Ivan Davydov: The Russian Protest Federation

614352f5bad27acc282af798084aa5e3Protest rally in Abakan against plans to raise the retirement age. Photo by Alexander Kryazhev. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Republic

The Russian Protest Federation: How Moscow Has Stopped Shaping the Political Agenda. Will Ordinary Russians Realize Pension Reform and Geopolitical Triumphs Are Linked?
Ivan Davydov
Republic
September 27, 2018

The people who took to the streets long ago on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue deserve the credit for the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections in Russia. It was a time that would be unimaginable now. There was no war with Ukraine. Crimea had not been annexed. No one had given Syria a second thought. It still makes you wonder why the Kremlin took fright then, albeit briefly. Instead of guessing, we should note it was the capital that led the national protest movement then, confirming yet again the centripetal nature of life in Russia. Over a 100,000 people attended the first two protest rallies in Moscow, on December 10, 2011, and February 4, 2012. Petersburg took second place, sending 25,000 people onto the streets for its February 2012 rally, but no one other city was even close. Protests took place in dozens of cities, including all the major ones, but the best the regions achieved was something on the order of 5,000 people in attendance. In most places, the average crowd numbered around a thousand people.

The opposition failed just like the regime. It transpired the national agenda and the agenda of Muscovites were the same thing. The farther you went from Moscow, the less people were worried about the issues exercising newspaper reporters. Least of all were they worried about their own real problems, about local issues, and thus there was no chance of changing things in Russia.

But the credit for transforming gubernatorial elections into something really resembling elections, albeit quite remotely, must go to the regions. The takeaway message is that the regime’s electoral fiasco in the regions on September 9 is a nationally significant event. The rank-and-file voters there, who cast their ballots for sham candidates from parties other than United Russia as a way of registering their disgust with the local political bosses, have turned circumstances inside out. The regions are now dictating their agenda to Moscow, as governors who seemed invulnerable only recently look shaky, and even Putin himself has been forced to break a sweat.

Airbag
As befits a myth, the Moscow myth that, putting it as succinctly as possible, Moscow is not the real Russia, is not true at all. But, like any good myth with life in it, it is based on real things. As I write this column, water is gurgling in the radiators of the standard Moscow high-rise where I live, because the heating season has kicked off. It is ten degrees Celsius outside, and Moscow’s tender inhabitants would freeze otherwise. Meanwhile, all the news agencies are reporting as their top news item that a place in the queue to buy the new iPhone at Moscow stores will set you back 130,000 rubles [approx. 1,700 euros]. That is expensive, of course, but you would let yourself be seen as an outdated loser at your own peril.

Muscovites protest often, although in fewer numbers than during the fair elections movement. To outsiders, however, protesting Muscovites almost always look like whimsical people who are too well off for their own good. Everyone knows Moscow has wide pavements, new subway stations, the Moscow Central Ring, and perpetual jam festivals and nonstop carnivals on Nikolskaya Street. People who live in places where even today anti-tank trenches pass for roads, and the mayor nicked the benches from the only pedestrian street (urbanism is ubiquitous nowadays, no longer a Moscow specialty) and hauled them to his summer cottage, find it really hard to take seriously people who are up in arms over a new parks whose birches were imported from Germany, and holiday lighting whose cost is roughly the same as the annual budget of an entire provice somewhere outside the Black Earth Region. The residents of “construction trailer accretions” (you will remember that during one of President Putin’s Direct Lines, the residents of a “construction trailer accretion” in Nyagan came on the air to complain) find it hard to understood people protesting so-called renovation, as in Moscow, that is, people who protest the demolition of their old residential buildings and being resettled in new buildings. For that is how it appears when geographical distance obscures the particulars.

The regime has skillfully manipulated this gap. Remember the role played by the “real guys” from the Uralvagonzavod factory during the fair elections movement, or the out-of-towners bussed into the capital for pro-Putin rallies on Poklonnaya Hill and Luzhniki Stadium. But the gap functions as yet another airbag for the Kremlin even when it makes no special effort to manipulate it. Moscow is part of Russia when we are talking about national issues and the fact those issues are debated in Moscow as well, but since any sane non-resident of Moscow believes Moscow is no part of Russia, the big issues end up being issues that exercise Muscovites, but do not interest people beyond Moscow.

The Main Political Issue
Alexei Navalny has bridged the gap slightly. His attempt to set up regional presidential campaign offices seemed absurd since everyone, including Navalny, realized he would not be allowed on the ballot and there would be no reason to campaign. He ran a campaign anyway, and his campaign offices turned into local pockets of resistance, into needles that hit a nerve with the regime while simulatneously stitching Russia together and removing Moscow’s monopoly on national politics. His campaign offices are manned by bold young people willing to take risks and good at organizing protest rallies. Of course, even now more people in Moscow attend Navalny’s protest rallies than in other cities, but people have still been taking to the streets in dozens of cities for the first time since the fair elections protests of 2011–2012. Navalny’s campaign offices splice issues that the locals get with national issues, thus producing the fabric of real politics. When I discussed the subject of this column with the editors of Republic, one of them joked Navalny was a “franchise.” The joke has a point, but the point is not offensive.

It was Vladimir Putin, however, who really turned the tide or, rather, the federal authorities, of which Putin is the living embodiment. The pension reform has made it abundantly clear the Russian authoritarian state no longer intends to be paternalist. The state has suddenly discovered what people actually liked about it was the paternalism. Or they put up with the paternalism. It is hard to say what word would be more precise. But they did not put up with it due to its victories on the geopolitical front.

The pension reform has erased the line between the big issues, debated by well-fed people in Moscow, and the real issues that constitute the lives of real people. This is quite natural, since being able to claim Russia’s miserly pensions a bit earlier in life is more important in places where life is harder. Moscow is definitely not the worse place in Russia to live. Despite the myth, Moscow is no heaven on earth, either, but the central heating has already been turned on, for example.

So, even a dull, boring, well-rehearsed formality like gubernatorial elections has become an effective tool of protest. The regime made a single mistake, a mistake to which no one would have paid attention to a year ago. (Since when has vote rigging seriously outraged people in Russia? Since days of yore? Since 2011?) The mistake set off a chain reaction. The new single nationwide election day had been a boon to the Kremlin, its young technocrats, and its not-so-young handpicked “businesslike” governors. If the elections had not taken place simultaneously everywhere, and the fiasco in the Maritime Territory had occurred at the outset of the elections season, it is not clear how powerful a victory the no-name candidates from the loyal opposition would have scored.

Maybe Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky would have had to disband their parties for fear of reprisals from the regime, since, the way they have long seen things, there is nothing more terrifying than success, and nothing more dangerous than real politics.

A Moscow municipal district council member from the opposition can easily make a coherent, meaningful speech about how the war in Syria has impacted the clumsiness of Mayor Sobyanin’s hired hands, relaying the tile in some unhappy, quiet alley for the third time in a single year. The council member’s speech would elicit laughter, and the laughter would be appropriate. But amidst the customary laughter we need to be able to discern the main question of a reemergent Russian politics.

The issue is this. Will ordinary Russians understand—and, if so, how quickly—that the pension reform (the first but not the last gift to the common folk from their beloved leaders) is part and parcel of the mighty Putin’s geopolitical triumphs, their inevitable consequence, rather than a betrayal and a rupture of the social compact, as certain confused patriotic columnists have been writing lately?

Ultimately, it is a matter of survival for Russia and for Putin. One of the two must survive. As in the films about the immortal Highlander, only one will be left standing at the end of the day.

Ivan Davydov is a liberal columnist. Translated by the Russian Reader

God Is Merciless, or, Mary Dejevsky

DSCN1761

Since childhood I have had the habit of going to sleep listening to the radio. It would be a queer but innocent habit were it not for the fact that I had Lutheranism mainlined into my brain during childhood as well. I am thus perpetually a sinner in the hands of an angry god, and that god is frequently quite displeased with me. Or so it seems.

From time to time, Jehovah punishes me by putting the British journalist and Putin fan Mary Dejevsky on the radio as I am going to sleep.

Last night, she was on ABC Radio National’s Between the Lines, and she was in fine fettle.

Asked about the political crisis sparked by the pension reform in Russia, Dejevsky said she rather admired Vladimir Putin for spending some of his tremendous reserves of political capital and popularity by biting the bullet and trying to solve an objective problem so his “successor” would not have to solve it.

It is actually a good problem to have, this business of needing to raise the retirement age precipitously, Dejevsky argued, because it is premised on the supposedly happy alleged fact that Russians are, on average, living much longer than before, and that, we were meant to imagine, was due to Putin’s wise policies.

When the hapless Australian interviewer, Tom Switzer, asked her about the nationwide protests sparked by the proposed reform and the numerous arrests at those protests, Dejevsky dismissed them out of hand, claiming she had been to “provincial Russia” just last week, and things there were “peaceful.”

I won’t even go into Dejevsky’s sparkling defense of Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea, which prefaced her lies about Putin’s popularity, the pension reform, and the supposedly sleepy provinces.

In case you are not a Lutheran occasionally punished by the Lord God Jehovah by having to listen to Mary Dejevsky in the middle or night or read the latest pro-Putinist tripe she has written, I would remind you she has long been gainfully employed by the Independent and the Guardian as a columnist, and she is a frequent guest on thoroughly respectable news outlets such as ABC Radio National, BBC Radio 4, etc.

It seemingly has not occurred to the smart, cynical folk working at these bastions of tough-minded journalism that Mary Dejevsky is a less than objective observer of the Russian scene.

The Lutheran god is a merciless god. {TRR}

Photo by the Russian Reader. This blog was slightly edited after I received legal threats from an electronic entity claiming to be Mary Dejevsky.

Andrey Loshak: What the Krasnodar Police Did to Lawyer Mikhail Benyash

mikhail benyahsMikhail Benyash. Courtesy of Andrey Loshak’s Facebook page

Andrey Loshak
Facebook
September 24, 2018

Achtung! Uwaga! Attention! Yet another outburst of lawlessness is underway in Krasnodar, an experimental region of Russia where the authorities test ever more repressive techniques and see whether they can get away with them or not. When I was making a film about volunteers in Navalny’s presidential campaign, it was Krasnodar where I encountered the gnarliest fucked-up shit. Provocateurs in hoods and masks attacked young people attending an “unauthorized” protest rally, and the cops, who stood nearby, claimed not to see anybody in masks attacking anyone. It was really frightening. The provocateurs assaulted the activists and assisted the cops in loading them into paddy wagons. I was also detained then for the first time in my life, despite my attempts to prove I was a reporter. I was quickly released, however. They were still afraid of causing a stir in the Moscow liberal media.

Afterwards, my cameraman and I stood outside the gates of the police station until one in the morning filming the activists, who were mainly really young men and woman, as they were let go after they were formally charged and written up. The whole time this was happening, the lawyer Mikhail Benyash was trying to get into the police station, but the police kept him out. He stood by the gate, writing down the names and numbers of the released detainees. He sadly reported that, due to the court hearings of the detainees, whom he would be defending, he would not be making it back to his hometown of Gelendzhik anytime soon, although there he was in the midst of civil court cases involving hoodwinked investors in unbuilt cooperative apartment buildings.

I asked him why he bothered with all of it when no one paid him for his work. His answer stunned me. It transpired he and I had the exact same motives. He also liked the young people who had been detained, and he also saw them as a source of hope. He was the first romantic lawyer I had ever met. (Unfortunately, I did not know Stanislav Markelov personally.) It was no wonder I took a shine to him. Later, in our correspondence, he suggested titling the series The Ugly Swans, after the novel by the Strugatskys, and wrote me a detailed explanation of why I should do it.

Here is an excerpt from his letter.

“These were the kind of young people with whom you spoke on October 7: quite сheerful, cool, and kind. Unspoiled. Clever, a little naive, and free of feigned helplessness. They grew up on the internet, in the chats on VK and Telegram.

“Instead of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, they imbibed fantasy novels and movies about superheroes, and they fashioned all of it into a model for doing the right thing.

“Instead of Dostoevsky’s subservience, they absorbed the humor of Marvel Comics and a primitive albeit correct sense of right and wrong from movies about Batman, the Flash, and Iron Man. They fire back at priests of all types with quotations from Sheldon Cooper.

“Now I have been watching all these crazy comics serials, but not for entertainment or by way of procrastinating, but in order to understand the young people who grew up on them and so I can speak their language. I’m holding my own for the time being, but the kids are evolving rapidly.”

On September 9, which the Navalny Team had declared a day of protests nationwide, Benyash arrived in Krasnodar as usual to defend activists detained at the march, which, as usual, had not been authorized by the authorities. On the eve of the protest, nearly all Navalny staffers in Krasnodar had been arrested on a ridiculous pretext: all of them were jailed for, allegedly, disobeying police officers. There was not anything like this preventive crackdown in any other city in Russia.

On the way to Krasnodar, Benyash got a telephone call informing him he was under surveillance by the police. The caller also told him his exact location. Mikhail does not scare easily, so he did not turn around. Once he was in Krasnodar, he headed with a female acquaintance to the police station where the detainees would be taken.

Suddenly, a Mazda stopped next to him. Several brutes in plain clothes jumped out of the car, grabbed Mikhail, and tossed him into their car, where they forcibly confiscated his telephone as he was trying to telephone colleagues. The men beat him, choked him, and pressed his eyes with their fingers.

At the police station, he was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged to the fourth floor. In Krasnodar, experienced opposition activists know the fourth floor is the location of the CID and that if you are taken there, it means the police will put on the pressure and try and beat a confession out of you.

All of these events were witnessed by Mikhail’s female companion, whom the cops also brought to the station.

On the fourth floor, they beat the living daylights out of Benyash. Several blows to his face caused him to fall and hit his head on the corner of a safe.

Meanwhile, the news got out that Benyash had been detained. Lawyer Alexei Avanesyan tried to get into the station to see him, but the police would not let him in. At some point, the cops donned helmets and armor before announcing the station was going into lockdown mode, which happens when a police state is threatened by an armed attack from the outside. In fact, the police in Krasnodar go into lockdown mode every time they don’t want to let lawyers into the station to consult with detained opposition activists. When Avanesyan learned Benyash had been beaten, he summoned an ambulance crew to examine Benyash, who recorded and certified his injuries. By ten p.m., i.e., eight hours after Benyash had been detained, the lockdown was called off and Avanesyan was let into the police station.

There Avanesyan encounted Deputy Chief Papanov, who lied, telling Avanesyan Benyash was not at the station. Avanesyan is not the shy and retiring type, either. He took advantage of the confusion to make a break for the fourth floor, where he found the beaten Benyash in a room and three field agents huddled over him. Avanesyan was then allowed to consult with the detained lawyer Benyash. The police were trying to frame him on two charges: organizing an unauthorized protest rally and resisting the police!

Avanesyan alerted their colleagues via social media, asking them to come to Banyash’s court hearing. Seven lawyers showed up. Although the hearing was scheduled for nine in the morning, it didn’t kick off until ten in the evening. Apparently, none of the local judges wanted to get dirt on their hands.

The court clerk, who was drunk, didnot want to let the lawyers into the hearing, but she was forced to back off, but ordinary members of the public were not admitted into the courtroom.

Judge Buryenko denied all the motions made by the defense. He did not ask police officers to testify. He did not admit the video recordings into evidence, and he even refused to view them. He did not call Benyash’s companion to testify, although she was standing in the hallway.

