“Anastasia Baburova. #Women’s History Night,” Central Petersburg, May 22, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader
Marchers Detained at Markelov and Baburova Memorial Event in Moscow Mediazona
January 19, 2019
Police have detained people attending a march in Moscow marking the tenth anniversary of the murders of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta reporter Anastasia Baburova, Kommersant reporter Alexander Chernykh has reported on his Telegram channel.
According to Chernykh, police have detained journalist Igor Yasin, who was carrying a rainbow-colored flag, and five other people. The reasons for their arrests are unknown. The march has been halted.
OVD Info has reported that four people have been detained. Aside from Yasin, the detainees include Nikolai Kretov, Dmitry Borisenko, and Mikhail Komrakov.
Komrakov told OVD Info that when he was detained, a policeman said to him, “If it were up to me, I would kill you.”
According to Kretov, policemen hit him after he was put in a paddy wagon.
The Markelov and Baburova memorial march began at two o’clock on Tverskaya Boulevard and was scheduled to end with the laying of flowers at the spot where they were murdered on Prechistenka Street.
On January 19, 2009, Nikita Tikhonov, a member of the Russian neo-Nazi organization BORN (Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists), shot and killed Markelov and Baburova in downtown Moscow in broad daylight. Tikhonov and his accomplice Yevgenia Khasis were subsequently convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment and eighteen years in prison, respectively.
A so-called Cossack lashes protesters with a plaited whip (nagaika) at the He’s No Tsar to Us opposition protest rally at Pushkin Square in Moscow on May 5, 2018. Photo by Ilya Varlamov
Сossacks Were Not Part of the Plan: Men with Whips Take Offense at the Opposition
Alexander Chernykh Kommersant
May 8, 2017
The Presidential Human Rights Council (PHRC) plans to find out who the Cossacks were who scuffled with supporters of Alexei Navalny during the unauthorized protest rally on May 5 in Moscow. Meanwhile, the Moscow mayor’s office and the Central Cossack Host claimed they had nothing to do with the Cossacks who attempted to disperse opposition protesters. Kommersant was able to talk with Cossack Vasily Yashchikov, who admitted he was involved in the tussle, but claimed it was provoked by Mr. Navalny’s followers. Human rights defenders reported more than a dozen victims of the Cossacks have filed complaints.
The PHRC plans to ask law enforcement agencies to find out how the massive brawl erupted during the unauthorized protest rally on May 5 in Moscow. PHRC chair Mikhail Fedotov said “circumstances were exacerbated” when Cossacks and activists of the National Liberation Front (NOD) appeared at the opposition rally.
“It led to scenes of violence. We must understand why they were they and who these people were,” said Mr. Fedotov.
“Our main conclusion has not changed: the best means of counteracting unauthorized protest rallies is authorizing them,” he added.
On May 5, unauthorized protest rallies, entitled He’s No Tsar to Us, called for by Alexei Navalny, took place in a number of Russian cities. In Moscow, organizers had applied for a permit to march down Tverskaya Street, but the mayor’s officers suggested moving the march to Sakharov Avenue. Mr. Navalny still called on his supporters to gather at Pushkin Square, where they first engaged in a brawl with NOD activists and persons unknown dressed in Cossack uniforms. Numerous protesters were subsequently detained by regular police. Approximately 700 people were detained in total.
The appearance on Pushkin Square of Cossacks armed with whips has provoked a broad response in Russia and abroad. The Guardianwrote at length about the incident, reminding its readers that Cossacks would be employed as security guards during the upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The Belldiscovered a Central Cossack Host patch on the uniform of one of the Cossacks photographed during the brawl. According to the Bell, which cites documents from the Moscow mayor’s office, the Central Cossack Host was paid a total of ₽15.9 million for “providing security during large-scale events.”
However, Vladimir Chernikov, head of the Moscow Department of Regional Security, stressed, during an interview with Kommersant FM, that on May 5 “no Cossacks or any other organization were part of the plan and the means of providing security.”
Chernikov said police and the Russian National Guard acted impeccably. Spokesmen for the Central Cossack Host also said they had not dispatched any Cossacks to guard Pushkin Square, and that the Cossacks who, wearing their patches, did go to the square, had “voiced their civic stance.”
