Sergei Shelin: Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia

vhuo87jzsh8j2vtaThe label from a bottle of Port Wine 777. Courtesy of Collectionerus

Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia
The Sukhoi Superjet 100’s crash shows what happens when a country isolates itself from the world while trying to keep up with the 21st century’s Joneses 
Sergei Shelin
Rosbalt
May 7, 2019

Only Murmansk Region announced an official day of mourning for the people who perished at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport on May 5. There was little expectation a national day of morning would be announced, since the protocol for such things, adopted by the country’s leaders for their own convenience, do not stipulate a national day of mourning after disasters of this magnitude. It is thus neither a matter of heartlessness nor the upcoming Victory Day holiday.

The Sukhoi Superjet 100s have not been grounded, however. True, the authorities are currently pushing the hypothesis the crash was caused by pilot error. This is a more intelligible and attractive explanation than the hypothesis that was cooked up just the other day as a diversion, the one about how some passengers, allegedly, prevented other passengers from escaping because they were trying to get their luggage out of the burning plane. Nothing has yet been proven, however, although hardly anyone would argue with the fact that the first passenger jet designed and built in Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been a failure.

The Super Jet was produced long before the current falling out with the west. Its designers made generous use of imported parts, hoping the plane would sell like hotcakes abroad. Today, the few foreign airlines whom Sukhoi managed to persuade to purchase the planes, for example, the Mexicans, complain about the Super Jet’s unreliability, design flaws, and delays in procuring spare parts. It would seem they are looking for a good excuse to stop flying the planes.

The flip side of these failures has been the attempt to force Russian airlines to operate the plane, especially Aeroflot. What would grounding the plane mean now? It would be tantamount to bringing the entire undertaking to a close. Clearly, the Russian state’s ambitions and collective self-interest have coalesced to oppose this decision. The Super Jets are still flying, and we can only hope everything will work out for the best.

Such semi-Russian, semi-foreign collaborations are feasible and normal if the general contractor is not having a spat with the outside world, and airlines are free to choose which airplanes they fly. This was not quite the case from the get-go, but when Russia’s quarrel with the west gained momentum, all the worst aspects of the venture elbowed their way to the fore, turning into a self-sustaining process.

The deeper Russia sinks into isolation, the worse the links in all business chains function, while state protectionism constantly increases for anything that resembles import substitution or at least apes it. The number of failures and breakdowns in all parts of Russian society, some of them involving fatalities, sometimes without them, thank God, inevitably grows.

What is the difference between yesteryear’s Soviet isolationism and the current Russian isolationism? The former was preprogrammed to generate victims and hardship. They were merely part of the system. We need not talk about Stalin’s horrors. Even during its final decades, the Soviet Union was still typified by universal poverty, quite strong societal discipline, and the ruling class’s relative modesty. This state of affairs was maintained by a ragtag ideology and a still palpable fear of the state machine. Isolation was vouchsafed, of course, by the Soviet Union’s lagging behind the outside world. But it did not weigh heavy on every aspect of life and all at the same time. People moved into Khrushchev-era blocks of flats, regarding them as the last word in modern housing. They drank 777 brand “port wine,” having no clue how real Portuguese port tasted.

On the other hand, the Soviet military-industrial complex competed successfully with the rest of the world, at least until the early 1980s. Even though it was a byproduct of military aviation, Soviet civil aviation was quite impressive. The country’s professional communities, including the period’s passenger airline pilots, maintained a strict work ethic longer than Soviet society at large. Crashes were not so rare, however. But they were usually covered up not only due to totalitarianism but also because the information revolution had not yet happened.

The Soviet regime seemed invincible almost to the bitter end. Current attempts to resurrect it, despite their impressive magnitude, are laughable.

Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union.  It does not have the stamina to compete in arms races and so forth with the outside world. It has even less will to self-denial, both among the elites and the grassroots. People have been adapting to the plans of the authorities to lock them up in a besieged fortress forever, but their life hacks are completely different from what they were in the last century.

Many Russians who have the right skills, experience, and education have been leaving abroad to work. By the way, their ranks have included hundreds if not thousands of the country’s best commercial pilots. Several millions of people, each of them capable of doing something well, have emigrated from Russia during Putin’s twenty-year reign.

Meanwhile, the majority of Russians, who have stayed in Russia, have tried to make themselves as comfy as they can in their import-substitution society, hoping either for special perks or state welfare, or perks and welfare all at once.

Since isolation has kicked in, independent business, already frail, has almost gone extinct. But the bureaucratized “state-minded” capitalists who took over the entire business field have nothing in common with the dexterous captains of Soviet management. As they get filthy rich through import substitution, today’s Russian magnates would never think of depriving themselves of the outside world’s blessings. They do not pretend to be farsighted. Simple minded, they loudly demand that the isolationist feast go on, becoming more creative as it proceeds. From time to time, the peculiarity of their exclamations spices up the sad circumstances, but not much.

Many people laughed at Viktor Linnik, president of Russian agribusiness giant Miratorg, and the National Meat Association when they called on the government to ban individuals from bringing small amounts of sanctioned European produce back to Russia. They were especially amused when Linnik said, “Jamon should be eaten in Spain, while Parmesan cheese should be eaten in France.”

The most striking thing about what Linnik said was not his confusion about Parmesan cheese’s national provenance, but the ease with which one could continue his line of though by saying, for example, that Russian bread should be eaten in Russia and, consequently, it was time to stop exporting grain, one of the few export sectors in which Russia has been blossoming. Would you tell me only a crazy blowhard would suggest such a thing? I doubt you would. Many things that had seemed impossible have already happened during the current orgy of import substitution, which consists of equal portions of greed and persecution mania.

Russia’s newfangled twenty-first-century isolationism not only vouchsafes the country will lag behind others. It is a species of intellectual, moral and professional corruption. It means no lessons can be learned from accidents and disasters. It means decadence, decay, and collapse are fobbed off as a decent, normal life.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Nastiness Is a Warm Gun: The Kremlin’s Cowboys

bd1bf37b99A Miratorg worker tending calves. Courtesy of Readovka

Business Russian Style, or, What is Miratorg, and What Do You Eat with It?
Dmitry Zhuravsky
Readovka
April 30, 2019

How Did a Company Importing Meat from Brazil End Up Getting Most of Russia’s Agricultural Subsidies? 
Miratorg’s own website identifies it as the largest agribusiness investor in Russia. The company is owned the Linnik twins, Viktor and Alexander. Viktor serves as the company’s president. It was Viktor Linnik who, last week, proposed tightening controls on the luggage of people entering Russia and increasing penalties for the illegal import of meat-based products. Today, he encouraged Russians to stop thinking about Parmesan cheese and start thinking more about the country’s growth. To rub it in, he dubbed everyone disgruntled with such proposals “blowhards.”

We should point out right off the bat that the fact Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife’s maiden name is Linnik is only a funny coincidence, one which the Linnik twins have never tired of mentioning when they are interviewed by journalists.

The facts back this up. Blood relatives of the Russian state’s second most important person could not have established a giant agribusiness company that keeps all its accounts and founding capital outside Russia.

One hundred percent of Miratorg’s shares are owned by Cypriot offshore companies: 99.99% by Agromir, Ltd. (despite its Russian acronym, the company is registered in Nicosia), and 0.01% by Saudeid Enterprises, Ltd. (also registered in Nicosia).

Nevertheless, Miratorg is on the Russian federal list of so-called backbone companies and, since 2015, due to Russia’s self-imposed ban on meat and produce imports, it has been dubbed a strategic company. These regalia allow the Cypriot-based company to obtain loans from Vnesheconombank at discounted rates, which means it borrows part of its operating capital by drawing on the future pensions of Russians. (We published a detailed analysis of this scheme in a previous article.) It also means Miratorg can apply to the government for subsidies to pay back these selfsame loans.

A Success Story
Considering Viktor Linnik’s current circumstances, Miratorg’s origins appear laughable. The company was initially established to import meat from Holland and Brazil to Russia. To make the job easier, two years after the company was founded, in 1997, Miratorg opened a subsidiary in the Kaliningrad Sea Fishing Port, through which it imported meat to mainland Russia. Miratorg did business this way for nearly ten years. In 2005, it purchased a stake in two BelgoFrance-owned pig farms in Belgorod Region. The import company was transformed into a full-fledged agribusiness.

Kaliningrad Sea Fishing Port. Courtesy of Readovka

Miratorg went on to co-found a farm in Kaliningrad Region. A little later, it moved into Bryansk Region, which has become the company’s second home.

It was also in 2005 Miratorg was chosen to be involved in the National Priority Projects, a program for growing “human capital,” announced by Vladimir Putin on September 5, 2005. Until Dmitry Medvedev was elected president, the program, which included promoting the agricultural sector as one of its priorities, was overseen by the current Russian prime minister. Since 2008, when Medvedev was inaugurated president, the agricultural growth program has had its own line item in the federal budget.

Current Realities
Miratorg is currently Russia’s largest meat producer. According to Kontr.Focus.ru, an online service for assisting in doing due diligence on potential clients and business partners, Miratorg, Ltd., has founded thirty-six subsidiaries in eight regions of Russia. In 2017, the company produced 415,000 tons of pork, 114,000 tons of poultry, and 82,000 tons of beef.

Russia’s regions regard Miratorg as a valuable investor whom nearly any governor would be glad to welcome into his neighborhood. According to Miratorg’s website, the company has made a total of 200 billion rubles in investments. The advent of an agricultural market player of this caliber in a region means a guaranteed inflow of money from the federal budget in the form of subsidies from the government’s agricultural sector growth program and  Miratorg’s own investments.

On paper, Miratorg is a real find for regions heavily dependent on federal government subsidies. Aside from the federal agricultural subsidies it brings with it, Miratorg contributes to regional budgets through the land it leases. Its farms provide jobs while they are being builty and after they are brought on line. In addition, it pays taxes in the regions. The company is not a burden but a blessing, or so it would seem.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Miratorg President Viktor Linnik. Courtesy of Readovka

Taking advantage of its status, Miratorg moves confidently around Russia. In the regions, it has become accustomed to acting suddenly and brazenly. The company often receives land under indefinite gratuitous bailments by order of the federal government, whose decrees are personally signed by Prime Minister Medvedev.

Miratorg usually acts in full compliance with the law, although the effects of how it does business trip up regional governments. After three years, the land it leases free of charge is transferred from regional ownership to Miratorg’s ownership.

Last summer, the Bryansk Commercial Court adjudicated a conflict between the Bryansk Meat Company (Miratorg’s local subsidiary) and the Bryansk Regional Government. Miratorg tried to prove that members of a district council had violated the law by refusing to sell them land they had been leasing. According to law, a company that has leased agricultural land for three years has the right to purchase it and continuing farming it. Only two conditions must be met for the deal to go through: the relevant regulatory authorities must have no objections, and the land must be used for its original purpose.

The Bryansk Meat Company had complied with these terms, but local councilors had not signed off on the deal. Originally, they had agree to lease the land to the investor. Later, Miratorg’s subsidiary decided to trick the council and buy the land. Consequently, the local council was not paid the rent promised to it and did not profit from Miratorg’s presence in the district.

Instead of a lease, the local council was offered a one-time payment, which is transferred to the council’s accounts when the investor buys the land. Bryansk Meat Company’s farm occupies thirteen parcels of land totaling 7,398,700 square meters. Under the terms of the sale of the parcels to Miratorg, the average assessed value of one square meter of land is a mere 1.6 rubles. It is a great deal for Miratorg, but not for Bryansk Region.

We found reports of similar law suits ongoing between Miratorg and local governments in other regions of Russia.

Nastiness Is a Warm Gun
Since 2009, Miratorg has also confidently been colonizing Kursk Region. Its investments there began with the Pristen District, but currently the company operates in thirteen districts in the region. Its facilities in Kursk Region include the Pristen Pig Farm, Blagodatnoye Agricultural Enterprise, Renaissance Farm, Fatezh Lamb, and Miratorg Kursk, Ltd. According to Miratorg’s figures, it invested 17 billion rubles on its agribusiness facilities in Kursk Region between 2009 and 2017. In the Pristen District, it built two pig-breeding facilities with three sites each, while in the Oboyan District it built two pedigree breeding units.

Currently, Miratorg is building what will be Europe’s largest refrigerated slaughterhouse with a capacity to process 4.5 million head of hogs or 400,000 tons of meat in slaughter weight. Miratorg has also been building seven pig farms in two other districts in the region.

3fe1ac38af.jpgA billboard showing Miratorg’s assets in Kursk Region. Courtesy of Readovka

Why has Miratorg invested so much in Kursk Region? For the same reason it has invested heavily in Smolensk, Bryansk, Kaluga, Kaliningrad, and other regions in Russia. The Russian federal budget supports domestic industrial agricultural enterprises with subsidies. Some of the federal government’s assistance is earmarked for the largest players in agribusiness, the strategic, “backbone” companies we mentioned earlier. Some of the assistance is filtered through regional government budgets, where it is meant to boost small companies and support local producers. When Miratorg sets up a subsidiary in a region, it automatically grabs the lion’s share of federal subsidies for itself.

In Russia, there are no limits on the subsidies a particular agricultural holding company can receive. By using the subsidiaries it has established in the regions, a national agribusiness company can qualify for regional subsidies. For example, in 2016, the Bryansk Meat Company was awarded 98% of all subsidies earmarked in the federal budget for promoting agriculture in Bryansk Region.

At the same time, Miratorg has been officially designated as a strategic, “backbone” enterprise. Accordingly, the company and its subsidiaries also receive subsidies for pursuing particular projects. Since 2014, Vnesheconombank has lent Miratorg $871.5 million to expand meat production. Thanks to sleights of hand such as this on, in 2016, Bryansk Meat Company left not only farms in Bryansk high and dry in terms of financing but also farmers nationwide by hogging 90% of all subsidies earmarked for agriculture. The total amount of subsidized loans was 33.6 billion rubles, and this financing was obtained by a single Miratorg subsidiary for a single year.

The company has been feeding off this program since it was founded in 2005. Miratorg has received hundred of billions of rubles in subsidies over this period.

The more subsidiaries it gets, the more lines of credit Miratorg can receive. The story  of its rise to the top bears a strong resemblance to the way Yevgeny Prigozhin built his school cafeteria catering monopoly in Moscow. There is one signal difference, however: whereas Concord Catering’s contract implies that Prigozhin’s food production facility does the work for which it was contracted and pays back its debts out of the profit generated by the facility, some of Miratorg’s loan agreements contain an interesting loophole. It can fulfill its obligations to Vnesheconombank one of two ways, either the way Concord Catering does it, by paying back its debts out of its profits, or by selling off its founding shares in its subsidiaries to pay off its loans. Meaning, hypothetically, Miratorg can rid itself of some of its subsidiaries.

Where Do Miratorg’s Profits Go?
Considering the billions in government subsidies it receives annually, Miratorg and its owners do not even have to run a good business to live high on the hog. According to open sources, Miratorg’s profits shrunk fivefold in 2016, amounting to a mere five billion rubles, despite the fact the company received several tens of billions of rubles in subsidies from the Russian federal government.

Nevertheless, Miratorg is the main supplier of meat for huge fast food chains such as McDonalds and Burger King. It has also launched its own cafes and supermarket chain. Miratorg’s profits, which are incomparable to the subsidies paid to the company, end up not in Russian bank accounts, but in offshore accounts in Cyprus.

d79d3fe745.jpgA  Miratorg supermarket, newly opened somewhere in Russia. Courtesy of Readovka

Miratorg’s operations do not resemble an attempt to promote Russian agriculture, but rather a scheme for spiriting federal money out of the country. Given Miratorg is the industry leader in terms of land assets and government support, it should also have come to monopolize supermarket shelves. Its status as a strategic enterprise and the subsidies it receives simply oblige it to aspire to this end. The government’s plan was to have Miratorg replace all the imported meat banned from supermarkets with domestically produced meat.

Instead, Miratorg annually receives several hundreds of billions in subsidies allocated by the government to support the country’s agriculture. Miratorg spends the money to purchase land, which it uses, along with shares from its regional subsidiaries, as collateral to obtain more loans.

Ultimately, instead of building a successful business and resurrecting Russian domestic agriculture according to the government’s plan, Miratorg merely filches money from the federal budget. As long as it keeps feeding the “Cypriot butchers,” real hardworking Russian farmers will have to get by without substantial assistance. Eventually, the whirligig of subsidies could lead to the complete collapse of Russian agriculture as such.

Thanks to Anna Klimenko for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Hasbara

Here’s a great example of Israeli hasbara targeting Russian speakers.

I found the short post on a friend’s Facebook news feed. It consists of three sentences attached to a powerful image of at least thirty missiles or rockets fired simultaneously.

The message reads (in Russian), “Israel today [sad face emoji]. This is exactly the instance when one photo is worth a thousand words. The world needs to know what’s really going on! — feeling down [sad face emoji].”

israel today-post

The post has been shared 6,800 times, garnered 451 likes, and elicited 173 comments in the 20 hours since it was published.

We are meant to imagine, of course, that the “photo worth a thousand words” is a photo of a Hamas rocket installation in the Gaza Strip firing its deadly cargo towards the utterly innocent state of Israel.

A simple Google image search turned up several instances of the same image, all of them bearing different dates and captions, none of which link the “photo” in question to Hamas or the current hostilities between Hamas and the IDF.

 

So, in fact, the photo is worthless, except to underscore something we already knew.

Zionist hasbaristas are utterly unscrupulous. They count on people not bothering to check any of their claims, but just to pass the “horrible truth” along, thus confusing more people about the real, complicated facts about the relationship between the state of Israeli and the stateless Palestinians. {TRR}

My Generation

frenkel-subway trialThe defendants in the Petersburg subway bombing trial. Photo by David Frenkel

After a terrific, well-attended solidarity talk in support of the defendants in the Network case, held here in Berlin the other night, I spoke to a lovely young Russian activist.

I said to them that there were, of course, many more instances of wild injustice in Putinist Russia with which an engaged foreign audience could be regaled, such as the ongoing trial of several Central Asians, accused of complicity in the alleged terrorist suicide bombing in the Petersburg subway on April 3, 2017.

Like the Network case, the Petersburg subway bombing case has all the hallmarks of a frame-up. As in the Network case, there have been numerous allegations the defendants have been tortured by investigators.

“But the difference,” the young person interrupted me, “is racism.”

They meant that, since all the defendants hailed from Central Asia, there was no way to mount the successful solidarity campaign that has shown a harsh light on the Network case and garnered it widespread notoriety, especially within Russia.

The young person went on to tell me that a friend of theirs had been attending the subway bombing trial. She had told them it was horrific. The defendants had been assigned state-appointed lawyers who did doing nothing to defend them. The trial was such a flagrant frame-up the interpreters working it had banded together to try and do anything they could to help the young people, who in all likelihood have been accused of terrible crimes they did not commit.

It goes without saying that all of them will be found guilty and sentenced to long terms in prison.

The case has been covered spottily by Petersburg and Russian media outlets, but I have seen very little outrage or even mild concern about it from my acquaintances on Russophone social media, most of whom live in Petersburg.

Many of these same people are now visibly bent out shape about goings-on in Israel-Palestine. In the past few days, they have been treating virtual friends like me to generous helpings of unsubstatianted hasbara.

Are they unconcerned about the miscarriage of justice perpetrated on nearly a dozen young Central Asians because they think all Muslims are terrorists and, by definition, guilty of every charge of terrorism laid at their door?

It has been a commonplace of Russian quasi-liberal thinking that Stalinism affected Russians so deeply it infected their collective DNA. The Stalinist bug, so this spurious argument contends, has been passed on to the new generation as well, even though the Soviet Union collapsed almost thirty years ago, before my interlocutor and huge numbers of other terrific young Russian social and political activists I know were born.

Supposedly, several generations must pass before the Stalinist bug will finally be expunged from the national genetic code and Russians can build a more democratic polity in their country.

In reality, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence pointing to the new generation’s eagerness and readiness to live that way right now.

On the contrary, it is my own age mates, the so-called last Soviet generation, who were born after Stalin died, who seem most afflicted by a kind of cognitive and emotional Stalinism that, often as not, emerges in their thoughts and deeds not as nostalgia or admiration for the real Stalin, but as dogmatic worldview that makes events in, say, Israel more real and important than most events in their own country and cities.

Given recent oddities around the Network trial and the unwonted negative publicity the case has generated for the FSB, I think there is a slight chance the powers that be might have decided to ratchet things down a bit. I could be wrong, but I would not be surprised if, when the trials in Penza and Petersburg resume after a long, unexplained recess, the defendants were indicted on lesser charges and then immediately released on probation, taking into account the long time all of them have spent in remand prisons since their arrests in late 2017 and early 2018.

There is no chance this will happen in the subway bombing trial for the simple reason that almost no one in Petersbug can be bothered to go to bat for a group of non-Russian Muslims or even bat an eye when they are tortured and framed exactly like their non-Muslim contemporaries. {TRR}

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Sergei Vilkov: Everything You Thought You Knew About the Russian Working Class Was Wrong

kalashnikov workersWorkers of the Kalashnikov plant in Izhevsk, Russia, on September, 20, 2016. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov (Getty Images). Courtesy of Fortune

The Heroes of the Day: What We Know about the Russian Working Class
How the Proletariat Stopped Fearing TV and Came to Dislike It
Sergei Vilkov
News.ru
April 30, 2019

It has been a tradition on the eve of May Day to recall the working class, which in Russia has seemingly been usurped by televised images of the “patriots” and regular blokes who work at the Uralvagonzavod plant in Nizhny Tagil.

Actually, Russia’s workers are a genuine black hole to sociologists. No one had seriously researched their circumstances, sentiments, and views for thirty years.

The first tentative attempts to research today’s Russian industrial laborers have produced a portrait that many had not expected. It transpires that today’s proletarians, at least, the most politically and civically dynamic among them, almost never watch television. They have a sober take on politics. They are immune to state propaganda. They have a relatively relaxed attitude toward migrant workers.

They regard themselves as outside observers in the debates between the regime and the opposition, not finding their own interests reflected in them. They are more likely to feel trampled upon by plant management than by a new law passed in the State Duma.

It is the factory where they fight their battles, which are usually invisible to official statisticians. Most important, according to researchers, they have more in common with early twentieth century social democrats than with current parties who try and speak on behalf of workers. However, the new research leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. News.ru took a look at it.

They Got What They Fought For
According to official data, 26 million people in Russia or over 36% of the able-boded population are employed in industry, transport, agriculture, fishing, and several similar sectors. These figures do not include, for example, the large numbers of people employed in commerce and services. Overall, however, sociologists estimate that workers make up 40% of Russia’s population. They identify them as the largest group in society.

These people dwell on the dark side of Russia’s moon, as it were. It would be hard to say when someone last tried to examine them through an academic lens. However, understanding the nature of Russian society and its largest segments is, perhaps, the most ambitious humanities research project in the country today.

In government reports, Russia’s workers are imagined as a passive, homogeneous milieu that positively exudes tranquility. In 2017, Rosstat, the state statistics service, recorded only one strike, while in the preceding years their official number oscillated between two and five strikes annually.

By comparison, in 2005, according to official data, there were 2,600 strikes in Russia. And yet the following year, Rosstat claimed the number of strikes had decreased by a factor of 325. Since then, according to official statistics, it has remained consistently scanty, despite the economic crises of 2008 and 2014.

However, the Center for Social and Labor Rights, which has monitored the situation on its own, claims there were an average of 240 labor protests between 2008 and 2014. In 2016, when the political opposition was quiet, there were twice as many labor protests, while in the first six months of 2018, the last period for which it has data, the center recorded 122 strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Nearly half of these incidents led to workers downing tools.

Since 2014, a year dominated by an apparent “patriotic” consensus in politics, the number of strikes has increased abruptly due to an upsurge of resistance in provincial cities, including district seats. The largest number of walkouts and protests occurred in industry, especially the machine building and metalworking sectors, which have accounted for 28% of the overall number of strikes. The transport sector has accounted for the same percentage of strikes and protests, despite the fact they have mainly been carried out by employees of private transport companies based in the cities. The construction industry has accounted for 19% of strikes and protests during the period.

The main cause of protests and strikes remains unpaid back wages, which accounted for 60% of incidents. Demands to raise pay were factors in 19–20% of incidents.

The Center for Social and Labor Rights noticed a curious thing. In 2018, the number of spontaneous, unorganized protests by workers rose abruptly by 22%. Trade unions were involved in a mere 17% of all strikes and protests. The experts claim this was partly due to the fact that the Russian hinterlands, where there have been no real trade unions for the last one hundred years, have taken the lead in labor activism, along with sectors dominated by precarious employment.

Shop Floor Intellectuals
Someone has been organizing these strikes and protests, however. It is evident there is a core of energetic progressive activists among Russia’s workers.

On April 22, Alexander Zhelenin gave a lecture at a round table held in the offices of Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Zhelenin is a well-known expert on workplace conflicts, and part of his talk dealt with a research study on the Russian proletariat. In July and September 2018, he and his fellow researchers did a small-scale qualitative sociological research study in Kaluga and Omsk that focused on the self-identification and sociopolitical views of workers.

A total of twenty-three people were interviewed. The small sample was offset by a thorough probing, through in-depth interviews, of the respondents’ attitudes and views, which are never revealed by run-of-the-mill public opinion polls. The workers interviewed by the sociologists were somehow connected to independent trade unions, which had, apparently, supported the research study. However, in the main, the interviewees were not politically engaged: only one of them was a member of a political organization.

We should also not forget it is usually the most energetic people who agree to be interviewed for ordinary official public opinion polls, which affects their outcomes.

In Kaluga, the respondents worked in the food industry and the new auto assembly plants, while in Omsk, they were employed at old Soviet military-industrial complex plants. They ranged in age from twenty to fifty, and included women and men. They were quite well-paid technicians who were proud of their contributions to society. On the other hand, they had a constant sense of their status as subordinates. They tended to strongly associate themselves with their workplaces. Family “labor dynasties” were a possible factor in their outlooks.

Most of the workers interviewed at the auto plants had been abroad one or more times, and this partly had to do with Volkswagen’s work exchange programs. One of the things they had learned on these trips was independent trade unions were ordinary, valuable organizations.

On the contrary, a foreign-travel passport was a rarity among the workers of the old defense plants, and yet both groups of workers tended to spend their holidays on the Black Sea coast. Some respondents in Omsk said they had never seen the sea or had seen it in early childhood.

Mortgages were the main financial obstacles to holidays away from home. Financially, the skilled workers felt they were members of the so-called middle class. In terms of standards of living in their regions, however, they noticed the gap between the more affluent segment of the populace and themselves. Thus, they had a keen sense of the difference in life chances for their children and the children of rich families, talking about it with great indignation.

Pavel Kudyukin, ex-minister of labor and employment and a lecturer in public administration at the Higher School of Economics, commented on the growing social segregation in Russia.

“It comes to the fore when talk turns to children’s futures. It is an aspect that will become more acute, because we are moving from segregation to social apartheid. I think it will facilitate [grassroots] civic activism,” he said.

The authors of the report did not hide their amazement at the fact that the respondents were quite well-educated, intelligent people. Nearly a third of them had a higher education or an uncompleted university degree. Many of them pointed out it was ordinary to find university-educated workers on the shop floor.

