is representing the musician.

Yakovlev is known for his original songs, which he posts on his YouTube channel.

“Yakovlev has denied his guilt and refused to testify, since the defense needs to analyze the evidence on which the charges are based,” said Dinze. “In addition, a forensic examination of the digital media seized from Yakovlev’s home has now been ordered, and in the near future, the court will order and perform a linguistic forensic examination. The forensic experts are being chosen. The defendant has been released on his own recognizance.”

Besides the recorded songs posted on YouTube, the FSB alleges that between June 20 and June 29, 2016, Yakovlev posted on his personal page on the social network Vkontakte five pieces of writing in which he outlined his ideas about the situation and events in Russia. The texts in question begin with the words “About elections,” “We have already gone over our limit on revolutions,” “Above the dwarf’s head,” “I find it curious,” and “Reading the newswire.”

On March 20, 2017, Senior Lieutenant A. Filippov, a detective in the First Branch of the Department for Protecting the Constitutional Order and Combating Terrorism in the FSB’s Pskov Region office, filed a crime report. He claimed there was evidence of a crime in Yakovlev’s published texts: public calls for extremism on the internet.

In a specially conducted study, Andrei Pominov, an associate professor in education and psychology at Bashkir State University’s Sibai Institute, wrote that Yakovlev’s texts “contain psychological and linguistic means aimed at inducing an unspecified group of persons to carry out extremist actions aimed at forcibly changing the existing state system or seizing power.”

Consequently, Captain of Justice I. Karpenkov, senior investigator in the Investigative Department of the FSB’s Pskov Region office, filed criminal charges against Yakovlev.

Boris Yakovlev, “Confession of an Enemy of the People”

On March 16, Judge Yevgeny Naydenov of Moscow’s Presna District Court fined rapper David Nuriyev (aka Ptakha) 200,000 rubles [approx. 3,300 euros] in an extremism case. Ptakha was found guilty of violating Article 282.1 of the Criminal Code  (inciting hatred or enmity toward a group of people united on the grounds that they “assisted law enforcement agencies in locating and apprehending criminals”). The “social group” in the case was the Anti-Dealer Movement, founded by Dmitry Nosov, an ex-LDPR MP and former professional judoka.

The prosecutor had asked the defendant be given a suspended sentence of one and a half years. The musician fully acknowledged his guilt and apologized to Anti-Dealer. The case was tried under a special procedure. The trial consisted of a single hearing.

_______________________________

Boris Yakovlev, “I Want to Be There at the Hour”

I want to be there at the hour
When the millions of nationalist riffraff
Howl as one:
We were opposed! We knew everything!

We pretended deliberately.
You understand: work and kids.
But deep down we resisted.
We don’t want Crimea, please note.

We realized he was a murderer.
We don’t want war and death.
We really love Ukrainians.
We’re innocent, believe us!

We don’t want Lugansk and Donbass.
It’s the first we’ve heard about the “Russian world.”
Standing in line for rotten meat,
That’s what the mouse people will whisper.

I want to look in the eyes of the followers,
Those Pharisees of the mob,
In whom honor and conscience are vestiges,
And who have an ass instead of a head.

Translated by the Russian Reader. A huge thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

Popular Protests in Novosibirsk Defeat Governor’s Plans to Raise Rates

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Rally against planned building maintenance and utility rate hikes, March 19, 2017, Novosibirsk. Photo courtesy of navalny.com

Novosibirsk Cancels Sharp Hike in Utility Rates in Wake of Protests
Yevgeny Kalyukov
RBC
April 19, 2017

Seven protest rallies in the region’s capital have forced regional leaders to give up their plan to raise rates for housing services and utilities by 15%.

RBC Novosibirsk has reported that Vladimir Gorodetsky, governor of Novosibirsk Region, has announced he will not raise rates for residential building maintenance and utilities by 15% beginning July 1, 2017.

During a briefing on Wednesday in Novosibirsk, Gorodetsky said he had signed an amendment to a decree adopted in December 2016. The amendment lowers the maximum rate rise to 4%.

Seven protest rallies have taken place in Novosibirsk in recent months. Protesters demanded the authorities either give up plans to increase rates so sharply or resign. Opposition politician Alexei Navalny was involved in the third rally.