Benyash was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to forty hours of community service and fourteen days in jail. Although the lawyer had nothing to do with organizing or running the protest rally, he was given the harshest punishment for his non-involvement in it, despite the fact that the number of detainees in Krasnodar also broke all records: around one hundred protesters were hauled in by the police on September 9.

I quote Mediazona, who cite the court’s written verdict.

“According to the police officer’s report, Benyash got into the car voluntarily in order to go to the police station and have charges filed against him, but in the police station parking lot the lawyer banged his head against the car window of his own accord and kicked open the door in an attempt to escape. The police officer claims Benyash refused to stop hitting his head against the wall [sic], which was grounds for charging him with violating Article 19.3 of the Administrative Offenses Code.”

But there is more. Benyash was supposed to be released from jail yesterday. Avanesyan arrived at the special detention facility, seventy kilometers outside of Krasnodar, where Benyash had been jailed, to pick him up. But instead of picking up his released colleague, he was shown a new indictment against Benyash, this time on criminal charges. Benyash was alleged to have violated Article 318 Part 1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code: “engaging in violence against the authorities.” Medical certificates attesting to the finger bites allegedly suffered by police officers and the enormous suffering they endured as a result have been admitted into evidence.

Benyash has again been detained: for forty-eight hours for the time being. Tomorrow, he will go to court.

Dear colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, and other independent media, please cover this case. Otherwise, the experiment in Krasnodar will very quickly  expand nationwide. Even the Brezhnev-era KGB did not stoop to beating up and imprisoning dissident lawyers.

Thanks to George Losev for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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The Russian Reader is a website that covers grassroots politics, social movements, the economy, and independent culture in Russia and the Russian-speaking world. All the work on the website is done for free, and no fees are paid for the articles translated into English and posted on the site. Unless otherwise noted, everything published on the Russian Reader can be reproduced elsewhere so long as the Russian Reader is indicated clearly as the source, and a link back to the original post is included in the republication. In fact, you are encouraged to repost these articles on social media and share them wherever you like. Growing numbers of viewers and visitors are the only way I know whether the Russian Reader is accomplishing its mission: to make news and views from the other Russias more audible to the outside world.

 

Yekaterina Kosarevskaya: Vegan Times

vegan meals in temporary detention facilityVegan meals issued to prisoners at the Special Detention Facility on Zakharyevskaya Street, where the detainees sentenced to short jail terms for their involvement in the September 9, 2018, anti-pension reform protest rally in Petersburg are serving their time. Photo courtesy of the Telegram channel ONK SPB 16% (16% of the Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission)

Yekaterina Kosarevskaya
Facebook
September 13, 2018

A court in Penza has extended the time in police custody of the suspects in the Network case.

Formal indictments have been filed, and the case will soon be handed over to the prosecutor. Dima and Ilya [Dmitry Pchelintsev and Ilya Shakursky] have been indicted violating Article 205.4 Part 1 of the Criminal Code [“organizing a terrorist community”]. Dima chose Part 1 himself. Dima has refused to admit his guilt.

I imagine, if there were total knowledge of human nature, this knowledge could be attained by simultaneously understanding Konstantin Bondarev, who went sleepless for two nights as he gave the commands to administer electrical shocks to the suspects in the case, and Dima Pchelintsev, who after spending a year in a remand prison, had to choose between two pieces of paper, one promising him five to ten years in prison, the other, fifteen to twenty, and he chose the one promising him fifteen to twenty years (or is that life in prison?), but which did not contain the phrase “I admit my guilt, and I am sorry for what I did.”

There is no such thing as total knowledge.

Meanwhile, Petersburg had a week chockablock with jail sentences for some of the people who attended two different anti-pension reform rallies. Around a hundred protesters were sentenced to jail time, for a grand total of five hundred days in jail for all convicts. That comes to a year and a half in jail, which is a cushy sentence even for people sentenced under Criminal Code Article 205.6, i.e., failure to report a terrorism-related crime. And what is there to report? This is not a comparison. Comparisons are invidious.

I wanted to be in Penza, of course, but for some reason I returned to Petersburg.

The palliative functions of my civil rights work are still with me, but now they have been turned inside out. Temporary relief is now brought not by the presence of a civil rights defender, but things are made present to the civil rights defender. Before my very eyes hot meals and bed linens appear at police stations, people are released from police stations where they cannot be held, and government-issued dinners marked “VEGAN” are handed out at the Special Detention Center. The only things we cannot handle are bedbugs and violations of the freedom of assembly, and this also gives us peace of mind.

A certain Telegram channel writes that the whole business of rescinding the go-ahead for the September 9 protest rally and the subsequent detaining of six hundred people boils down to a feud between the United Russia faction in the Petersburg Legislative Assembly and Petersburg city hall. (Aren’t they United Russia party members, too?) The channel does something incredible: it attempts to figure out Petersburg politics.

I’m amazed, but I’m afraid to go down that rabbit hole. I had better keep trying to figure out Petersburg’s prisons.

And so it goes this autumn.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yulia Botukh: Petersburg’s Kangaroo Courts

yulia and varyaYulia Botukh and Varya Mikhaylova, May 7, 2018. Photo by Ms. Mikhaylova. Courtesy of her Facebook page

Yulia Botukh
VK
September 11, 2018

Twelve hours of court hearings.

Today, the heroic, fearless Varya [Mikhaylova] and I defended the interests of people detained yesterday [at the anti-pension reform rally in Petersburg] in the Primorsky District Court.

I need to get it off my chest.

The judges are such masters of their craft they can hear four cases simultaneously without even feigning that they are observing procedural niceties. They are capable of saying straight to your face that the fewer appeals you file, the better things will go for you.

Is this a way of teaching us to silently put up with every perversion of justice in general and human rights in particular? They could at least put it indirectly, not head on, when they sentence people represented by a social defender to seven days in jail, while sending people with no legal representation to jail for three days. One judge sentences everyone to pay fines, another judge sentences everyone to X number of days in jail, while a third judge divides up the fines and jail time according to gender.

Then there are the police officers who escort the detainees. There are ones who behave properly and humanely. Then there are ones who can say things like, “I decide when they go to the toilet!” or “Why do you have to go one by one? Put a group together!” or “Why the mob? Do you have hold each other’s wee-wees?” or “No, I’m not taking you now. I just arrived. Let me rest. I’m stressed out!” or “Are you fucking kidding?”

I realize all these means of humiliation are meant to compensate for the individual’s inability to manage these aspects of his life on his or her own and that, maybe, it has become so ingrained these things are said automatically, but it doesn’t make it any smoother. You have to argue with certain police officers over taking detainees to the bathroom.

There was the charming female officer who refused to give me her name. It was like at school. She concealed her personal information from me, as recorded in a receipt, by covering it with a piece of paper.

And you have already read the media reports of officers taking food meant for the detainees and eating it themselves.

The detainees are all super cool girls, women, guys, and men. They thank me and hug me, although I realize that, basically, there is little I can do to help them. I can do my best, but the outcome is totally unpredictable. Probably, it helps more emotionally that you are not alone, that someone can explain to you what happens next and tell what things are like in the temporary detention facility on Zakharyevskaya Street. I was glad that no one lost their optimism, sense of humor or ability to make fun of what was happening. It matters.

Some of the detainees said they now had a different perspective on the justice system and protest rallies. Many of them told mew that at the police precincts they were asked how much they had been paid for going to the protest rally. A thousand rubles? Three thousand?

What planet do cops come from?

My defendants were fined ten thousand rubles [approx. 125 euros] or jailed for as many as seven days.

If you like surprise, attend the court hearings held after protest rallies. You won’t be disappointed.

Thanks to the ferocious Varya Mihaylova for Ms. Botuk’s text, as reposted on her own VK page, and the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader