Petersburg: Russia’s Window on the West

windy petersburg“One day windy Petersburg won’t let me light a cigarette and I’ll give up smoking on its advice.” Graffiti, Petersburg, July 19, 2018.  Photo by the Russian Reader

Rotunda
June 17, 2019

While Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and the Kremlin were trying to spearhead protests and organize their own rally in support of [the briefly arrested investigative journalist] Ivan Golunov, Petersburg’s acting governor Alexander Beglov missed the political bandwagon once again. Today, during a session of the governor’s so-called inner cabinet at the Smolny, he was told by his underlings the Vesna (Spring) Movement wanted to hold a rally against the persecution of journalists on June 23. Beglov ordered city officials to reach out to the organizers and move the rally to another date since, otherwise, it “would ruin the celebration for school leavers.”

When Beglov gave this order, he was likely unaware city officials had already taken care of the kids. The Smolny turned down Vesna’s request to approve their rally by making up literally a million excuses. For example, a source in the Smolny reported a military band would be playing on Lenin Square (one of the city’s specially designated so-called Hyde Parks, where, theoretically, protesters do not need the city’s go-ahead to hold rallies) on June 23. It also transpired that urgent repairs of heating mains, buildings, pedestrian crossings, etc., were underway at all the other venues in the city center where protest rallies could be held.

Rotunda (Rotonda) is a Telegram channel, covering city politics in Petersburg and written by reporters Maria Karpenko and Ksenia Klochkova. Translated by the Russian Reader

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#PutinKillsChildren

putinkillschilren.JPGPoster at a rally in support of Idlib, 15 June 2019, Pariser Platz, Berlin. Photo by the Russian Reader

As the extraordinarily eloquent photographs a friend of mine took six days ago in Moscow show, another “look at us revolution” has been taking place there.

Like the previous “look at us revolution” of 2011–2012, staged almost exclusively for social media and international media consumption, the implicit message has been, “W are smart white people and we deserve better. Marvel at our clever placards. Look deeply into our educated white faces. In every single way that matters, we are just like you Herrenvolk in Europe and the US. The fact we live under a vicious tyranny is an unhappy accident for which we bear almost no responsibility.”

Beyond that, apparently, there is no plan, program or coordination, so it would be a mistake to imagine the detention of these protesters by the hundreds means the Putin regime is afraid of them. No, the regime is discouraging the protesters and potential protesters and, more importantly, it is gathering information on the detainees, information it can use in future crackdowns.

There will be a real revolution in Moscow when the super smart “white people” there not only learn how to get much larger numbers of people on the street, coordinate their movements, push back against the police’s attempts to detain them, and make real political demands but also discover the existence of the rest of the world and Moscow’s increasingly baleful effect on it.

If a hundred thousand people marched in the streets of Moscow demanding Putin immediately withdraw all Russian troops and mercenaries from Syria, this would not only signal the beginning of the end of Putin’s long reign but it would also mean anti-regime Russians had realized solidarity is a two-way street.

You cannot expect people in other parts of the world to empathize with your struggle for democracy and justice when your country’s armed forces, internet trolls, mercenaries, spies, and military proxies are fighting and fueling armed conflicts and political crises in dozens of other countries.

Russia might have more natural resources than any other country in the world, but the reserves of goodwill toward the country and its people will eventually dry up.

It has been said before by hundreds of activists and commentators, but if the US had allied itself with Assad to bomb the hell out of his opponents in Syria, the whole world, especially the leftist part, would be up in arms.

Russia has been bombing the hell out of Syria and doing lots of other nasty stuff elsewhere, including poisoning people in broad daylight and shooting down airliners, but it troubles almost no one, relatively speaking.

What is more, no one bothers to ask why it does not bother all the nice “white people” in Moscow, who would never think to demonstrate en masse against their country’s attacks on lesser folk in third-world countries. {TRR}

#PutinKillsChildren

Circassian Activist Martin Kochesoko Arrested in Drugs Frame-Up

martin-2

Shown here protesting a law bill that would make Russia’s minority languages an elective part of the curriculum, Circassian grassroots activist Martin Kochesoko was detained and charged with narcotics possession on June 7 in Nalchik, the capital city of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic. Will the nationwide grassroots movement that, allegedly, forced police in Moscow to drop identical charges against investigative reporter Ivan Golunov reemerge as forcefully to demand justice for Kochesoko? Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Circassian Activist Martin Kochesoko Detained in Nalchik
Vera Zherdeva
Caucasian Knot
June 8, 2019

On June 7, police searched the offices of the civic organization Habze, detaining its leader Martin Kochesoko and other activists, our sources have informed us.

The security forces arrived at Habze’s office at around eleven in the morning. They confiscated the office’s computers.

According to preliminary reports, Kochesoko has been remanded in custody on charges of drugs possession, a Habze activist told us.

The other Habze activists detained with Kochesoko were soon released, Kavkaz. Realii reports, citing its own sources.

In late May, Kochesoko reported his parents had been paid a visit by local officials, who told them their son should “slow down” his activism. The incident took place after Kochesoko had organized a round table on federalism in Nalchik.

“A man from the district council visited my parents. He told them he had been sent by the top bosses and I should slow my activism down. I know this man personally. He has my phone number and email address, and he and I could have met. I was taken aback he chose this way of doing things. I would thus like to underscore the fact I use only legal methods. I want the laws and the Russian Constitution to be obeyed. I am not hiding from anyone. I am constantly in the public eye,” Kosechoko wrote in an article, “Solving the Crisis of Federalism: Grassroots Activism,” published May 29 on Habze’s website.

Caucasian Knot has written about Kochesoko’s work. We have often cited his critical comments on controversial public issues.

In April 2019, for example, Kochesoko criticized the ban of an auto rally on Circassian Flag Day in Nalchik and the treatment of Circassian returnees by Russian officials. He also lambasted the controversial law bill to make the study of minority languages an elective rather than a mandatory part of the school curriculum.  Activists and public figures from twelve of Russia’s ethnic republics, including Kabardino-Balkaria, denounced the law bill.

Kochesoko took part in the September 2018 horse ride commemorating the 310th anniversary of the Battle of Kanzhal. The event provoked clashes between Kabardians and Balkars, and regular police, riot police, and Russian National Guardsmen intervened.

In his article for Caucasian Knot, “Kanzhal as a Knife in the Governor’s Back,” Denis Sokolov, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, discussed Kochesoko’s role as a peacemaker during the events in question, which occurred when residents of the Balkar village of Kendelen refused to let the riders pass through their town.

“Due to a willingness to compromise on the part of Kendelen negotiators, Kochesoko was on the verge of peacefully leading the Circassian march out of the Balkar village, but the crude actions of the security forces rendered their agreement null and void,” wrote Sokolov.

Thanks to Comrade GJ and Anna Etkina for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. NB. The accounts of Mr. Kochesoko’s arrest here and on the Radio Svoboda-affiliated website Kavkaz.Realii differ considerably in their details.  When and if a definitive account of Mr. Kochesoko’s arrest is published, I will update this post.

They Are Who They Are

gorzhush“Tomorrow, the whole world will write about this. I am proud of my profession. #FreeIvanGolunov…” Vedomosti.ru: Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBC will for the first time…” Screenshot of someone’s social media page by Ayder Muzhdabaev. Courtesy of Ayder Muzhdabaev

Ayder Muzhdabaev
Facebook
June 9, 2019

Russia’s “liberal opposition journalists” have been vying to praise each other as they celebrate a feast of “disobedience.” They just stood in the crossfire, that is, in timid solo pickets. And now, risking having their offices torched, three newspapers have produced editions with the same headline in defense of a colleague detained by police on trumped-up charges.

They have never nor would they ever publish a newspaper with the headline “I Am/We Are Crimean Tatars,” a people their country has been murdering and imprisoning on trumped-up charges by the hundreds for the last five years.

They have never nor would they publish a newspaper with the headline “I Am/We Are Ukrainians,” a people their country has been murdering by the thousands and imprisoning by the hundreds on trumped-up charges for the last five years.

It suffices to say they would even find printing the headline “I Am/We Are Oleg Sentsov” terrifying. It would never occur to them because they know how life works in the Reich, where Ukrainians are “fascists,” and Crimean Tatars are “terrorists,” just like Oleg Sentsov. So “I-ing” and “we-ing” is taboo to them.

They are delicately integrated into the Russian Reich. They feel it in their bones. They are one of the regime’s vital props. The hybrid dictatorship badly needs to pretend there is a political struggle in Russia and the country has a free press. They help it in its quest to destroy the western world and attack other countries.

They always only do things that won’t get them in serious trouble. They would never do anything that poses the slightest risk of exposing them as real enemies of the Reich.

We enter this in #TheChroniclesOfTheRussianReich.

Translated by the Russian Reader

i-we

The front page of Vedomosti, June 10, 2019: “I Am/We Are Golunov.” Courtesy of Vedomosti

Joint Communique on the Ivan Golunov Case by the Editors of Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBC 
We Demand Maximum Transparency from Investigation
Vedomosti
June 9, 2019

Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter with Meduza, was detained on June 6 on suspicion of attempting to produce and distribute narcotics.

We welcome the fact that the court has ordered house arrest for Golunov rather than remanding him in custody in a pretrial detention facility.

However, we do not find the evidence of Golunov’s guilt, as provided by police investigators, convincing, while the circumstances of his arrest raise serious doubts that laws were not broken in the conduct of the initial investigation.

We cannot rule out the possibility that Golunov’s arrest has something to do with his work as a journalist.

We demand a detailed inquiry into whether the Interior Ministry officers who were complicit in Golunov’s arrest acted legally. We insist that the outcome of this inquiry be provided to the media.

We expect law enforcement to comply strictly with the law. We demand maximum transparency from the investigation. We will closely monitor the investigation’s progress. We encourage relevant public organizations to join us.

We believe implementation is fundamentally important not only to Russa’s journalism community but also to Russian society as a whole. We demand that everyone obey the law and the law be obeyed with regard to everyone.

Translated by the Russian Reader

upside down cake

Pineapple upside down cake. Stock photo

Nearly the entire leftist and liberal Russian intelligentsia have thrown their ferocious but scattered energies into a campaign to free a well-known journalist on whom the cops planted narcotics. It is obviously frame-up and rightly makes folks in the world’s largest country indignant.

But it also makes people think they are fighting the good fight when most of the fights they should be fighting or should have been fighting long ago they ignore altogether, like the fight against what their own government and armed forces have been doing in Syria, or the kangaroo court trials against antifascists in Penza and Petersburg (the so-called Network trials), and the alleged (Muslim Central Asian) accomplices of the alleged suicide bomber who, allegedly, blew himself up in the Petersburg subway in April 2017.

I shouldn’t even mention the case of the so-called New Greatness “movement,” an “extremist group” set up, concocted, and encouraged from its miserable start to inglorious finish by the FSB (KGB). Its so-called members did nothing but attend a couple of “political” discussions organized by the selfsame FSB.

All these young people have been framed, and many of them have plausibly claimed they were tortured by FSB officers.

That is, whole groups of innocent people (mind you, I am only scratching the surface here, leaving out scores if not hundreds if not thousands of the regime’s other victims at home and abroad) have been railroaded by the mighty Putinist state, but they have not been granted an audience, so to speak, by progressive Russian society because progressive Russian society cannot identify with any of them in any way.

But it can identify with the nice white middle-class reporter from Moscow. And it does want to remind itself of its essential goodness and compassion from time to time, so everyone has jumped on the bandwagon to get the reporter out of jail.

Or, rather, engage in a frenzy of virtue signaling that may not actually get him out of jail.

Bully for them, but no one notices that many of these grassroots campaigns are patterned like hysterias and moral panics. They are also identical to other suddenly emergent internet-powered fads, like the recent craze for Game of Thrones or “Facebook flash mobs” that involve, say, posting a picture of yourself from twenty years ago and explaining what you were up to way back then.

It has to be something, anything, except the things that matter a million times more, like the Russia air force’s endless bombing of Syrian children and Syrian hospitals, and the Putin regime’s endless, vicious hunt for “extremists” and “terrorists” like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Network “terrorists,” the “New Greatness” extremists, the conspicuously othered (and, thus, forgotten) Petersburg subway “terrorists,” and on and on.

These witch hunts are discussed publicly by virtually no one, and their victims (this is especially the case with the Central Asian “subway bombers”) are mostly left to fend for themselves.

What matters about the reporter is that he is white, innocent, and “one of us.” Apparently, he doesn’t believe in “extremist” nonsense like antifascism, anarchism, Islam or Jehovah’s Witness doctrine.

The reaction to the case is a symptom of liberalism that is utterly white and nationalist, meaning it is not liberalism at all.

It is white nationalism with a human face, Great Russian chauvinism turned upside down.

“They cannot do this to one of us.”

But “they” have done to it to thousands of non-white, non-Russian others over the years, including Chechens, antifascists, Syrians, Crimean Tatars, businessmen, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Krasnodar’s farmers, truckers, environmentalists, anarchists, LGBTQ+ activists, Central Asian migrant workers, Ukrainians, anti-“reunification” Crimeans, the passengers of MH17, US voters, etc.

Almost no one batted an eye when they were “destroyed” (this is the regime’s pet dehumanizing verb for when it murders or obliterates its enemies), neutralized or otherwise royally fucked over by the Putin regime.

It is all over but the shouting unless the shouting becomes a lot more inclusive quickly. June 9, 2019 || THE RUSSIAN READER

redman.JPGPhoto by the Russian Reader

“This is too much, even for Russia.”
Meduza editor on BBC Radio 4 morning news broadcast, commenting on the arrest of Meduza reporter Ivan Golunov, 9 June 2019

But declaring all Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists” and organizing a witch hunt against them is not too much, “even for Russia”?

I had it with Meduza after the ham-fisted, blatantly misogynist way it handled its recent in-house #MeToo scandal. The scandal revealed the actual shallowness of the website’s liberalism.

Of course, Meduza should defend its reporter from police railroading.

But the fact it has managed to make the story go international in a matter of days and then, using this bully pulpit, suggest there is nothing worse going on in Russia than Golunov’s persecution, also reveals something about the depth of its liberalism or, rather, about what passes for liberalism in Russia.

Unlike liberalism in other countries, Russian liberalism has no time for anybody but the rather narrow segment of Russians it recognizes as full-fledged human beings.

I would guess this amounts to less than one percent of the entire population, but I am probably being too generous. June 9, 2019 || THE RUSSIAN READER

crisisRussia does not have to worry about a crisis of democracy. There is no democracy in Russia nor is the country blessed with an overabundance of small-d democrats. The professional classes, the chatting classes, and much of underclass, alas, have become accustomed to petitioning and beseeching the vicious criminal gang that currently runs Russia to right all the country’s wrong and fix all its problems for them instead of jettisoning the criminal gang and governing their country themselves, which would be more practically effective. Photo by the Russian Reader

Free the Network case defendants, the Jehovah’s Witnesses facing charges and the ones already doing jail time, ditto for the Crimean Tatars, Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko, the Ukrainian sailors, Yuri Dmitriev, the Petersburg subway bombing defendants, the myriads of Russian businessmen in prison after they were set up by rivals and taken down by the FSB for a good price, the New Greatness kids, and hundreds of other Russian “outlaws” whose names I cannot remember or, worse, have never heard.

Free them first, and the day after you free them, free Ivan Golunov.

While you Are at it, stop making war in Eastern Ukraine and stop bombing innocent Syrians. And bring the people responsible for shooting down Flight MH17 and killing everyone on board to justice.

The day after you have done all these things, free Ivan Golunov.

But don’t be such arrogant, self-important pricks as to appear on the world’s most respected radio and TV network and claim the Golunov case is the worst thing that has happened under Putin’s reign.

Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, for God’s sake. And so were Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova.

I could start another list of reporters, activists, politicians, etc., who were murdered, probably on the orders of the Kremlin or with its blessing, over the last twenty years.

Boris Nemtsov was murdered only a few hundred meters from the Kremlin.

God forbid I should mention “convicted pedophile” Sergei Koltyrin. Even the most hardcore human rights advocates in Russia have abandoned him and made mention of his name taboo, although I am reasonably certain he was set up just like the saint-like Ivan Golunov, only on charges so devastating that his former allies abandoned him and he abandoned himself to the nonexistent mercies of Russia’s nonexistent justice system.

But, definitely, the worse thing that has happened under Putin’s reign is the house arrest of Meduza reporter Ivan Golunov on what are undoubtedly trumped-up drug charges. June 9, 2019 || THE RUSSIAN READER

barney fife

P.S. As I was assembling this collage of reflections inspired by the collective hysteria among the Russian liberal intelligentsia over reporter Ivan Golunov’s dubious arrest, it occurred to me that, perhaps, my own reaction and that of Ayder Muzhdabaev, whose “outburst” leads off this montage, were not sufficiently charitable.

But then I read and translated what the editors of Kommersant, RBC, and Vedomosti published on the front pages of their newspapers today. Their milquetoast appeal to Russian law enforcement—a multi-headed hydra that has spent the last thirty years proving again and again it is one of the most brutal, vicious criminal gangs in the world, an army of thugs who routinely terrorize the people they have sworn to protect, a mob of degenerates who will stop at nothing, including the routine use of torture, to get their man—sounds more like an appeal to US TV sitcom cops Barney Miller and Barney Fife.

Do these hardened (?) newspaper reporters really believe an appeal like this will have a real effect on the investigation of Golunov’s nonexistent crimes?

It is also worth remembering (as Sergey Abashin did on his Facebook page earlier today) that the free press warriors at Kommersant recently fired a reporter for writing negative comments about Valentina Matviyenko, formerly Putin’s satrap in Petersburg, currently chair of the Federation Chamber, which rubber-stamps all the odious, wildly unconstitutional laws sent its way. In protest at the firing, the newspaper’s entire political desk immediately resigned as well.

That, by the way, is real solidarity, although it probably won’t get them their jobs back, quite the opposite.

Meanwhile, RBC has been a shell of its former militant self after its owners fired three top editors three years ago and, again, a whole slew of reporters resigned along with them.

RBC used to have an investigative reporting desk that would be the envy of any newspaper anywhere in the world. Nowadays, it mostly reports the kinds of “news” its oligarch owners and the Kremlin want it to report.

The 2011–2012 fair elections protests were mostly an extended exercise in virtue signaling and “creativity,” not a serious attempt by the grassroots to force the Kremlin to hold fair elections, much less to attempt regime change. Russian society has paid heavily for its frivolousness then.

Why, then, has it not yet figured out what its foe is really like? Why does it appeal for justice and fairness to authorities who have proven beyond a reasonable doubt they are hardened criminals? Finally, why does it imagine that reposting Ivan Golunov’s articles on Facebook is real solidarity? Does it think the regime will fall if, say, a million people repost these articles? Five million?

Photo of Don Knotts as Barney Fife courtesy of Wikipedia

“War Is Not Fashionable” (Anti-Syrian War Demo in Moscow)

“War Is Not Fashionable”: Activists Protested Launch of Rapper Timati’s Fashion Collection for Defense Ministry
Novaya Gazeta
June 4, 2019

Three activists—Anna Etkina, Elisabetta Corsi, and Anna Romashchenko—carried out a protest action, “War Is Not Fashionable,” at the debut of Black Star Wear’s new collection on Novy Arbat.

Video by Victoria Odissonova. Edited by Gleb Limansky. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

The rapper Timati designed the new collection in collaboration with Voentorg’s Russian Army clothing brand. Timati has promoted the collection as clothes for the country’s patriots, while spokespeople for Voentorg said the collection was based on values  like “strong leadership, patriotism, attention to detail, and full confidence in each new step.”

A target is depicted on the front of the t-shirts in Black Star Wear’s new collection, while the word “Syria” is embossed on the back.

The activists arrived at the protest in t-shirts similarly embossed with targets, but the backs of their shirts featured figures showing the costs of the war in Syria: the number of children killed (28,226), the number of Syrian citizens killed (223,161), and the number of refugees (4.8 million).

voina-1The slogans on the women’s t-shirts read, “28,226 dead children,” “War is an unjust and foolish business © Leo Tolstoy,” “4.8 million refugees from Syria.” Photo by Victoria Odissonovoa. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

“We made t-shirts that resemble the t-shirts in Timati’s new collection,” said Corsi, “because war should not be depersonalized. What he is doing is hyping himself using the war. Many people associate Syria only with Islamic State. But it is mostly innocent people who perish from the allegedly pinpoint strikes.”

The activists handed out leaflets entitled, “Say No to War-Based Hype!” They also shouted the slogans “War is not fashionable!” and “War is murder!”

voina-2Elisabetta Corsi ran onto the stage towards the emcee. A minute later, she was dragged away. Photo by Victoria Odissonova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

According to our correspondent, around one hundred people came to the launch of Timati’s collaboration with the Defense Ministry. Some took the leaflets and read them attentively, while others handed the pamphlets back or ripped them up.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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

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