Tellingly, a man from Kaluga, identified as Anatoly, who did not finish his university degree, and whose outward appearance (a bespectacled intellectual), cultivated manner of speaking, and hobbies (music and organizing non-profit music festivals) gave the researchers the impression he was a local intellectual, although he said he had been employed as a skilled laborer for over eleven years. Like some other respondents, Anatoly noted he had become a laborer because life had worked out that way and he had to earn money. Industry was the only place where it was possible to earn a more or less decent wage, the study noted.

They Have Their Own Values
And yet 74% of of the respondents unambiguously identified themselves as workers, stressing their difference from other groups in society and their direct involvement in production. The remaining 26% preferred to call themselves “employees” and supported the notion of so-called social partnerships with management. However, despite their decent standard of life, it followed from the interviews that the workers believed they occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. This had to do with their palpably subordinate positions at work and the lack of prestige in their occupations. This circumstance was painfully apparent in the tension between blue-collar and white-collar workers at one plant, a tension exacerbated by the arrogance of the latter towards the former.

The workers were very annoyed by the fact that, as Sergei, a grinder who was involved in the Omsk focus group, said, “In terms of wages and education, the blue-collar workers often outperform the office workers, but the latter still treat them as inferiors.”

In Omsk, for example, the wages of workers fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 rubles a month, but workers at some defense plants could earn up to 70,000 or 80,000 rubles a month. However, according to the same interviewee, the well-paid jobs were “inherited.”

Besides, he said, to earn such a wage, one virtually had to live at the factory, working twelve hours a day and enjoying only one day off a week, something not all workers would do. Meanwhile, office workers at the same plant could earn only 20,000 rubles a month, but they treated the workers “as if they were above [them],” said Sergei.

“A really interesting thing is the split in self-identification as workers and members of the middle class,” said Kudyukin. “It clearly manifests the pressure exerted in society by hegemonic views. It is like what Marx wrote: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’ Since the notion of the middle class is constantly in the air, people give no thought to the fact that it’s a sociological fiction. People realize they are workers. They work on an assembly line or operate a machine. Yet in terms of income they identify themselves as middle class in the sense that they are neither rich nor poor. Maybe this has to do with the notion that the middle class is formally defined by income.”

“Russia is a quite highly stratified country, and it is constantly becoming more stratified,” explained Gregory Yudin, a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “It’s not a matter of income gaps, but of what these people say: the sense of symbolic superiority in cases where there is no income gap. When this sense takes root at a particular factory, what happens is quite predictable. In this sense, Marx was more or less right.”

Speaking about their place in production, the workers voiced the opinion their plants could run without managers, but without them the shop floors would grind to a halt. However, they sensed the arrogant attitude towards manual labor that had emerged in other parts of society. They realized that, from this perspective, their status was not considered prestigious at all. The factory laborers responded by opposing the values of their milieu to “other” values, saying that nowadays the chic thing to do was to steal and mooch, to make lots of money for doing nothing.

“I think this is an ordinary means of compensation, a psychological defense mechanism. We are considered impoverished in some way, whereas in fact we are the salt of the earth, and everything would grind to a halt without us. Their sentiments are quite justified. Despite the importance of managerial work, if you got rid of the management staff, the shop floor would function all the same. But if the workers suddenly disappeared, the plant would shut down,” said Kudyukin.

The research study showed the respondents perceived Russian politics as an established system that ignored their interests. This applied not only to the government but also to the opposition. Nearly half of the respondents consciously refrained from voting. By comparison, during the last presidential election, in March 2018, the Central Electoral Commission reported that 32.5% of registered voters did not vote.

Some of the respondents voted for the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), A Just Russia, and LDPR [Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party], although they noted these parties were entangled in establishment and supported workers’ interests more in words than in actual deeds. They were not a serious opposition.

What they had to say on the matter was telling.

“I have little trust in politicos and parties. I have more faith in the people here, the people with whom I work, the people I know. Here, at the local level, there are decent people among the members of different [political] movements. But the leadership is usually a bloody shambles,” said Sergei, 35, a grinder at the Aggregate Plant in Omsk.

“There are currently no parties that would defend workers’ interests. We need to create such a party,” said Sergei, who works at the Volkswagen plant in Kaluga.

Volodya, who also works at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was likewise certain such parties did not exist.

“All of them are against us [workers]. They represent business and big money, even the CPRF and A Just Russia. Those parties just use the ‘movements’ to score political points. They have great jobs. United Russia try and pass bad laws. They have the majority in the Duma, so [the three other parties represented there] can pretend to oppose them, since the bad laws will be passed all the same,” he said.

He quoted Mark Twain.

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”

The federal government was a source of considerable irritation to the workers, especially in connection with the pension reform.

Roman, a 45-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was the only respondent in either city who said he had always voted for Putin and United Russia, but since the pension reform had passed, he was severely disenchanted and was more inclined to vote for the CPRF.

Vladislav, a 28-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, had a confession to make despite the fact he had never voted.

“I was never opposed to Putin. But I did not believe to the last that he would say yes to this cannibalistic reform,” he said.

“Their statements jibe with what we see in other studies,” said Yudin. “People are depoliticized, yes. They distrust the system profoundly. This distrust grew even deeper last year. It’s a typical Russian scenario, and I am not entirely certain it has something specifically to do with workers. It typifies many segments of the populace. People who espouse this worldview serve as the base for different populist projects.”

Researchers describe their views as a contradictory mix of spontaneous anarchism and paternalistic expectations from the state. They would like to see the state solving society’s problems and intervening in the economy to raise wages, create jobs, and distribute incomes more fairly.

Igor, a worker from Omsk, had a typical view of the matter.

“The government should definitely solve these issues if workers have hired them to serve the people. When are they going to handle all of this if they work six and seven days a week? They just don’t have the time to deal with their own improvement [sic],” he said.

However, their political beliefs were more leftist and democratic than conservative and reactionary, even when it came to ethnic, religious and gender issues.

“The workers with whom we spoke, irrespective of whether they believed in God, wanted to lived in a secular state, while hoping the Russian Orthodox Church would be behave more modestly when it came to secular issues and would be less politicized. The views of workers on gender roles, the place of women in families, society, and the state were generally quite democratic. In terms of their worldviews, the workers had more in common with classic leftists than with a good number of current leftist parties and movements in Russia,” write the study’s authors.

Cool Heads
The researchers claim the workers they surveyed were clearly not victims of government propaganda. Their attitude towards Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria was generally very restrained, if not sharply negative. Many of them argued that Russia’s foreign policy, as defined by the country’s leadership, had nothing to with their interests and was even capable of harming them. They also had a skeptical attitude to the promotion of great-power patriotism, seeing it as a means of distracting working people from real problems. But while they openly voiced their attitudes to foreign policy, the workers were cautious about discussing it, emphasizing a lack of information on the subject.

Many of them said society was not told everything.

To the surprise of the sociologists, most of the interviewees (78%) identified the internet as their main source of information, despite the fact they were asked about this part of their lives in a way that mentioned television and newspapers first, while the internet was among the information sources listed last.

By comparison, in March 2018, Levada Center published a poll claiming 85% of Russians got most of their information by watching television; moreover, 72% of respondents preferred watching state-controlled Channel One. On the contrary, only five of the workers (22% of the focus group) watched news and political programs on television. They regarded what they saw on television quite skeptically, trying to detect the influence of certain third-party interests.

They had a rather low opinion of the state of the nation.

“Lately, I’ve been ashamed of my people,” said Roman, a worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga.

Another worker, Vladimir, countered Roman.

“To stop feeling ashamed of your nation, just don’t identify yourself with it. Russia, the people, and the nation are illusions that have been pounded into our heads. There is just the earth and the people who live on it. The people who lived before us dreamed up border: here is Russia, there is Ukraine, here is America. In fact, we are all people. If you look at things from this standpoint, everything falls into place. For example, I don’t acknowledge the existence of national Olympic squads. My world is the people I know. When they say, “Our guys are playing football,” I think of “our guys” as my neighbors, workmates, family members, and the clerks at the shop. I could not care less what is going on in Syria and Donbas,” said Vladimir.

The researchers got rather unexpected and ambivalent results when they asked the workers about their attitudes towards migrant workers. In July 2018, Levada Center reported that 67% of Russians regarded them negatively. It is such sentiments that currently fuel nationalism and xenophobia. Among the workers in the survey, however, the intensity of these sentiments was considerably lower.

The different focus groups were split in their opinions of migrant laborers.

“Why hide it? I have a positive attitude toward them, because they are former brothers [within the Soviet Union]. We have the same troubles as they do. They get paid under the table, and so do we. And sometimes they are not paid at all,” said Mikhail, a 55-year-old freight handler.

“I tend to believe we need to create jobs for our own people first, and only then can we create jobs for migrants. As a worker, I consider them competitors, but as a human being I have no problems with them. On the other hand, how do we employ Russians if no Russians want to work as janitors?” said Svyatoslav, a truck driver at the Volkswagen plant.

Ultimately, 45% of the respondents took anti-migrant worker stances. In Omsk, the breakdown between migrantophobes and internationalists was six to four. In Kaluga, on the other hand, where the focus groups and in-depth interviews were dominated by workers from modern, foreign-owned production facilities, there were seven internationalists, as opposed to three migrantophobes.

The study’s authors argue the discrepancies are due to the different types of industry in the two cities, contrasting the workers from the old Soviet defense plants with the employees of foreign companies. However, we would be remiss not to note the relatively low level of nationalism in all the groups surveyed.

“In our view, this is because the workers have closer and more frequent contacts with migrant workers, and thus have more personal experience with them, something that always shatters stereotypes. It is yet another testimony to the fact that the dominant media coverage in Russia has less impact on the views of workers,” argue the study’s authors.

As for attitudes towards religion, twelve of the twenty-three respondents identified themselves as believers, while eleven identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. Two of the respondents regarded themselves as deeply religious Russian Orthodox believers. However, all the respondents said they wanted to live in a secular country in which the Russian Orthodox Church should have a smaller role in secular issues and politics.

The views of the workers on gender relations and the place of women at home and in society were quite democratic. According to the researchers, nearly all the men agreed women had the right to pursue any career or calling. They would not stop their own wives from getting involving in public life and politics or pursuing a career.

However, they regarded female politicians in the State Duma quite skeptically, since they did not see them as politicians who hailed from the grassroots. The respondents named German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović as positive examples of women involved in politics.

At the same time, both of the experts we interviewed, Pavel Kudyukin and Gregory Yudin, agreed the research study had serious methodological flaws. Besides, it gave its readers no sense of the particular life experiences that had prompted the workers to embrace particular outlooks.

Thanks to Alexander Zamyatin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Fulda Gap

fulda gap-e

My neighborhood in the former East Berlin harbors some of the last anarchist squats in the city. All the dogs here go for walks without a leash. The odor of marijuana lies heavy in the air. And the sharing economy is practiced as a matter of course.

This means that when someone decides to get rid of something that someone else could use, they often as not set it out on the pavement for the taking.

In this way, several valuable finds have come into my temporary possession.

What I found while we were strolling the neighborhood yesterday, however, was a gift beyond price, and yet it was completely free, to rephrase a line from Rush’s greatest song, “The Spirit of Radio” (1980).

Rush recorded all of their best records during the Cold War, whose moral and intellectual were palpable in Neil Peart’s hippy libertarian fantasy mini-epics, sci-fi short stories, and sonic sermons on the virtues of freedom and individualism.

I was a Rush fan from an early age, but little did I know that as Rush were in Toronto composing and recording the soundtrack of my adolescence, a company called SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.), headquartered on Park Avenue South in Manhattan, was churning out extraordinarily complicated “conflict simulation” games by the hundreds.

Many of SPI’s conflict simulations were based on historical battles and campaigns, ranging from the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Austerlitz to “fantasy & science fiction games” such as Invasion: America—Death Throes of the Superpower and (in the interests of “balance”) Objective: Moscow—The Death of Soviet Communism (“A hypothetical invasion of the USSR by a world coalition”).

Oddly, the first game retailed for $18, while the second cost $27, a decent chunk of money at the time, considering SPI’s target market and the fact that their games consisted of lots of instructions, charts, tables, diagrams, maps, playing pieces, and game boards, all of them printed on cardstock and heavy paper, not on embossed cardboard, etc.

In 1977, when I was ten, and the Cold War informed most of the zeitgeist one way or another, SPI released a remarkable conflict stimulation entitled Fulda Gap: The First Battle of the Next War.

Yesterday, I found what looks to be a completely intact, serviceable specimen of Fulda Gap in a cardboard box along with other things clearly left there for the taking by a kindhearted Berliner.

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My first impression of Fulda Gap is that it is a thousand time more complicated than the actual Cold War was. The “Rules of Play” alone run to sixteen pages.

fulda gap-1.jpg

Fulda Gap also features three sets of “Charts and Tables,” a large folded sheet containing a “Turn Record / Reinforcement Track” on one side, an “Untried Unit Table Analysis” on the reverse, and, of course, a foldout map of West Germany and East Germany where, apparently, the main action takes place and the players pretend, variously, to invade West Germany or fend off the cunning, treacherous Reds.

 

fulda gap-b.JPG

Finally, Fulda Gap contains what SPI’s mail order catalog of its other games honestly identifies as several hundred “die-cut cardboard playing pieces […] packaged in ziplock bag[s].” The playing pieces are printed with such arcane combinations of numbers, letters, and symbols it is easier to imagine they have something to do with the Kabbalah than with all-out warfare between NATO  and the Warsaw Pact.

If I were a contemporary artist I would stage a performance involving Fulda Gap in one of the ex-Cold War settings and current Cold War memorials with which Berlin teems.

If I were a real gamester I would just find a few other comrades, figure out how the game works, and play it.

In any case, I would appreciate your comments, suggestions, and reminiscences about Fulda Gap and SPI’s other remarkable products, as well as information about the company and the people who produced its games. {TRR}

The Syrian Breakthrough

kuzminNikolai Kuzmin during his solo picket outside the exhibition The Syrian Breakthrough, in Pskov. His placard reads, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.” Photo by Lyudmila Savitskaya. Courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Yabloko Activist Detained in Pskov at “Syrian Breakthrough” Exhibition
Lyudmila Savitskaya
Radio Svoboda
April 26, 2019

In Pskov, police have detained local Yabloko Party activist Nikolai Kuzmin, who held a solo picket outside an exhibition of military equipment entitled The Syrian Breakthrough. Kuzmin stood behind servicemen queued at the city’s train station to see the exhibition.

He held a placard that read, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.”

Commenting on his actions, Kuzmin claimed over 25,000 schools had been closed in Russia over the past twenty years. The activist argued that, outside Moscow and Petersburg, it was nearly impossible to get an ambulance, and half of the men in Pskov Region did not live to retirement age.

“As in a dystopia, however, instead of being productive and saving the lives of Russians, we have raised war into a cult that we worship. Lacking reasons to feel proud, we are administered daily injections of patriotism. But patriotism does not mean fighting wars in someone else’s countries. It means building things in your own country and having a critical attitude toward the mania for military victory,” Kuzmin added.

Kuzmin’s picket lasted around ten minutes. During this time, members of the pro-regime organization Team 2018 managed to have their picture taken with him. Kuzmin was then surrounded by military police who asked him to leave. Kuzmin responded by asking them to identify themselves [as required by Russian laws regulating the police] and explain their grounds for wanting to remove him from a public event.

The military policemen were unable to fulfill Kuzmin’s request, so Sergei Surin, head of the Interior Ministry Directorate for Pskov [i.e., the local police chief] came to their aid. He personally detained Kuzmin while repeatedly refusing to explain the grounds for the arrest to Kuzmin and comment on it to reporters who were present.

Lev Schlosberg, leader of the Yabloko Party in Pskov, demanded Kuzmin’s immediate release and the removal from Pskov of The Syrian Breakthrough, which he dubbed a “propaganda scrap heap.”

“Russia must cease military operations in Syria, while government funds should be spent on peaceful goals that further the interests of Russia’s citizens,” Schlosberg said.

In February 2019, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a train containing weapons seized, it claimed, by Russian servicemen during combat in Syria. The train departed Moscow on an itinerary of sixty cities and towns. When it reaches Vladivostok, the train will head back to Moscow. It is scheduled to arrive there on the eve of Victory Day, May 9.

Thanks to Nikolai Boyarshinov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader