The Socialist Revolutionary Alternative

Socialist Revolutionary election poster, 1917. “Party of the Socialist Revolutionaries. Through struggle you will attain your rights. Land and freedom.” Courtesy of Wikimedia

The SR Alternative
Yaroslav Shimov
Radio Svoboda
March 8, 2017

“On the morning of February 23, the workers who had reported to the factories and shops of the Vyborg District gradually downed tools and took to the streets in crowds, thus voicing their protest and discontent over bread shortages, which had been particularly acutely felt in the above-named factory district, where, according to local police, many had not had any bread whatsoever in recent days.”

Thus read a report by agents of the Okhrana on the first day of a revolution that forever changed Russia, February 23, 1917 (March 8, New Style).

Revolutionary events such as the unrest in Petrograd, which the bewildered tsarist regime failed to put down, Nicholas II’s abdication on March 2 (15) at Dno Station near Pskov, and the establishment of the Provisional Government were recalled by contemporaries as happening so swiftly that they were unable to understand where Russia was headed so wildly and who would ultimately benefit from the changes. In February 1917, no one would have predicted that less than year later the Bolsheviks, a radical faction of the Social Democrats who had been on the sidelines of Russian politics, would emerge victorious, and Bolshevik leaders themselves were no exception in this regard.

But an enormous thirst for social justice was apparent from the revolution’s outset. Russia had emerged a quite leftist country. In the stormy months following the monarchy’s fall, it transpired that a definite majority of the country’s citizens sympathized with socialist ideas in one form or another. This was reflected in the outcome of the first free elections in Russian history, which took place in the autumn, when the chaos and anarchy on the war front and the home front were obvious. The newly elected Constituent Assembly was meant to define the country’s future. The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), a party that had consistently, albeit violently and bloodily, waged war against the Romanov Dynasty, but in 1917 had favored peaceful but radical reforms, primarily land reforms, scored a convincing victory in the elections.

Soldiers who had gone over to the revolution and armed city dwellers on the streets of Petrograd, 1917

If the country had managed to slip past the threat of dictatorship, issuing from the left (the Bolsheviks) and from the right (radical counter-revolutonaries), the SRs would definitely have been post-revolutionary Russia’s ruling party for a time, argues Konstantin Morozov, a professor in the Institute of Social Sciences at RANEPA and convener of a permanent seminar, Leftists in Russia: History and Public Memory. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, he reflects on why this did not happen and what the SR alternative would have meant to Russia.

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What was the condition of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in February 1917?

I would say the the party was then in a state of organization disarray. A considerable part of its prominent leaders was abroad, while the other part was in prison, exile, and penal servitude. It had to be rebuilt from scratch, and it was the SRs who had withdrawn from revolutionary work in 1905–07 but who basically returned to the party in 1917 who mainly engaged in the rebuilding. It was they who organized all the party’s new cells. There were also serious problems among the SRs in terms of internal rifts, especially due to differing viewpoints on the war.  In March, the SRs began to rebuild themselves as a single party, which was implemented subsequently at the party’s 3rd Congress in May and June. In my view, this was a mistake, because the disagreements within the party were such that it could not function, manage itself, and take decisions as a united party. A factional struggle immediately ensued. Accordingly, it ended in collapse and the inability to hew to a single internal party policy in 1917.

Due to the first phase of their history, the SRs are associated in the popular imagination with violence and terrorism, which they had long renounced by 1917. What were the views of the SRs and the leaders on violence as a principle of political struggle? The baggage of their terrorist pasts still haunted Viktor Chernov and other party leaders, after all. How did they view it in 1917?

The Socialist Revolutionary Party discussed the question of terrorism throughout its existence. At first, such figures as Mikhail Gots and Viktor Chernov, who advocated he inclusion of terror in the party’s tactics, had the upper hand. But even then the SRs included people who advocated a popular, mass-based party, who favored propaganda and agitation among the peasantry and proletariat rather than focusing on terror. Their ideal was a grassroots socialist party, something like the Second International’s exemplary party, the German Social Democracy. It went from bad to worse. During the 1905 Revolution, the party’s grassroots combat squads were keen on practicing expropriation and many other things that party leaders dubbed “revolutionary hooliganism.” But after 1909–11, in the aftermath of Evno Azef‘s exposure, the voices of those SRs who had argued for giving up terrorism grew ever stronger. By February 1917, there was no longer any talk of terror. The last terrorist act carried out by SRs had taken place in 1911, after which they basically ceased engaging in terrorism. Terrorist sentiments in the Socialist Revolutionary Party were resurrected only in the wake of October 1917, especially after the Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Even then, however, the greater number of SR leaders were against engaging in terrorism against the Bolsheviks. These SR leaders argued that first they had to get the grassroots on their side using the methods of a popular political party.

In his memoirs, Boris Savinkov quotes his friend Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the SR Combat Organization who killed the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Kalyayev said that an SR without a bomb was not an SR. In reality, however, the majority of SRs were not involved in terrorism, and they would have disagreed with Kalyayev’s statement. It can be argued that use of terrorist tactics dealt a huge blow to the Socialist Revolutionaries who wanted the party to be a grassroots socialist party, a party that could carry out the will of Russia’s “triune working class” (in which the SRs included the proletariat, the working peasantry, and the working intelligentsia), and a party that proposed an evolutionary and democratic path to progress. Essentially, the SRs were not terrorists, of course. They had more or less given up terrorism in 1911. What mattered politically was that they were able to propose a program, both agrarian and federalist, that excited the sympathies of millions of people. By the autumn of 1917, the Socialist Revolutionary Party had more than a million members, while the Bolsheviks had only 350,000 members. Most important, the SRs won the elections to the Constituent Assembly, taking 41% of the vote.

Эсеровский террор начала ХХ века: уничтоженная бомбой террориста карета министра внутренних дел Вячеслава Плеве, убитого 15 (28) июля 1904 года в Петербурге
SR terrorism in the early 20th century: the carriage of Interior Minister Vyacheslav Pleve, killed on July 15 (28), 1904, in St. Petersburg

So 1917 was the heyday for the SRs: they had a million members, and they won the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Why, ultimately, were they unable to take advantage of this? How did it happen that the SRs,  despite their popularity, ceded power to the Bolsheviks later as well, despite attempts to the contrary? What predetermined their failure?

There are two sets of causes, objective and subjective, meaning, the mistakes made by the SRs themselves. What I think is fundamentally important is that it is extremely difficult to campaign for democratic reforms while a world war is underway. The fact that the Revolution took place during the First World War considerably predetermined the entire subsequent course of events. What is a world war? On the one hand, it involves a collapse in living standards and a aggravation of all the contradictions that have been accumulating in society over decades. On the other hand, it involves millions of people getting used to killing other people. This causes quite serious psychological changes. Extreme cruelty is combined with societal expectations pushed to the limit. These expectations had amassed to such an extent that in 1917 very many people wanted everything right away. Say, workers were no longer satisfied they had trade unions that the selfsame socialists would meet halfway. The workers wanted more. They wanted control and management of the factories. Practically, the Mensheviks and SRs could not take this step, because it would have led to serious industrial management issues. And the peasants wanted the land right away.

Here we turn to the mistakes made by the Socialist Revolutionaries. It was wrong to delay the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. Rather, it was wrong to go along with the liberals in the Provisional Government, the Kadets, who tried to postpone the Constituent Assembly any way they could. The liberals realized the leftist parties were stronger. They would have an outright majority in the Constituent Assembly, and consequently the peasantry and proletariat would get much of what they had been demanding. So the Kadets postponed the Constituent Assembly. That was a big, serious mistake.

Did the subjective factor play a role in the fact that the SRs failed? Let’s take a closer look. On the one hand, they were a party who styled themselves as the party of “land and freedom.” They were supported by the peasants. On the other hand, most SR leaders were members of the urban intelligentsia, not the salt of the earth. Did this contradiction factor in the SR electoral victory, but one in which their supporters were unwilling to secure their political power?

It was a lot more interesting than that. The program for socializing land ownership, advocated by the SRs, did not fall out of the sky. It was the outcome of quite serious work on the part of Populist economists and sociologists. It was revenge, if you like, for the failure of the “going to the people” campaign of 1874. In the aftermath, Populist economists, sociologists, and statisticians undertook a serious study of how peasants really lived. Within twenty or thirty years, they had figured out how the Russian peasantry really lived and what it wanted. The SRs based their own land socialization program on this research. Moreover, the SRs tended not to act like typical Russian intelligentsia, who often preferred philosophizing and imposing their own values on others. The SRs always tried to maintain feedback from the peasantry. I came across a quite curious document, a survey of sorts, which the SR Central Committee sent out in 1906 or 1907 to their local organizations, who were supposed to conduct this sociological survey, which asked peasants about their attitudes towards the regime, the army, and the clergy, and what they thought about the land, and how it should be distributed and managed. So it was no wonder the Socialist Revolutionary Party and their program, crafted over many years and through the efforts of many people, were seen by the peasants as their party and their program. On the other hand, there was a fairly powerful peasant lobby in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The grassroots level of party activists and functionaries consisted of the so-called popular intelligentsia: physician’s assistants, schoolteachers, agronomists, surveyors, and foresters.

Один из самых известных эсеров, Борис Савинков, в юности. Фото из полицейского досье
One of the most prominent SRs, Boris Savinkov, in his youth. Photos from his police file

The problem was that the SRs did not fully take the peasantry’s interests into account in 1917. The revolutionary authorities were afraid to cede land to the peasants, because, on the one hand, the army’s quartermasters argued that the supply of provisions to the army would immediately collapse. On the other hand, there were fears that the rank-and-file soldiers, who were actually peasants dressed in greatcoats, would immediately desert the front and run home.  Later, at the party’s Fourth Congress, Yevgeniya Ratner, a member of the SR Central Committee, put it quite aptly. She said that for the war’s sake, for the front’s sake, they were forced into compromises with the bourgeois parties and thus were unable to defend the class interests of the peasantry and workers, and this was their huge guilt in the face of history. According to Ratner, they should have convoked the Constituent Assembly two or three month earlier, i.e., in August or September 1917, and set out to implement agrarian reforms. We should point out that some of the SRs had wanted to do this: Chernov, for example, insisted on it. There were ideas for forming a socialist government. In September 1917, the SR Central Committee was leaning towards this option.

By a socialist governmment, do you mean one that would have included all leftist parties, including the Bolsheviks?

There were two options. The first was the most leftist and quite adventuresome, or at least it seemed that way to the SRs themselves. It was proposed by Maria Spiridonova. She suggested the SRs should simply take power and form their own homogeneous SR government.

Meaning, they should have done what the Bolsheviks did finally?

It’s another matter that the Bolsheviks immediately set about tweaking their slogans and their actions. That is, they adopted the same slogans, but over time all of this was transformed into something else entirely. But getting back to the SRs, the majority of them wanted a coalition socialist government that would have included the Bolsheviks. At some point after October 1917, there were negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the socialist parties about forming such a government, but without Lenin and Trotsky. It was Lenin who in many ways destroyed this option. Was the formation of a socialist government a viable alternative if it had been agreed, say, in September? I think so. This would have been followed by elections to the Constituent Assembly, where the socialist parties obtained a majority. The SRs took the top spot, and the Bolsheviks won 25%, meaning they were the second largest faction. Clearly, they would have carried a lot of weight, but this course of events would, nevertheless, have made it possible to maintain a parliamentary democracy. Obviously, after a while, the SRs would have lost power in elections, as we see in Europe, where power swings back and forth between the right and the left. There was a chance then to set up a similar scheme for changing power through democratic procedures, via parliament. After all, the Constituent Assembly was highly regarded in society. It had been elected in the first genuinely free ballot in Russian history.

You have already touched a bit on the period after the Bolshevik coup. But let’s go back in time a bit. One of the key figures of 1917 was Alexander Kerensky. How did the other SRs regard him, and what role did he ultimately play in the party’s history?

It’s a very good question, but before answering it, I would like to voice a more general consideration. You just mentioned the “Bolshevik coup.” On the one hand, centrist and Right SRs used the term themselves. On the other hand, the Left SRs and anarchists would later come to favor the concept of a single Russian revolution that lasted from 1917 to 1921. That is, they saw it as a unified revolutionary process in which there was February and October, followed by the civil war. Currently, this is more or less how it is discussed. Those who rejected the concept argued that October 1917 was not a revolution on its own terms, because it did not involve a spontaneous popular movement. Until the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks themselves would also often speak of a coup, of their coup. But some of the SRs, Mark Vishnyak, for example, rightly noted, in my opinion, that the events of October 1917 could be interpreted as a sort of “staff revolution,” organized from above. It was a symbiosis of a revolutionary process with traits of a coup. When someone simply speaks of a coup, that is not entirely right, because there was definitely support from the workers and soldiers. Besides, the word “coup” itself suggests an analogy with Latin American-style military coups. Whatever the case, we must continue to make sense of those events conceptually.

What if we return to Kerensky?

The SR leadership definitely saw Kerensky as a fellow traveler, as the term was then. He had been in the SR movement during the Revolution of 1905–07. Elected as an MP to the State Duma, he tried to unite different Populist groups. On the other hand, some SRs might have simply envied him. Kerensky was one of the most popular people in Russia. Socialist Revolutionaries who had spent years fighting in the underground and building the party, wound up in the background, while he, who had declared himself an SR, was regarded by society in 1917 as the most important SR. Chernov had harsh things to say about Kerensky. According to Chernov, Kerensky played a quite negative role in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, because he had almost no contact with the SR leadership and did not follow the Central Committee’s instructions. The Right SRs and right-centrists supported Kerensky, while the Left SRs tried to break with him. At the party’s Third Congress, in May and June 1917, the Left SRs sabotaged Kerensky’s election to the party’s Central Committee.  He was rejected outright. It was a real slap in the face.

Александр Керенский, министр-председатель Временного правительства, стал в 1917 году символом демократической России и ее краха
Alexander Kerensky, chair of the Provisional Government, was a symbol of democratic Russia and its collapse in 1917.

What does that tell us? That, unlike the Bolsheviks, the SRs were not a leaderist party, remaining a more collectivist force?

Democrats are generally less inclined to leaderism, and this was fully borne out by the SRs. This does not mean there were no authoritarians among the SRs. It was another matter that the leaders had to adapt to the moods and ideas of the revolutionary milieu, to the subculture of the Russian revolutionary movement. The notions of decentralization, self-reliance, and independence fromthe leadership were quite strong in the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Initially, they had a sort of collective leadership. At various times, it consisted of different people, usually three or four people. Plus, we have to speak here of three or four generations of SRs. The first generation had been been members of the People’s Will, while the last generation joined the party in 1923–24. Meaning, we are looking at a fairly complicated picture. But generally, yes, there was no single leader. Many historians and contemporaries were of the opinion this was a cause of the failure of the SRs in 1917. Chernov argued that if Gots and Grigory Gershuni had still been alive, the three of them could have led the party in 1917. Gershuni was highly charismatic, even more charismatic than Lenin, and perhaps he would have had a chance to keep the party under control. On the one hand, there is a certain point to these hypotheses, but we have to consider the weakness and division existing within the party at the time of the revolution, in particular, the strong differences between the SRs on the issue of the war. Very many people regarded Chernov as a good theorist, but not as a leader and organizer. However, he had the outstanding ability to reconcile different points of view, and he played a unifying role. His opponents dubbed him the “universal bandage.”

Let’s try and sum up. Should we regard the SRs as a failed historical alternative to Bolshevism? Or, given their looseness and perennial internal division, did the SRs nevertheless lack the strength, ideas, and people to lay claim to a truly great historical role?

I think that victory in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, in which they received a plurality and, in fact, adopted the first two laws, including the law socializing land ownership, were in fact the beginnings of a democratic alternative, an SR alternative. Would they have been able to lead the country down this road? I support the viewpoint of my German colleague Manfred Hildermeier, who as early as 1992 wrote in an article that, since one of Russian’s main problems was the huge gap between city and country, the SRs were well suited to play the role of a party voicing the interests of the peasantry, proletariat, and intelligentsia. I would also add we should not exaggerate the extreme peasantness of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. If you look at their program, you see they attempted to unite a European conception of socialism with certain nativist ideas. They argued that the peasantry’s skull was no worse than the skulls of the proletariat and intelligentsia, and was quite capable of taking the ideas of socialism on board. It was one of the first attempts in the world to fuse European values and ideas of modernization with the values of a traditional society, to merge a significant part of the Russian peasantry into the new society as painlessly as possible. The SRs assumed that for many decades to come progress would follow the bourgeois path and there would be a market economy: socialism would not soon emerge. In this sense, they were evolutionists. They were essentially the first to propose an idea that is currently quite fashionable around the world, the idea of peripheral capitalism, according to which capitalism in developed countries and capitalism in second-tier and third-tier countries are completely different things. In peripheral capitalist countries, including Russia, capitalism shows it most predatory features and is the most destructive.

Мария Спиридонова, будущий лидер левых эсеров, в юные годы
Maria Spiridonova, future leader of the Left SRs, in her youth

The SRs also argued the Russian people were definitely capable of adapting to democracy. Moreover, they thought that the Russian traditions of liberty and community self-government afforded an opportunity for magnificent democratic progress as such. The SRs wanted to unlock the people’s democratic collectivist potential. By the way, they did not idealize the peasant commune, arguing it had to be transformed, of course. They counted on the cooperative movement, which had progressed quite powerfully in early twentieth-century Russia. It was entirely under the ideological leadership of the SRs. They believed it was necessary to rely on the working peasant economy. It would then be possible to modernize the country and eventually follow a socialist path. The main thing was that despite a certain utopianism to their views, the SRs were capable of evolving, of course. Another important thing was that the SRs, more than the other parties, were capable of acting as a venue for reconciling different interests. This is basically the road European social democracy took. However, the party’s looseness and internal conflicts were important features of its history. I think that sooner or later the Socialist Revolutionary Part would definitely have split into several parties. If we speak of the SRs as a democratic alternative, then the Maximalists and Left SRs do not fit this bill. Unlike the other SRs, they cannot be considered adherents of democratic socialism. By the way, the SRs and Mensheviks used this term quite vigorously from the 1920s onwards. Later, in the mid twentieth century, the European socialist parties would also speak of democratic socialist values. From this perspective, some SRs and Mensheviks were, undoubtedly, adherents of democratic socialism, which gave rise to the Socialist International.

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The demise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party was tragic. During the Russian Civil War, the SRs finally split. The Right SRs were involved in the anti-Bolshevik movement, while the Left SRs tended to collaborate with the Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1918, however, finally convinced that Lenin and his entourage were taking Russia down the road to dictatorship, the Left SRs undertook a failed attempt to overthrow “commissarocracy,” their term for the Communist regime. In the 1920s, the party was finally finished off. In the summer of 1922, twelve SR leaders were sentenced to death at a special trial. The executions, however, were postponed, turning the convicts into hostages in case the remnants of the Socialist Revolutionary Party decided to return to its terrorist methods, now against the Communist regime. One SR leader, Yevgeniya Ratner, was held in prison with her young son, causing her to complain to Dzerzhinsky. Subsequently, their death sentences were commuted to various terms of imprisonment and exile. Most prominent SRs who stayed in Russia were victims of the Stalinist crackdowns. Several former SRs, including Maria Spiridonova and her husband Ilya Mayorov, were among those massacred in the Medvedev Forest, outside Orlyov, in September 1941.

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

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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

The Kids Are Alright: “We Don’t Want to Live in a Country Where the Regime Robs Its Own People”

“We Don’t Want to Live in a Country Where the Regime Robs Its Own People”
Alexander Kalinin
Rosbalt
March 28, 2017

High school and university students talked about why they went to the anti-corruption rallies and whether they feared a crackdown.

A huge number of university and high school students attended the anti-corruption rallies in Russia. It was the first time many of the young people had gone to a protest rally. Some protesters even wound up at police stations along with their older comrades. Some high school and university students told our correspondent what had made them take to the streets.

Anti-corruption protesters on the Field of Mars, Petersburg, 26 March 2017

Kristina, 16, tenth-grader from Gatchina
This was my first protest rally. I came to the Field of Mars because, like most of the people here, I wanted to get through to the regime. After watching the film by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, many people had questions. Besides, I see how my relatives, acquaintances, and friends get along. We are often cheated. For example, a relative was illegally sacked from work, and campaigning for United Russia goes on at my school. There are party flags in the health and safety classroom. I argue about it with my teacher all the time. He says he’s a member of the party.

Have you heard the recording in which teachers give high-school students in Bryansk a dressing-down? Basically, the same thing happens at our school. I get D’s and F’s when I talk like that, and I’m sent to the principal for “disrupting class.”

I was wondering how many people would come to the rally. My parents tried to persuade me not to go. They said, “There will be ten people there, and you’ll waste your time.”

I went to the rally with my boyfriend. We made a placard about Shuvalov’s dogs. We drew Welsh corgis against a backdrop of clouds and wrote, “Happiness if flying like a bird in the sky but without wings.” A man on the Field of Mars asked to look at our placard and was surprised we hadn’t unfurled it.

I had never seen such a huge crowd before. I was even a bit scared we would be trampled.

When we went to Palace Square, I heard the roar of sirens. I saw the riot police (OMON) in all their glory for the first time on the square. They formed a line and advanced on the protesters.

A policeman approached us and asked for our papers. We replied by asking him to identify himself and show us his badge number. He looked away from us and went over to detain a man holding a placard. I was ready to be detained. I had read all the posts on the topics and memorized all the articles about what to do when you’re detained by police.

When we went to the Legislative Assembly, people broke up into groups. Some demanded freedom for Oleg Navalny, others talked about what was happening with St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and still others chanted anti-corruption slogans. Then there were people who went to the subway or to a café.

After hanging out at the Legislative Asssembly, we had decided to go home, when we were again approached by a police officer. He asked to check our papers and wondered whether we had been at the rally. We answered that we had.

“Good going!” he said. “I would have gone myself, but I was on duty and I’m afraid of losing my job.”

We were stunned, but it was nice to hear.

My parents knew where I had gone. They followed the news. When I got home, we joked about what would have happened if the police had nabbed me.

I don’t want to be compared with truant schoolchildren (shkolota). The rally was not entertaining in the least, and we had to go to it. We realize this is our future. We keep a close eye on grown-ups. They regard what’s happening with desperation. It doesn’t scare me if the order comes down to give lectures in the schools about the current political situation. I expect it to happen. I love discussing the topic. It’s fun to argue when you are well versed on the subject. Although maybe I won’t be invited to these lessons. The thing is we had a session of the Leningrad Regional Youth Parliament at our school to which regional MPs were invited. The teachers rehearsed the event with us, and the questions were prepared in advance. But when I was going to ask my question, I was politely shut up. They realized I could cause a conflict.

Anti-corruption protesters marching down Nevsky Prospect, 26 March 2017

Ivan, 16, ninth-grader from Kolpino
This was my first protest rally. I made the trip from Kolpino to Petersburg by myself. I was curious how folks would react to Alexei Navalny’s exposé film. I wondered whether people cared or didn’t care about what the powers that be were up to. I didn’t bring a placard with me, but I shouted slogans with the other protesters, although it felt awkward at first. When somebody chanted a slogan from far off, I kept my mouth shout. But I plugged into the process when people next to me shouted.

There were lots of young people, so I didn’t feel alone. At first, police dispersed the people who had climbed atop the memorial next to the Eternal Flame, but then they gave up. When the rally on the Field of Mars was over, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to keep going

When we marched towards Palace Square, I didn’t hear any negative feedback towards us. On the contrary, individuals supported us by smiling, laughing, and photographing us, while drivers honked their horns. Only the police were upset. They asked us why we had come out.

I felt more confident on Palace Square. I even started some chants first.

The “cosmonauts” (riot police) made their first appearance on the square, but they were very few in number. They didn’t do anything. It was only when the crowd pressed against them that they asked us to disperse, but no one was listening to them. Generally, the police behaved decently.

When we walked towards Insurrection Square, we were followed by police cars and paddy wagons. The arrests took place on the approach to the square. A lot of people were kettled opposite a building on Nevsky Prospect.

I want to watch the arrests, and then go home, but I accidentally bumped a riot cop with my shoulder. He said something about my being broad-shouldered. I probably did the wrong thing. I said to him, “Yeah, I’m broad-shouldered.” Right then, three paddy wagons drove up too the crowd. The cosmonaut grabbed me and put me in one of them. It was my first arrest.

Our ride to the police station was cheerful. No one was upset. We were taken into the station. We stood for around in a hour in the hallway, and then we were led into this weird basement. We were allowed to make a phone call. We chatted with the policemen about whether we had done the right thing by taking to the streets or not. They weren’t aggressive.

The voyage to the police station revved me up. At the precinct, I met a lot of kids. Human rights advocates helped us. They found the precincts where we’d been taken, brought us food, and advised us on how to behave. It was a tremendous feeling of support.

Then Mom came to get me. She and I left the station at 10:00 p.m. I was told only to write a statement, and I was given a report that I had been delivered to the station.

My parents had known I was planning to go to the rally. They told me I might be detained. When I telephoned Mom from the precinct, she was a bit peeved, but there no heavy discussions at home.

I don’t think there will be any blamestorming sessions at school. Most of our teachers say that Russian isn’t a very good country. I think they would have supported my trip to the rally.

The high school students who went to the Field of Mars shouldn’t be dubbed “truants.” Spring holidays had begun. There are lots of dissatisfied young people, so that was why, apparently, they attended the rally. We think about our future. We don’t want to live in a country where the regime robs its own people. But people who are older could not care less anymore, it seems. They’re too lazy to go outside in bad weather.

“Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev], we can’t hear you.” Photo courtesy of Denis Goldman/Rosbalt

Mikhail, 16, tenth-grader, Moscow
I had already been in the Boris Nemtsov memorial march and the protests against the Yarovaya package. Like any sensible person, I don’t like the fact our official steal, accept bribes, and build themselves enormous castles in Italy and palaces in Russia. The corruption schemes in Russia are no different from the ones used by the now-ex-president of South Korea. She also laundered money through charities.

The authorities have not reacted to the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigation. All that happened was Medvedev banned Navalny on Instagram.

After watching Navalny’s film, I had questions and I wanted answers to them. The Anti-Corruption Foundation argues that the rally was authorized in keeping with the Constitutional Court’s ruling. I consider my arrest illegal, although I was ready for it to happen.

I was walking down the street with my friends. We weren’t shouting slogans, but we were carrying placards featuring Zhdun and the Rubber Duck. Apparently, I was arrested for carrying a placard. My arrest sheet said I had been waving my arms, grabbing people, and running out into traffic. But they wrote that in everyone’s arrest sheet. The only thing they changed was people’s names. Eleven hours passed from the moment of my arrest until I left the police station, although I’m a minor. I should have been released as quickly as possible.

No one told my parents I was at the police station. I telephoned them myself. The police charged me with me violating Article 20.2 of the Administrative Procedures Codes (“Violation of the established procedure for organizing or holding a meeting, rally, demonstration, march or picket”). There will be a court hearing. I imagine the verdict will be guilty. I will appeal it to the European Court of Human Rights.

My parents knew I was going to the rally. They reacted differently to my arrest. My father took it lightly. He remembered his brother, who back in the day had been involved in the events outside the White House. But Mom was upset because I was unable to go to a relative’s birthday party.

I’m glad so many people showed up to the rally. People realize that corruption is an evil, that something has to change. I hope the teenagers who went to the rally will keep involved in civic activism and fight to make our country law-abiding. I don’t think this is the last time you’ll see young people taking to the streets.

As for the consequences, I don’t think there will be a crackdown at my school. I hope the Moscow Education Department doesn’t apply any pressure.

Students confront riot police on Palace Square, 26 March 2017

Svetlana, 17, first-year university student, Petersburg
This was the first protest in my life. I had wanted to attend the rally against transferring St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Orthodox Church, but it didn’t work out. The reason I attended the rally was Navaly’s exposé film. I didn’t want to stand on the sidelines.

I saw lots of indignant people at the Field of Mars. Initially, I didn’t want to stand out. I even felt uncomfortable chanting with everyone else. Then I went and stood next to some young activists. I felt comfortable with them. Of course, I didn’t want my university to find out I’d been involved in the rally. They don’t like it when students start “uprisings.”

When we were walking down Nevsky Prospect toward Palace Square, I was already in the front. I took the subway to Insurrection Square. When I came out, I saw the police had blocked the road. I didn’t see any of the arrests myself. Friends told me about them.

There is nothing extraordinary about the fact that young people came out for the rally. It’s not the first time they’ve been called a driving force. It is always young people that kick everything off. Lots of people are now talking about what happened. I was pleased to be involved in the beginning of the big fight against corruption.

“Corruption isn’t such a great tradition.” “Let’s explain to little Dima that taking other people’s things is bad.” Two protesters holding placards on the Field of Mars, 26.03.2017

Victoria, 18, 2nd-year university student, Petersburg
I used to go to rallies mainly dealing with educational problems. I had been to rallies in defense of St. Petersburg State University, the Publishing and Printing College, and the European University. As a student, I take this issue to heart. I wouldn’t want to find myself in a situation in which my university was being closed.

As for the topic of the March 26 rally, corruption is on everyone’s minds. There is corruption in Petersburg’s universities and colleges, too. Everyone has seen Navalny’s exposé film. It was no longer a question of going to the Field of Mars or not. I had to go. Naturally, I realized the police could nab us, but I didn’t go looking for trouble. I didn’t provoke the police indiscriminately.

I don’t understand, for example, why people had to climb on the monument. But painting one’s face green was a completely innocent gesture.

What I liked about the rally was the spirit of unity, the sense of belonging to a common cause. Ultimately, I went with everyone else from the Field of Mars to Palace Square, and then I went home. I was freezing.

I don’t think there will be crackdowns in the schools and colleges after something like this. First, the teachers and lecturers are themselves dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Second, none of them wants to find themselves in the role of the Bryansk schoolteachers. After all, high school and university students record all preventive discussions and then post them on the internet. No one wants to be a laughing stock on the web.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Except where indicated all photos courtesy of Alexander Polukeyev/Rosbalt. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up

Sergey Abashin: Reading about Migrant Workers

Central Asian migrant workers queueing to obtain work “patents” at the Russian Interior Ministry’s migrant workers processing center on Red Textile Worker Street in central Petersburg, March 10, 2017. Photo by TRR

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
March 19, 2017

Very few people are interested in reading about migrant workers in Russia. True, many people readily believe the myths and repeat them, but they don’t want to get to the bottom of things, even if you hand them the data on a silver platter. This apathetic attitude to figures and facts is also typical of how migration is regarded.

I wrote yesterday [see below] about the trends in the numbers of migrant workers from the Central Asian countries in Russia for 2014–2016. Let me remind you that the number of Kyrgyz nationals first fell and then began to grow, exceeding the previous highs by 10%. The figure is now about 0.6 million people. (I am rounding up). The number of Tajik nationals has decreased by 15–25% and has been at the same level, about 0.9 million people, for over a year, while the number of Uzbek nationals has decreased by 30–40%, to 1.5 million people.

Now let us look at the data on remittances, all the more since the Central Bank of Russia has published the final figures for 2016. In 2016, private remittances from Russia to Kyrgyzstan amounted to slightly more than $1.7 billion, which is 17% less than during the peak year of 2013, but 26% more than in 2015. Meaning that, along with an increase in the number of migrants, the amount of remittances has grown quickly as well, even at a faster pace. Remittances to Tajikistan amounted to slightly more than $1.9 billion in 2016, which is 54% less than the peak year of 2013. The amounts have been continuing to fall, although this drop has slowed as the number of migrant workers has stabilized. Remittances to Uzbekistan were slightly more than $2.7 billion in 2016, which is 59% less than in the peak year of 2013. Meaning the largest drop in the number of migrants has led to the largest drop in remittances.

*****

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
March 18, 2017

Data on the number of foreign nationals living and working in Russia has not been made public since April 2016, when the Federal Migration Service was disbanded. But this does not mean there is no such data. The figures exist, and they become available from time to time. For example, an article published in RBC [on March 16, 2017] supplies some data as of February 1, 2017. What follows from the figures?

The number of Kyrgyz nationals has increased since February 2016 by 5.6%, and since February 2015 by 8.9%, and amounts to 593,760 people.

The number of Tajik nationals increased by 0.7% over the past year, and by 13.3% over two years, and amounts to 866,679 people.

The number of Uzbek nationals has decreased over the past year by 15.2%, and by 31.7% over two years, and now amounts to 1,513,694 people.

So we see three different trends. After Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Community [now, the Eurasian Economic Union], the number of its nationals in Russia has continued to grown. After a decline of 15–20%, the number of Tajik nationals has stabilized, while the number of Uzbek nationals has fallen by 30–40%.

There are slightly less than a total of 3 million people from Central Asia living and working in Russia. (I did not take Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan into account. If I had, the figure would have come to about 3.6 million people.)

Sergey Abashin, who teaches at the European University in St. Petersburg, has been a frequent contributor to this website. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader.

Russia Isn’t a Basket Case?

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Villanova University basketball team in action. Photo courtesy of Forbes.com

“Russia is neither the juggernaut nor basket case it is varyingly made out to be. A well-reasoned Russia policy begins by quelling one’s hysteria long enough to recognize this and then engaging it accordingly.”
—Mark Lawrence Schrad, “Vladimir Putin Isn’t a Supervillain,” Foreign Policy, March 2, 2017

Try telling a great many people in Russia that the country isn’t a basket case, or that Putin and his regime aren’t a total menace, especially to Russians themselves, as Mark Lawrence Schrad argues in the article I’ve quoted above. They would laugh in your smug face.

I wonder if this useful idiot and assistant professor in political science at Villanova has ever lived in the country long enough to figure this home truth out. Probably not.

Villanova has a great basketball team this year, however. Maybe I should focus on them.

Somehow, I have to stay positive in the midst of the dawning awareness that lots of Anglo-American Slavists would, seemingly, like to work for the KGB if they could. Or are simply too clueless to do their jobs.

At very least, Professor Schrad’s article would have been accepted for publication in Russian Insider as is. TRR

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“For Rent.” Photo by TRR

Exhibit One: Downtown Petersburg’s Commercial Property Glut

This is what a “non-basket case” looks like in real life, not from one’s office in Philadelphia.

“Arenda” (“For Rent”) is definitely the most popular shop sign in the neighborhood around Voznesensky and Izmailovsky Prospect when I went there the other day to do a couple of errands, and it is complemented by lots of shops that aren’t flying the “Arenda” banner just yet, but which are definitely closed for business forever, like this Chinese restaurant, now known as “Khui” (if you read the fine print on the plasterboard that has replaced the broken glass in the door).

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“Fuck.” Photo by TRR

Except for a few parts of central Petersburg where commercial spaces never stay empty for long, even in bad times, this is the visual-economic landscape you would see all over town. It is a landscape of “mixed and uneven development,” to put it charitably.

I don’t see how any self-respecting scholar wouldn’t start with this grassroots reality when analyzing Russia’s current state, rather than with a grab bag of rank speculations, half truths, and outright falsehoods he or she has read in English-language newspapers, magazines, and websites.

But that’s mostly how the new, actually quite fairly hysterical “anti-hysteria”/”anti-Russophobia” school of half-baked journalism and “Russia hands” scholarship operates. Its adepts sit far from Russia and tells Russians how good they’ve got it. TRR

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Exhibit Two: How the Russian Countryside Is Dying

How the Russian countryside is dying.

A sad name for a reportage. But first of all one feels for the people in the reportage, who have worked the land for many years.

I visited the hinterland just yesterday at the request of the workers at the Vegetable Integrated Agricultural Production Company in Tonshalovo, Cherepovets District, Vologda Region. The fact is that everything there has been frozen, and the company has been put on the road to bankruptcy. The prosecutor’s office is looking for the guilty parties, but instead of reading thousands of words, I suggest you watch the video. The inhabitants of our country utter many wonderful, sincere words in the video. What is happening with agriculture nowadays all over Russia is quite sad.

#VO35 #VologdaRegion #Tonshalovo #Vegetable #Prosecutor #Authorities #Bankruptcy #Unemployment #Agriculture

Source: vk.com/vologda_net

Nettle Info, How the Russian Countryside Is Dying. YouTube video, in Russian. Posted January 23, 2017, by Nettle Info

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

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Exhibit Three: Russia’s Wildly Corrupt Prime Minister

Russian opposition politician Navalny links PM Medvedev to billion euro property empire
Deutsche Welle
March 2, 2017

Navalny alleges Medvedev took bribes from key Russian oligarchs under the guise of donations to charities. In a 49-minute exposé, Navalny even flies drones over lavish properties he alleges were bought with corrupt money.

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny accused Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of massive corruption in a report accompanied by a Youtube video he posted on Thursday.

The anti-corruption activist alleged Medvedev controls a property empire including mansions, yachts and vineyards financed by bribes from oligarchs to a network of non-profit organisations.

“Based on the documentation disclosed, we can confirm that at least 70 billion rubles (1.3 billion euros or US$1.19 billion) have been transferred in cash and assets to Medvedev’s foundations,” said Navalny, who heads the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Medvedev “practically openly created a corrupt network of charitable foundations through which he receives bribes from oligarchs and frantically builds himself palaces and vacation homes across the whole country,” the report alleged.

The report was welcomed by Transparency International Russia, a non-profit organization that targets corruption, though it questioned some of its conclusions.

Findings met with skepticism

Navalny has sworn that he will be a candidate in upcoming elections despite being dogged by legal problems

“There are certain doubts in the story of Ilia Yeliseyev, the deputy chairman of the Gazprombank. It is doubtful that Yeliseyev is just a scarecrow. Despite the fact he was a classmate of Medvedev, he is an important figure. He could have earned that fortune himself,” spokesman Gleb Gawrisch told DW.

Gawrisch also said although it looked suspicious it wasn’t actually illegal for Medvedev to use real estate owned by non-profit organizations

“Corrupt officials often use non-profit organizations to hide financial flows and property,” he conceded in a statement to Deutsche Welle.

“The problem is finding out who the ultimate beneficiary is, and we are delighted that the Anti-Corruption Foundation has succeeded in presenting such an extraordinary investigation.”

Medvedev, a lawyer from Saint Petersburg, was president from 2008 to 2012 while Vladimir Putin served as premier between presidential terms. Medvedev intended to run in the 2018 presidential election.

Navalny, also a lawyer, garnered notoriety for his denunciations against corruption and was sentenced to five years in prison with a suspended sentence for embezzlement, which forbid him from being a candidate in the elections.

His [49]-minute video amassed several hundred thousand views in a few hours on YouTube.

Anti-Corruption Foundation, Don’t Call Him Dimon: Palaces, Yachts, and Vineyards—Dmitry Medvedev’s Secret Empire. YouTube video, with subtitles in English. Posted March 2, 2017, by Alexei Navalny

 

Navalny said that the foundations receive “donations” from oligarchs and companies, which are then used to purchase lavish properties for Medvedev, who is never registered as the owner.

“The prime minister and his trusted friends have created a criminal scheme, not with companies registered in tax havens as usual, but with non-profit foundations, which makes it virtually impossible to determine the owner of the assets,” he said.

“Medvedev can steal so much and so openly because Putin does the same, only on a bigger scale,” he wrote, presenting his team’s online report.

Navalny said he was able to establish the links to Medvedev by tracing the purchases online.

Medvedev’s spokeswoman dismissed the allegations as promotion for Navalny’s presidential bid.

“Navalny’s material is clearly electioneering in nature,” Natalya Timakova told RIA Novosti state news agency. “It’s pointless to comment on the propagandistic attacks of an oppositional convict,” she added.

_____________

P.S. An acquaintance just told me the average monthly salary at the world-renowned St. Petersburg Conservatory is 11,000 rubles a month (approx. 178 euros), but employees there have not been paid since the end of last year.

And you would still say Russia is not a “basket case,” Mark Lawrence Schrad, assistant professor in political science at Villanova? Could you live on 178 euros a month while also not being sure you would actually be paid that measly sum on time every month?

I imagine that Professor Schrad was paid more than a paltry 178 euros for his wildly misleading article in Foreign Policy.

1280px-saint_petersburg_conservatory
St. Petersburg Conservatory. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

“A Great City Deserves a Great Library”: Petersburg Professors Defend the Publichka

Literary scholar Dmitry Kalugin picketing the entrance to the Russian National Library (“Publichka”), February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanova/Novaya Gazeta

Professors Stand Up for Librarians
Serafim Romanov
Novaya Gazeta Sankt-Peterburg
February 9, 2017

“Have you heard they want to merge the Russian National Library with the Lenin Library in Moscow?” Boris Kolonitsky, a senior researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History (Russian Academy of Sciences) asked passerby.

On February 9, a “professors’ picket” took place outside the Russian National Library’s main building on Ostrovsky Square. Lecturers from the European University, the Higher School of Economics, and other institutions rallied to preserve the so-called Publichka and defend its former head bibliographer Tatyana Shumilova [who was summarily dismissed from her post last week for speaking publicly about the negative consequences of the merger.]

Most bystanders heard about these developments for the first time. But after a short briefing, passersby agreed it would be wrong to merge one of the country’s most important academic and cultural institutions.

“It is not so much the library, St. Isaac’s or anything else that causes people to protest, as it is the fact that no one reckons with them,” Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Reseach, explained to Novaya Gazeta. “Why is everything being centralized? To make it was easier to control. The entire country is being formed up into a [power] vertical, and it is the same way in every field.”

“It matters that people from the outside, people who don’t work at the library but understand its value, speak out,” said journalist Daniil Kotsiubinsky, who organized the rally.

“The people who came here today are not random, but one of a kind. Petersburgers should listen to them.”

As the rally was drawing to a close, the overall enthusiasm was disturbed by a police officer.

“We’ve got a solo picket here,” the guardian of order reported on his cell phone, asking the picketers to show him their papers.

“It’s an A4-sized placard,” the policeman reported. “What does it say? ‘A great city deserves a great library.'”

Historian Boris Kolonitsky shows the group’s placard to a policeman. February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanov/Novaya Gazeta

Translated by the Russian Reader