“I hadn’t imagined the degree to which the protesters were dissatisfied. It’s a rare thing when my speech is more moderate in mood than the slogans shouted by rallygoers. My overall feeling was that the city had had it. Clearly, no one here can pay the new rates. And it’s a sure bet no one wants to pay for someone else to live well. We also have to understand the rate rise hasn’t come into force yet. Meaning the people coming out to the rallies realize there will other figures on their bills come June. I’m curious to see what will happen here in August when the summons to take to the streets, contained in the building maintenance and utilities bill, arrives in everyone’s apartment,” Navaly wrote in his blog after the rally.

On April 17, a petition calling for cancellation of the rate hike, signed by several thousand people, was delivered to Gorodetsky’s office.

“Believe me, I don’t listen just to the opinions of the people at the rallies. I have meet with the trade unions, the Public Chamber, and the Russian People’s Front. People said the burden was heavy,” Gorodetsky said on Wednesday by way of explaining his decision.

In keeping with the decree “On Maximum Increases in Payments Made by Citizens for Communal Services in the Municipalities of Novosibirsk Region in 2017,” signed on December 16, 2016, the amount of money charged to consumers of communal services would have increased by 15% as of July 1, 2017, in a number of towns and villages in the region, including Novosibirsk itself.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“We Are Treated like Schmucks”: Why Volga Region Pensioners Have Rebelled against the Regime

“We Are Treated like Schmucks”: How and Why Volga Region Pensioners Have Rebelled against the Regime
Yeveniya Volunkova
Takie Dela
April 4, 2017

What Happened?
Certain benefits for pensioners, disabled people, and other beneficiaries were cut in Samara at the beginning of 2017. Monthly payments for housing services and utilities were replaced by compensation for actual expenses. People now have to pay their bills first, then show the authorities the receipts, and only after that, if they have no debts, are they compensated for their expenses. The system has not been put through its paces and does not function, so there have been problems with assembling documents and getting compensation. In addition, a charge for major renovations has been added to the housing maintenance bill, a charge that many people do not pay as a matter of principle. Also, free public transportation for working pensioners has been abolished, and the number of free rides on the subsidized transport pass has been limited to fifty. This lasts many people two weeks; moreover, people complain the “rides” disappear more quickly. The frosting on the cake was the cancellation of monthly cash payments for working pensioners, who number 175,000 in Samara Region. People have lost their supplementary pensions, which ranged from 600 to 1,200 rubles. Non-working pensioners, whose pensions are over 19,500 rubles, have also been stripped of supplementary payments. The Samara administration did not give permission to hold a protest rally on the city’s central square, allowing it only in a remote neighborhood. Despite these precautions, the protesters packed the square.

The fourth large-scale protest by pensioners took place in Samara on April 2. The old folks first rebelled against Samara Region Governor Nikolai Merkushin in early February, when around 300 people attended a protest rally. The number of protesters has grown each time, and yesterday, according to unofficial statistics, around 4,000 people gathered on the square near the Athletics Palace. The protesters told our correspondent Yevegniya Volunkova what they were protesting and how they had succeeded in coming together when the rallies have not been mentioned on television at all.

***

Nina Dmitrievna and Tamara Petrovna

Both women are seventy-nine years old. They heard about the rally from flyers and the internet. Their main complaints are Mordovian produce in the city and a fountain during the plague.

We’re upset about our poverty, the judicial system, and very many other things. But first of all, we want to see Merkushkin replaced. He squanders money and imports everything from Mordovia, including crushed stone, paving tile, and cement. Whatever shop you go to, the produce is all Mordovian. It’s no wonder his nickname is the Mordvin Pasha. During these hard times for the region, he wants to build the best fountain in Europe on the river embankment. Is now the time for it? Replace the pavement and benches, sure, but why the heck do we need a fountain right now? My friends and two children live in poverty, and it’s hard to buy bread. But this stadium [Samara is one of the host cities for the 2018 World Cup — TD], good God, how much money they’ve embezzled, and it’s not clear whether they’ll finish it or not. They took their kickbacks, but there’s no money left to build the thing. If we could see that everything was being done on behalf of the people, we would put up with it, but they have been stealing. Merkhushkin pumped three million into the wall on Samara Square [the Wall of Honor on Glory Square, which cut off a beautiful view of the Volga and Zhiguli Mountains, popularly known as the Wailing Wall — TD). It’s in terribly bad taste! And so much money was spent.

Mikhail Viktorovich

Seventy years old, he heard about the rally from friends. His main complaint: how can he survive on his pension?

How the mean regime deals with veterans! Yesterday, villagers told me their family had a monthly pension of 8,000 rubles [approx. 133 euros] or so. What is that? How can a person survive? Today, I went to get milk and bread. I also bought some biscuits and something to put in a soup. 600 rubles [approx. 10 euros] was gone just like that. Is the governor here? He didn’t show up? Shame on him! He stole kopecks from pensioners. Down with our government! They have not made a single effective move to improve the well-being of veterans.

Irina Olegovna

Sixty years old, she heard about the rally from a girlfriend. Her main complaint is that she has been forced to work to survive.

My monthly pension is 7,700 rubles, and I used to get a veteran’s bonus. I worked as an educator my whole life. Merkushkin took way the 621 rubles I got as a veteran’s bonus. I have no husband and no support. I’m forced to work to survive, but I have a whole passle of ailments. Should I approve his policies? He can go back to his native Mordovia. Besides, he lies and lies and lies. He shamelessly lies that he gives us a pension. I wrote a letter to him asking him to help me find work. Do you think he helped me? He didn’t do a damn thing for me.

Valentina Andreyevna

Sixty-three years old, she found out about the rally from the internet. Her main complaint is shamefully low pensions.

I came out of a sense of solidarity. I don’t receive any discount benefits: my length of service was too short. There should other slogans here: “Decent pensions!” Give us a decent pension and we wouldn’t need discounts. We’ll pay for public transport passes, for apartment maintenance costs, and so on. But it’s impossible to live on our miserly pensions.

Valery Remizov

Twenty-two years old, he found out about the rally from the internet. His main complaint is bad roads.

I came to the rally to voice my dissatisfaction with Nikolai Merkushkin’s social policies. It’s a pity our pensioners have to stand in the cold, demanding a few miserable kopecks. I’m sick of the state of the roads in this country. I’m tired of the fact the regime treats me hypocritically not only as a disabled person but also as an individual. It treats everything as a resource that can be sent off to war, god knows where. And yet it cannot organize a decent urban infrastructure, a decent life. I think the government needs to revise its policy of restricting the number of rides on public transport one can take if you have a discounted travel pass. I ride public transport all the time and I travel around town more than the authorities think I do.

Emma Viktorovna

Seventy years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is that the governor was decorated “for his contribution to cosmonautics.”

Merkushkin is impudent. He’s an outsider in Samara. My colleagues, who have worked all their lives at the cosmodrome, were decorated for their service. But why the hell did they did stick an honorary pin on him for his contribution to cosmonautics? He has made no contribution whatsoever to cosmonautics. A persons should be more modest. Yet our colleagues where shown on TV standing off to the side, while he was shown in close-up. How did Samara manage without Merkushkina? Probably, it didn’t manage. But little Nikolai showed up, and it has been once achievement after another since then.

“Roads are Samara’s second misery. The fools in power are the first.” Roads are one of Samara’s worst problems. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Roman

Sixty-five years old, he heard about the rally from his grandson. His main complaint is that the restricted number of trips on the discounted public transport travel pass make it hard for him to travel to the Volga.

Can you deceive people like that? They compare us with Penza, where forty-eight rides is more than enough, supposedly. Samara is a huge city: fifty trips a month is not enough here. When I’m traveling, all my rides get eaten up by he transfers. It’s a huge city. In the summer, I want to go to the Volga to swim. How many transfers is that? Fifty trips runs out in two weeks. Then there are housing services and utilities. We are forced to pay for utilities, but the discounts come later, after we’ve paid. Yet officials have included a fee for major house renovations in our bills. I don’t want to pay it. What am I paying for? I’ve lived half my life in the same building, which is falling apart at the seams. Major renovations have never once been carried out in that building.

samara-metro-28
Samara Subway and Tram Map. Courtesy of CartoTalk

Nadezha Fyodorovna

Sixty-nine years old, she heard about the rally from reading flyers. Her main complaint is how the money owed to pensioners has been used to pay for the governor’s palaces and the World Cup.

That scumbag Merkushkin took away all our benefits. How did he dare? He built himself palaces on Rublyovka, four palaces at three hundred million each. Does he have a conscience? Today, he was on Channel Two saying he built all the roads for us. The roads are all good, and everything in Samara is good. Only our pensions will have to pay for the World Cup. He’s a real bastard, a scumbag. We should send him packing back to Mordovia, where he can choke on his sons and relatives. Let’s keep coming out for protest rallies and demanding he resign.

Irina Olegovna and Lyubov Andreyevna

Forty-six and seventy-seven, they heard about the rally on the internet. Their main complaint is that the regime embezzles money and treats people like schmucks.

Irina Olegovna: I’m not a pensioner, but I came to stick up for them. I’m outraged by the injustice that flourishes in our country. The authorities have found the right people to rip off: pensioners. They holler about being a super power, that they defeated the fascists. Who beat whom? What’s the standard of living in Germany and the standard of living in Russia? Who did they defeat? Pensioners and sick children?

Young people attended the rally this time to support the pensioners. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Lyubov Andreyevna: We’ve been spat on from all sides. You cannot get in anywhere to talk to anyone, whether it’s housing services and utilities or healthcare. Everywhere they could not care less about us. I’m seventy-seven. I use the internet and I know everything. I was a decision-maker when I was employed, but now I’ve been utterly humiliated. Thank you, Navalny, that you exposed Medvedev. We must send him packing

IO: It’s absolutely clear to everyone that regime embezzles money, and the fact they are silent is additional proof that thievery is going on. What happened to Serdyukov and Vasilyeva are proven facts. There was a trial, and they were let go. They sold off the property of the defense industry and lined their pockets. I don’t understand who needed this demonstrative flogging. They pulled out their dirty underwear, showed it to everyone, and put it away. I’ll be damned!

LA: Because they consider us idiots.

IO: Stupid schmucks!

LA: Stupid schmucks, cows, that’s who we are!

IO:  I agree with you completely. But ultimately they have to understand a point of no return will be reached, when it all goes to hell. What, are they waiting until people come after them with pitchforks? The country has already reached the boiling point. What the heck do we need Crimea for when our country is poor? I used to support Putin. He inherited a heavy burden, the country was in ruins. He seemed decent. I believed he’d put the country in shape. But then I realized what was what.

LA: Putin works for the oligarchs, not for himself. And we cows will all die off.

Vasily Petrovich

Eighty-two years old, he found out about the rally from a flyer. His main complaint is that payments have not been made to people who went through the war as children.

Look, I’ve brought a newspaper from 2014. Merkushkin promised to make monthly payments of 1,000 rubles to people who went through the war as children. But he didn’t give us fuck-all. We spent the war on a collective farm. Cold and hungry, we supplied the front and the cities with produce, while we ourselves ate grass and dirt. We survived, we were victorious, and now what? Now we are dying in poverty.

“Stop Making Fools of Russian Dudes!” Protest rally in Samara. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Lydia Nikolayevna

Sixty-eight years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is that her family has been stripped of all benefits, and that the regime takes people for idiots.

I’m a history teacher, I worked my whole life. Three years ago, my daughter died, leaving me to take care of my granddaughter Lada. She’s thirteen and in the sixth grade. By order of the city administration, the city paid the difference in the housing services and utilities bills for her as an orphan for the whole of 2016. The payment was small, but it made a difference. I’m a veteran of pedagogical work and disabled. We were supposedly divided into two groups: “rich” pensioners, who got 19,000 rubles a month, and poor pensioners. Money was taken away from us under the pretext of giving it to the poor. Money was taken from 175,000 people and then returned, allegedly, but we still haven’t got the money back. I don’t think they took the money in order to give it back. I take my granddaughter to school. I have to transfer, and I use four rides on my discounted travel pass. When they limited the number of trips to fifty, they took us for idiots. They also sucker us out of rides. My friends recorded every trip and noticed that they were shorting us by ten rides. They run out before the month ends, and they kick us off public transport. They’re secretly stealing even from these crumbs, from the fifty rides, as if we couldn’t check how many rides we were getting. I feel ashamed of this regime. We worked honestly our whole lives, and now they’re punishing us, punishing orphaned children and disabled people. It’s disgusting.

Nadezhda

Sixty-one years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is the thieves in the government.

I have been denied the chance to travel by public transport. I need to drop off and pick up my granddaughter nearly every day. Of course, the number of rides on the travel pass is not enough. It’s just digusting. Why did they decide to limit us? What made them think fifty rides was enough for us? Merkushkin says that somebody made a thousand trips in a month on a seasonal pass. That’s utter rubbish. Even if it’s true, does that mean everyone has to have their benefits slashed? How many crooks and thieves are in the government? How many cases of corruption have been proven? In keeping with Merkushkin’s line of reasoning, all governors should be hauled into the Investigative Committee, no?

Organizing People through Their Wallets

“Let’s Reforge Medvedev’s Palaces into Unlimited Rides for Veterans.” The fifty rides they get on their free transport passes is not enough for residents. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

The main organizer of the rallies, Mikhail Matveev, a Communist MP in the Samara Regional Duma, is certain that his best organizer, the person who gets people out to the protest rallies, is Governor Merkushkin himself, the man whose decisions have driven people to the edge.

“Our old ladies don’t just read newspapers and watch TV. They’re not as backwards as they seem. They read social networks and blogs. Young people tell them things. Plus, we leaflet mailboxes and residential building entryways. We printed around 15,000 leaflets for the March 19 rally. The printing was paid for by the party and by ordinary people. It’s not a lot of money, but we don’t have anymore. Residents help us by leafletting for free and printing the leaflets at home on their printers. But the main organizing factor is people’s wallets, and the main organizer is Merkushkin. It used to be that pensioners weren’t aware that the number of trips on public transport was limited, but suddenly they were kicked off buses. The pension checks arrived, they were 700 rubles less, and so on. Dissatisfaction has been growing. We are grateful to Governor Merkushkin for the fact that his blunt propaganda pisses people off. There are all the phrases he tosses off at meetings with constituents, like, ‘It was you who did it so that we did nothing for you,’ and so on. They make the rounds. There will be more protest rallies until we get the pensioners their benefits back and send the governor packing.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Urban Renewal as the Road to Serfdom

Tatiana Nalitch
Facebook
April 9, 2017

Friends,

It recently transpired that a good many quite progressive consumers and producers of the news haven’t entirely understood that the so-called law bill on renovation (No. 120505-7), which the press has dubbed the “five-storey apartment building law” doesn’t exactly deal with five-storey apartment buildings.

It deals with everything. With any residential building (brick, pre-engineered, and prefab) containing any number of storeys (three, five, nine, seventeen, etc.). If the law is passed, then later it will also be applied to any city, not just to Moscow.

This is what it’s about. If a city feels like grabbing the block where your building is located (a quiet spot with a leafy-green courtyard, five to seven minutes from the subway, in walking distance of shops, a stadium, playgrounds, a school, a kindergarten, an outpatient medical clinic), it will do it. You will be supplied with one option: an apartment of the same size, wherevever they want to send you. If you’re not okay with that, the court will evict you.

Read the draft law bill, please. It’s on the State Duma’s website.

If you have questions, the website zanashdom.ru and the Facebook group Muscovites against Demolition are there to help you.

The picture, above, summarizes the contents of the bill. [See the translation of the diagram,  below.*]

Tell your friends about it. This is really serious.

UPDATE. Today, April 10, the Federation Council proposed applying the Moscow law bill to the entire country.

*What does resettlement under the new law threaten?

Old Law

New Law
Only dilapidated and hazardous buildings are demolished. Any residential building in an urban renewal block can be demolished (even if it’s a brick building and nine- or twelve-stories high.) The law does not describe what residential buildings can be demolished.
Residents are informed a year before resettlement. You have two months to think it over, after which you are evicted by court order, which cannot be appealed.
You choose from three types of apartments. You take the first apartment you are shown.
Possible monetary compensation. No monetary compensation possible.
You get an apartment of equal value in exchange. You are given a comparable apartment (an apartment of the same size).
Apartment near a park, in a quiet, familiar neighborhood.

Seventeen-story concrete building in an industrial district with violations of safety and sanitary rules and regulations. (They are permitted under the new law.)

The Bottom Line

  • You pay for renovations and moving costs.
  • If you sell within five years, you are obliged to pay a 13% tax.
  • Population density will increase by two or three times.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AK for the heads-up