Bloggers have published information about the Cossacks they have been able to identify from photos and video footage of the rally. One video depicts a bearded man who grabs a placard, bearing the slogan “Open your eyes, you’re the tsar’s slave!”, from a young oppositionist before arguing with Open Russia coordinator Andrei Pivovarov. The Telegram channel BewareOfThem reported the man was Vasily Yashchikov, member of the Union of Donbass Volunteers. Mr. Yashchikov has confirmed to Kommersant he was, in fact, at the rally and was involved in the brawl with opposition protesters. Yet, he claimed, most of the Cossacks at Pushkin Square had nothing to do with the Central Cossack Host, as claimed by the Bell. According to Mr. Yashchikov, the brawlers mainly consisted of nonregistered (i.e., unaffiliated with the Russian government) Cossacks from two grassroots organizations, the First Hundred and the Crimean Regiment. Moreover, they allegedly showed up at the rally independently of one another.
“The rally was discussed in Cossack groups, and someone suggested we go and talk to people,” Mr. Yashchikov told Kommersant. “We have nearly a hundred people in the Hundred, but only fifteen decided to go. At the square, we met Cossacks from the Crimean Regiment, which is actually not Crimean, but from the Moscow Region. But our organizations are not friendly, so we were there separately.”
He admitted there were several people from the Central Cossack Host at Pushkin Square, but his group did not interact with them, either.
So-called Cossacks at the He’s No Tsar to Us opposition rally at Pushkin Square, Moscow, May 5, 2018. Photo by Alexander Miridonov. Courtesy of Kommersant
According to Mr. Yashchikov, the Cossacks came to Pushkin Square to talk with Mr. Navalny’s supporters, but had no intention of being involved in dispersing the rally.
“There were one and half thousand people there [the Moscow police counted the same number of protesters—Kommersant]. There were thirty-five of us at most, and we had only two whips. You could not have paid us to wade into that crowd,” claimed Mr. Yashchikov.
Mr. Yashchikov claimed he managed to have a friendly chat with Mr. Navalny, but opposition protesters were aggressive, he alleged.
“Someone picked on us, asking why we had come there, that it was their city. Another person tried to knock my cap off, while they swore at other Cossacks and blasphemed the Orthodox faith,” Mr. Yashchikov complained. “Well, we couldn’t take it anymore.”
People who attended the rally have denied his claims.
“The Cossacks acted cohesively, like a single team,” said Darya, who was at the rally [Kommersant has not published her surname, as she is a minor]. “They formed a chain and started pushing us towards the riot police, apparently, to make their job easier. The Cossacks kicked me, while they encircled my boyfriend and beat him. They retreated only when they realized they were being film and photographed.”
Darya planned to file a complaint with the police charging the Cossacks with causing her bodily harm. Currently, human rights defenders from Agora, Zona Prava, and Public Verdict have documented more than fifteen assault complaints filed against the Cossacks.
Oppositionists have claimed the police mainly detained protesters, allegedly paying almost no attention to the Cossacks and NOD activists. Kirill Grigoriev, an Open Russia activist detained at the rally, recounted that, at the police station where he was taken after he was detained, he pretended to be a NOD member, and he was released by police without their filing an incident report.
“When we arrived at the Alexeyevsky Police Precinct, a policeman immediately asked who of us was from NOD. I jokingly pointed at myself. He took me into a hallway and asked me to write down the surnames of other members of the organization,” said Mr. Grigoriev.
He wrote down the surnames of ten people, after which everyone on the list was given back their internal Russian passports and released.
Cossacks Confront Navalny Supporters for First Time Regime Prepares for Fresh Protests, Including Non-Political Ones, Analysts Argue
Yelena Mukhametshina and Alexei Nikolsky Vedomosti
May 6, 2018
He’s No Tsar to Us, the unauthorized protest rally in Moscow held by Alexei Navalny’s supporters, differed from previous such rallies. On Tverskaya Street, provocateurs demanded journalists surrender their cameras. By 2:00 p.m., the monument to Pushkin was surrounded by activists of the National Liberation Front (NOD). When protesters chanted, “Down with the tsar!” they yelled “Maidan shall not pass!” in reply. Behind the monument were groups of Cossacks, who had never attended such rallies. In addition, for the first time, the police warned people they intended to use riot control weapons and physical force, and indeed the actions of the security forces were unprecedentedly rough. The riot police (OMON) detained protesters by the hundreds, and Cossacks lashed them with plaited whips.
The Moscow police counted 1,500 protesters at the rally, while organizers failed to provide their own count of the number of attendees. Navalny said the nationwide rallies were a success. His close associate Leonid Volkov argued that “in terms of numbers, content, and fighting spirit, records were broken,” also noting the police’s unprecedented brutality. According to OVD Info, around 700 people were detained in Moscow, and nearly 1,600 people in 27 cities nationwide. Citing the PHRC, TASS reported that 658 people were detained in Moscow.
“He’s No Tsar to Us, May 5: A Map of Arrests. 1,597 people were detained during protest rallies on May 5, 2018, in 27 Russian cities, according to OVD Info. According to human right activists, during nationwide anti-corruption protests on March 26, 2017, more than 1,500 people were detained. Source: OVD Info.” Courtesy of Vedomosti
PHRC member Maxim Shevchenko demanded the council be urgently convoked due to “the regime’s use of Black Hundreds and fascist militants.” According to a police spokesman, the appearance at the rally of “members of different social groups” was not engineered by the police, while the warning that police would use special riot control weapons was, apparently, dictated by the choice of tactics and the desire to avoid the adverse consequences of the use of tear gas.
According to NOD’s leader, MP Yevgeny Fyodorov, 1,000 members of the movement were involved in Saturday’s rally.
“We wanted to meet and discuss the fact the president must be able to implement his reforms. Because we have been talking about de-offshorization and withdrawing from a unipolar world for five years running, but things have not budged an inch,” said Fyodorov.
NOD did not vet their actions with the Kremlin, the leadership of the State Duma or the Moscow mayor’s office, Fyodorov assured reporters.
On Sunday, the Telegram channel Miracles of OSINT reported that, in 2016–2018, the Central Cossack Host, whose members were at the rally, received three contracts worth nearly ₽16 million from the Moscow Department for Ethnic Policy for training in the enforcement of order at public events. As Vedomosti has learned, according to the government procurement website, the Central Cossack Host received eleven contracts, worth nearly ₽38 million, from the Moscow mayor’s office over the same period.
“In Paris, the scale of protests is currently an order of magnitude higher, but no one speaks about their particular brutality. In Russia, so far the confrontation has been cute, moderate, and provincial. The only strange thing is that, in Russia, people who are involved in such protests, which are aimed at maximum mutual violence, are regarded as children. But this is not so. Everything conformed to the rules of the game, common to the whole world. If you jump a policeman, don’t be surprised if he responds with his truncheon,” said Kuznetsov.*
The Russian government has allied itself with the Cossacks and NOD, which are essentially illegal armed formations, argued Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
“This does not bode well. Apparently, in the future, such formations will be used to crack down on protests,” said Kolesnikov.
The authorities are preparing for the eventuality there will be more protests. Even now the occasions for them have become more diverse, and they are spreading geographically, noted Kolesnikov.
Grassroots activism has been growing, and the authorities have realized this, political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov concurred. They are always nervous before inaugurations. In 2012, there was fear of a virtual Maidan, while now the example of Armenia is fresh in everyone’s minds, he said.
“The security services had to flex their muscles before the new cabinet was appointed. Although, in view of the upcoming FIFA World Cup, law enforcement hung the regime out to dry contentwise,” said Vinogradov.
* In September 2017, the Bellreported that state corporations Rosatom and RusHydro were financing EISI to the tune of ₽400 million each, and it could not be ruled out that the so-called social research institute was receiving subsidies from other state companies.
Harvard Agents Association The Justice Ministry Has Fined an NGO for Medical Research
Alexander Chernykh Kommersant
December 21, 2016
The Chapayevsk Medical Workers Association, an NGO in the Samara Region, has appealed the Justice Ministry’s decision identifying it as a “foreign agent.” The organization was cited for grants it has been receiving from Harvard for over twelve years to study the health of people who live in enivornmental disaster areas. The Justice Ministry additionally cited the work of its doctors in preventing HIV as “contrary to Russian national interests.” The association is on the verge of closure, despite the unprecedented support it has received from town officials, physicians, and the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The Chapayevsk Medical Workers Association was established in 1999.
“Chapayevsk produced pesticides for many years, which led to increased levels of dioxins,” says Oleg Sergeyev, head of the association and a Ph.D. in medicine. “Increased mortality was recorded in the town. The local hospitals were not coping due to a lack of funds and equipment. So the town’s doctors united into an NGO to try and solve the problem.”
Located 45 kilometers from Samara, the town, whose population is 73,000, was founded in 1909 as a settlement built round an explosives factory. In 1926, a chemical weapons factory went into operation, later converted into a fertilizer plant. In 1999, the State Ecology Committee declared the town an “environmental emergency area.” Chapayevsk received a total of 1.742 billion rubles in federal subsidies, and its status as an environmental emergency area was rescinded in 2005. In 2008, the mayor of Chapayevsk officially proposed resettling the city.
In 2003, the association launched a long-term research study, entitled “Dioxins, Pubertal Growth, and the Development of Boys,” in cooperation with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“With the consent of their parents, we selected 516 boys between the ages of eight and nine, and have been carefully tracking their health every year since then. Now they are young men between the ages of 19 and 22,” says Oleg Sergeyev. “We have seen how the dioxins and pesticides have impacted the growth, development, and especially the reproductive health of the men.”
The researched has been funded by the National Institutes of Health in the US. In 2003, the NIH made a long-term research grant to the project, and in 2010, it extended the grant for another six years.
“During this period, we received 65.2 million rubles,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “34.2 million was spent on the salaries of seventeen staff members, 21.4 million rubles, on equipment and supplies, and 9.6 million rubles, on social benefit payments.”
The association’s second focus has been HIV prevention.
“In the late 1990s, Chapayevsk ranked third in the region in the spread of HIV,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “This was due to injecting drug use. The drugs were easily accessible here.”
Physicans hit the streets to engage in harm reduction work, which has involved them in meeting with drug users, handing out brochures and free condoms, persuading people to get tested for HIV, collecting used syringes, and supplying clean syringes. Harm reduction programs in Chapayevsky have covered around 800 people annually (a little over one percent of the population). According to doctors, this is around a third of the town’s injecting drug users.
In 2014, the Justice Ministry’s regional office audited the association twice, concluding the NGO was not engaged in political activity. In October 2016, these very same officials changed their opinion and demanded the association be added to the list of “foreign agents.” The Justice Ministry’s Samara office failed to respond promptly to our request for information, but Kommersant has obtained a copy of the audit report. Officials deemed it a violation that Oleg Sergeyev sits on the Samara Regional Duma’s NGO Council and has been involved in the hearings of two committees, on physical education and healthy lifestyles, and on providing social services to the populace. In 2013, one commission recommended that regional MPs ban cigarette ads at public transport stops and in shops. In 2015, it recommended that regional MPs add the phrase “citizens are responsible for maintaining their own health” to the law “On Basic Public Healthcare.” The auditors construed this as “political activity financed by foreigners.”
The association’s work in preventing HIV has also not escaped the auditors’ attention. The Justice Ministry dubbed the needle exchange and the distribution of condoms by physicians the “inculcation of practices contrary to Russian national interests.” In the wake of the audit, the officials asked the court to rule the association a “foreign agent.” The court granted the request, additionally fining the NGO 300,000 rubles and Oleg Sergeyev 50,000 rubles for not registering themselves voluntarily.
“I don’t know where to get the money,” says Mr. Sergeyev.
According to him, no grantmaking organization permits the payment of fines out funds allocated for scientific research.
“It’s a matter of scientific reputation,” say Mr. Sergeyev. “If they had labeled us an ‘organization receiving foreign funding,’ then for God’s sake we would have enrolled ourselves in such a registry. But we have been accused of working for another country, although we have always acted in the interests of our town.”
The organization filed an appeal last week. As candidates for “foreign agent” status, the physicians have received unprecedented support from researchers at the Institute of Genetics and the Institute of Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as from the town’s chief narcologist.
Chapayevsk’s Mayor Dmitry Blynsky also wrote an official letter to the Justice Ministry. (He resigned in November 2016, but signed the letter while still in office.) According to Blynsky, the NGO’s collaboration with Harvard “has been of great benefit to the town.”
“The medical and lab equipment that has been procured has been used to treat the populace of Chapayevsk. In view of Chapayevsk’s subsidized budget, another important aspect of attracting foreign financing has been the creation of jobs for medical professionals,” wrote Blynsky.
According to the ex-mayor, the outcomes of the NGO’s long-term research studies have been used to develop public programs for the town’s social and environmental rehabilitation.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Tamara Koganzon for the heads-up
Ideological Underachievement Russian universities to examine the loyalty of students and lecturers
Alexander Chernykh Kommersant
October 24, 2016
Kommersant has learned that volunteers at Russian universities have been working to assess the “protest potential” of students and professors. The results will be “compiled as memorandums for official use by state authorities.” Attendees of the Russian Congress of University Vice Chancellors for Morale and Discipline, which took place this past weekend, discussed the assessment. The authors of the study have discovered that the “destructive promotion of anti-state ideas has been occurring” among the student bodies and faculties of the capital’s universities. On the eve of the presidential election, they intend to shift their focus to regional universities.
It was the sixth time the Russian Congress of University Vice Chancellors for Morale and Discipline had taken place in Moscow. Representatives of 642 educational organizations from eighty-one regions attended the congress. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sent his greetings to the congress, and guests of honor included Stanislav Sulakov, acting head of the Moscow Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”), Metropolitan Merkurii, chair of the Synodal Department for Religious Education and Catechesis, and Ernestas Mackevičius, presenter of the news program Vesti.
The meeting of the vice chancellors kicked off with a discussion of a sensitive issue.
“For twenty years, we have had to prove that the country needs discipline and morale in the universities,” complained Zinaida Kalinina, a vice chancellor at Tula Pedagogical University. Even Pushkin said, ‘The university completes the soul’s education.’ Let them argue with Alexander Sergeyevich [Pushkin]!”
Alexander Stradze, former head of the Department of State Policy on the Education of Children and Youth, one of the first officials to be dismissed by Olga Vasilyeva, the new Minister of Education and Science, tried to define the vector of the discussion. He introduced himself as assistant head of Rossotrudnichestvo, but from force of habit he attempted to preach to the vice chancellors.
“The state’s educational ideology has moved away from paternalism,” he explained. “Yes, it’s easier, probably, to work with loyal subjects, with subordinates. But the country and the conditions are no longer the same today. Nowadays, we bring up children in terms of humanism, free choice, and support for individuality. This path is justified in any democratic society.”
Alexander Balitsky, vice chancellor at Izhevsk Technical University and a former lecturer in the department of scientific socialism, tore the ex-official’s speech to shreds.
“Everything we do has often been canceled out by sociocultural circumstances,” Balitsky began in a roundabout way. “And these circumstances even often originate in our ministry.”
Mr. Balitsky casually, as it were, mentioned that the Ministry of Education and Science has been implementing a nationwide project entitled “Time to Act,” and read aloud a message from [ministry] officials to university students.
“Twelve of the country’s best entrepreneurs will share their know-how and teach you think in new ways. On September 22, entrepreneur Oskar Hartmann—” the vice chancellor underscored the entrepreneur’s [non-ethnic Russian] given name and surname,* while the audience applauded and laughed in support “—will talk about how you need to think to become a dollar millionaire by the age of thirty.”
“Nifty, eh? There’s an ideal for you. I have nothing against entrepreneurs, but these are not the core values we need. With all due respect to the Ministry of Education and Science.”
“But now there have been changes in the ministry,” an audience member reminded him.
“Thank God,” the speaker replied.
“Yeah, and there won’t be anymore Soroses,” someone joyfully shouted from the crowd.
“I think the expert community understands the country is in a state of undeclared war,” said Nikita Danyuk, assistant head of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Forecasting (ISIP) at the Russian People’s Friendship University. “It is hybrid in nature, and there are many fronts. One of them runs inside our country: it is the mental front.”
Complaining that “western planners” use the “practice of inspiring coups,” he acknowledged university students were one of the main “destructors.” To keep the country from “plunging into chaos and anarchy,” Mr. Danyuk’s team had drafted a special educational program, entitled “Scenarios of Russia’s Future,” a series of lectures on “combating politically destructive forces.” Over the past two years, Mr. Danyuk and his colleagues had visited over forty universities in Moscow and a dozen regional universities, where they had encouraged the students to openly express their own views on political issues “and even join in the discussion.” Surrounded by his colleagues, however, