More and More Russians

hongkong.jpgAccording to organizers, at least 1.7 million people attended a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong today, August 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of HKFP

More and more Russians seem to be breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line. Increasingly, they just do what they deem important, and the authorities deal with the consequences. We are all much more used to the reverse relationship, which is why Russia’s new situation is hard to grasp. People in Russia are only now learning to peer into themselves, not into their television sets, searching for clues to what will happen next.

This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may, in fact, be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.

For how long this new situation—or an impression of it—will last is unclear. The Kremlin is at war and wants everyone in Russia to be at war too. Russians seem to be drifting away from this belligerence. The question is whose pull, the Kremlin’s or Russian society’s, is stronger. I am afraid the Kremlin’s is stronger but will be happy to be mistaken.
—Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ask Not What Will the Kremlin Do Next,” The Russia File, 16 August 2019

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What does the phrase “more and more Russians” mean, in the essay quoted above? How does Maxim Trudolyubov know they are doing anything at all, much more “breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line” and doing “what they deem important” (whatever that means)?

If its organizers are to be believed, a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people today, August 18. According to Worldometers, Hong Kong’s population, as of today, was almost 7.5 million people, meaning that nearly 23% of Hong Kong’s residents marched today in support of the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

In Moscow, “up to 60,000 people” attended an “authorized” pro-democracy rally on August 10. It was, apparently, the biggest opposition rally in Russia since the fair election protests of 2011–2012.

World Population Review estimates Moscow’s population as slightly over 12 million people.

If the figures for the August 10 rally and Moscow’s population are to be credited, then, 0.005% of the city’s populace came out for an “authorized” rally—meaning an event where they had much less reason to fear a police crackdown than at the “unauthorized” rallies at which riot police and Russian National Guardsmen detained thousands of protests over the last month or so.

When you are trying to get your collective point across to an authoritarian government, the numbers do matter, just as they matter in non-authoritarian countries.

As I have argued in many different ways many different times, the Russian opposition, especially its self-declared leaders in Moscow, is woefully bad at two things: mobilizing ordinary pro-democratic Russians to make their numbers know to the regime, and meaningfully allying itself with the grassroots pro-democracy movement beyond Moscow.

In fact, at the very same time as a tiny minority of brave, smart Muscovites have been doing battle with the Moscow City Elections Commission and the security forces to defend their constitutional right to vote and run for office, an even tinier and, perhaps, braver minority of Petersburgers have been fighting to get a small slate of independent candidates onto the ballot for elections to the city’s municipal district councils, chronically underfunded entities with almost no power to do anything more than making cosmetic improvements to the neighborhoods they represent. Just as in Moscow, the would-be candidates themselves have been harassed, beaten, and arrested, along with some of their supporters.

Typically, when the Petersburg pro-democratic opposition held an authorized rally on August 3, only two thousand people showed up. Sadly and hilariously, Deutsche Welle described it as an “event in support of candidates not allowed to run in the elections to the Moscow City Duma.” In reality, Petersburgers rallied in support of their own beleaguered opposition candidates, in solidarity with Muscovites, and against the upcoming pro forma election of acting Governor Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin’s third satrap in the city, on September 8.

But the real story was too complicated for Deutsche Welle. It was, apparently, too gnarly for the vast majority of Petersburgers as well. World Population Review estimates Petersburg’s population as nearly 5.5 million. (I suspect it is actually much higher than this, but that is another conversation.) So, proportionately, even fewer people in Russia’s “cultural capital” are worried about their rapidly vanishing constitutionally guaranteed rights than their comrades in Moscow and their Chinese frenemies in Hong Kong: 0.0003%, to be exact.

In the face of these real numbers, which he signally fails to mention, Trudolyubov cites public opinion polls, notoriously unreliable indicators in a highly manipulated authoritarian society like Russia, and his own vague “impressions.”

He also makes an assertion that is debatable and a promise he probably has no intention of keeping, to wit:

“Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics (all of those trends deserve a special take, which we will provide).”

I will have been reporting on these “other Russias,” as I have dubbed them, for twelve years come this October. I know them as well any “outsider” can know them. I will keep writing about them and translating dispatches from these other Russias as long as I am able.

Despite my interest in the other Russias and Russians, however, and my endless admiration for the sheer courage, tenacity, and intelligence of many of the real-life heroines and heroes who have made appearances on this website over the years, I knew the fair elections movement of 2011–2012 was a non-starter almost as soon as it kicked off, even though it was a nationwide grassroots movement, unlike the 2019 fair elections movement, which has been practically limited to Moscow.

I knew that for two reasons. First, the numbers of anti-Putinists showing their faces in public at protest rallies, “authorized” and “unauthorized,” were also minuscule as percentages of the general populace. Second, the “movement” was managed lackadaisically, with huge gaps between “authorized” rallies.

In Moscow, at least, there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency and intensity this time around, but the numbers of people showing up for rallies have been halved. Paradoxically, however, those people have been more willing to face police crackdowns, but I am not sure this is necessarily a good thing, politically and strategically.

Like Trudolyubov, I am happy to be mistaken. Unlike Trudolyubov, I have no sense that Russian society has become a bigger player than it was seven years ago. There was also a lot of new art, independent journalism, and social media savvy on the margins then as now.

The sad truth is that, unlike countries and territories populated by people of color, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, Russia gets way more credit for every tiny gesture towards democracy, autonomy, and independence made by its supposedly “white” people, even though Russian society punches way below its weight when it comes to every possible measure of official and popular support for democracy, minorities, civil and human rights, progressive environmental policies, engaged art, cutting-edge education, grassroots-driven urban planning, you name it.

What Russia does have a lot of is flag twirlers who have ensconced themselves in plum jobs at western news outlets and think thanks, places where, correspondingly, you will not find a lot of people of color and people from the formerly colonized parts of the world. So, even though the Kremlin has made xenophobia, anti-Americanism, rampant homophobia, Islamophobic, anti-westernism, anti-liberalism, Russian Orthodox obscurantism, and aggressive covert and overt interventions into the affairs of other countries planks in its unwritten ideological platform, and Russia’s opposition has said almost nothing about any of it, much less organized protests against, say, the Kremlin’s criminal military involvement in the brutal ongoing murder of Syria’s pro-democracy movement, the so-called west, at least as represented by places like the Kennan Institute and media organizations like the BBC, has way more time and sympathy for all things Russian than it has for anything happening in countries and places dominated by people of color.

It would be strange of me, of all people, to argue for less interest in grassroots politics and culture in Russia, but a genuine curiosity should also involve being able to tell the fibbers and crypto-nationalists from the truth-tellers and democrats. // TRR

Thanks to the fabulous Mark Teeter for the heads-up. I am nearly certain he would have a different take on Trudolyubov’s essay, but in my Facebook newsfeed it ended up cheek by jowl with an article about today’s truly massive protests in Hong Kong.

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Ilya Yashin: Life in a Russian Jail

yashinIlya Yashin. Photo courtesy of his Facebook page

Ilya Yashin Rearrested After Three Stints in Jail
Radio Svoboda
August 18, 2019

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin was rearrested on Sunday after he left the special detention center in Moscow where he had been jailed for an administrative offense. He posted a video of his arrest on his Twitter account.

In the video, a police officer tells Yashin he has been detained “for encouraging [people to attend] ‘unauthorized’ protest rallies on July 18 and 19.” Apparently, he meant the gatherings on Trubnaya Square in support of the independent candidates attempting to stand in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma. Unlike the protest rallies on July 27 and August 3, the July 18 and 19 rallies were not dispersed by police.

Over the last month, Yashin has been jailed three times after being charged and convicted of various administrative offenses having to do with “unauthorized” grassroots rallies. He had been in jail since July 29.

One of the unregistered candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections, Yashin took part in a series of protest rallies against the Moscow City Elections Commission’s refusal to put independent candidates on the ballot and encouraged people to attend the protests.

Earlier, Konstantin Yankauskas and Yulia Galyamina, also unregistered independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma, were similarly detained immediately after leaving jail and sentenced to new terms in police custody. A court had also ordered Ivan Zhdanov’s rearrest, but when he left the special detention center, no police escort was waiting for him. Consequently, he went home.

Ilya Yashin
Facebook

August 17, 2019

The police brass is quite unhappy. How did it happen I was jailed and locked in a cell but things I wrote were posted on social media and I was quoted in the media? The brass does not get that you can send a text to the outside world with a lawyer. The brass imagines it is surrounded by treachery and betrayal.

What if there were supporters of the opposition in the police? Maybe they were providing me with access to the internet? After my letter to [Russian Central Elections Commission Chair] Ella Pamfilova was published, clearly paranoid new rules were issued at the special detention center.

The fact is that prisoners have the right to use their own telephones fifteen minutes a day. They cannot be used to access the internet or send texts, only to make calls. Until recently, the wardens were not very strict about enforcing this rule. But now there were new orders.

In order for me to make a call, the special detention center’s warden personally escorts me every day from my cell to his office, where he keeps my telephone locked in a safe, separate from all the other phones. He sits down at his desk, hands me the phone, and sets his stopwatch to fifteen minutes: the rules are strictly followed. Simultaneously, the duty officer stands opposite me brandishing a video recorder on his chest. I am thus able to convey my greetings to the Interior Ministry’s head office in Moscow.

I wave to the camera and say, “Hey, boss!” like [Yuri] Shevchuk [in the 1992 DDT song “Motherland”].

The boss smiles.

The Detention Center
They say you are curious about how things are organized here in jail. It’s really interesting, huh? Let me tell you about it.

The cell where I have lived for the past three weeks is seven meters by four meters large. There are three cots lined up in a row, a small wooden table, and a bench. There are double bars on the window.

The bathroom—a washbasin and a hole in the floor used as a toilet—is in the corner. When Nemtsov was jailed for the first time, he offered the warden to pay for making conditions in the jail more humane and, at least, install toilets.

“It won’t work, Boris Yefimovich,” the warden replied. “The leadership values things like corruption.”

The most disgusting thing is that the bathroom is not at all shielded from the living space. Prisoners usually hang a sheet around it to fence off the space.

Meals are served in the cafeteria, where prisoners who have agreed to work in the kitchen hand out food in plastic containers. In return, they get informal perks such as more telephone time and more frequent showers.

There is an exercise yard in the special detention center, a small space fenced off with concrete slabs and decorated with barbed wire. It is covered from above by bars.

And, of course, all the rooms are equipped with video cameras. Your every move is broadcast to monitors in the duty room. A prisoner’s entire everyday life is a reality show.

Conditions
Between seven and eight in the morning, the metal door wakes you up with an unpleasant creak. The duty officer comes into the cell and orders you to get up. The inmates trudge to the cafeteria, where they get their rations of porridge.

Accompanied by his entourage, the warden inspects ten cells or so. This is the morning inspection, during which personal belongings are searched. Then groups of prisoners are taken to make phone calls and exercise in the yard, which lasts for no more than an hour a day.

Lunch is followed by free time, dinner, and lights out. During the day, you are allowed to read, write, and listen to the radio. TV sets are not allowed in the cells, unlike remand prisons for people charged with criminal offenses. Backgammon and checkers are available to the inmates, however.

You also have the right to see your loved ones. It does not matter, though, how many days you have been sentenced to jail. Whether you are in for five days or thirty days, you get only one visit and it lasts no more than an hour. So, I have been luckier than Navalny and [VladimirMilov, whom the court immediately sentenced to thirty days in jail. I have been sentenced to ten days at a time, and each new sentence comes with another family visit. Not bad, right?

On Sundays, the prisoners take showers. You wonder why this happens so infrequently? No one will tell you why. It is the way things are. One of the guys asked a police officer whether the special detention center had a separate shower for staff.

“Of course,” the sergeant said, surprised. “We are on duty for three days straight. You think we are going to go home dirty after our shifts? Are we not human beings or what?”

What about us? Are we not human beings?

Daily Life
When you are admitted to the special detention center, they confiscate all the “extras,” including your shoelaces, belt, and chains. The idea is that these items could be dangerous to you and your cellmates.

Care packages containing food, cigarettes, books, and newspapers are allowed. But the guards give food items a good shakedown. Candy must be removed from wrappers, while fruit and bread are poked with a knife. What are they looking for? A nail file that you will use to make your escape? It’s a mystery. Packages of sliced meat and cheese are opened.

The way they inspect newspapers and magazines is the funniest thing. If the duty officer notices any marks and underlining, he refuses to let the periodical through.

“The brass thinks encrypted messages can be sent this way,” said an officer, shrugging.

I thought was he was joking, but I was wrong.

Experienced inmates know how to make tea in the cells and share their skills with the newbies. They use big five-liter mineral water bottles. During trips to the cafeteria, they hand them over to the chow servers, who fill them with boiling water. The bottles shrink but they generally retain their shape. Back in the cells, the bottles are wrapped in blankets and stuffed in plastic bags. You end up with a homemade thermos that keeps the water piping hot for a fairly long time.

***

Oleg Stepanov, the coordinator of Navalny’s Moscow campaign headquarters, lies in the cot next to mine reading the autobiographies of early twentieth-century Russian revolutionaries.

He laughs.

“Listen to this,” he says, reading an excerpt aloud.

“I immediately liked the prison. Everything there was businesslike, as befitted the capital. We were led to our cell. The comrade marching next to me was merry as if he were going to a welcome occasion. He elbowed me and wondered whether we would be put in the same cell.  We were put in a common cell with two fellow Socialist Revolutionaries we knew. It resembled a student party more than a prison. There were books, notebooks in which we recorded our thoughts, slices of sausage laid out on a wooden table, mugs of tea, laughter, jokes, discussions, and games of chess.”

Nemtsov was right. In Russia, you have to live a long time for something to happen.

Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for posting the second text. Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexander Skobov: The Myth of “Good” Liberals in Power

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Alexander Skobov
Facebook
August 18, 2019

I have to reiterate my fundamental disagreement with mainstream liberal political analysts. Stated briefly, their big idea is that the Russian political elite consists of two parties, so-called civic liberals, who support bourgeois modernization, and the security forces, who support the restoration of the Soviet Union in both its manifestations—as a totalitarian political regime and as an economy totally subordinated to the state. All recent events are thus interpreted in the light of the alleged struggle between the two parties, i.e., the party of the security forces has gone on a decisive offensive.

This is a liberal myth. The Russian liberal crowd, who are mainly right-wing liberals, concocted the story that increasing crackdowns and the Putin mafia state’s transition from a soft-core authoritarian imitation democracy to a hard-core authoritarian regime has been opposed by a party of court (systemic) liberals, a party informally led by former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

Can anyone produce even a single bit of evidence corroborating the so-called Kudrin party’s opposition to the policy of increasing crackdowns? Right-wing liberals would tell me the Kudrinistas are forced to act out of the public eye and play by the rules governing infighting among courtiers (apparatchiks). The fact this infighting has no outward manifestations is no proof that there is no showdown between the two parties, they would argue.

Let’s assume this is true. Where, however, did Russia liberals get the idea there is even one cause for such a showdown? Kudrin and other systemic right-wing liberals have always advocated an authoritarian modernization in which a “progressive” elite imposes unpopular social and economic reforms on the unwashed masses with an iron hand. By and large, their ideal is shared by the so-called Russian fascists, i.e., the “patriots” and statists. The occupation regime running mainland China carried out the very same economic reforms after crushing dissenters on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Has Mr. Kudrin ever said publicly that he is a principled opponent of such methods of strangling the opposition? He has not. Then why have Russian liberals decided he opposes the mass detention of peaceful citizens for protesting in public at certain times?

Liberals should stop imagining they have intercessors in the top ranks of the Putin organized crime group. There are no such intercessors.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

ahn-TEE-fuh?

foodwords.gif

“President Trump said he was considering designating [ahn-TEE-fuh] an organization of terror.”

What the hell is [ahn-TEE-fuh]?

And why is it suddenly an “organization”?

Trump’s magical touch is such that anyone who even reports his fake presidency is turned into a useful idiot, including, in this case, the BBC’s World Service.

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The surge of popular interest in the United States in antifa (antifacism) in the past year has been disconcerting to me. Perhaps other researchers who became familiar with antifa in European contexts feel the same.

I haven’t yet thought through what the arrival of the antifa specter to my homeland means, but in the meantime I wanted to share a small piece from my dissertation that, I think, expresses why — despite personally holding more or less pacifist views — I sympathize to a great degree with those for whom antifa militancy feels like the only correct response to a rising white supremacist movement.

P.S. It is ahn-tee-FAH, maybe AHN-tee-fah, not an-TEE-fuh.

Source: “Why Antifa?” Processing Culture, 4 October 2017

GIF courtesy of So Yummy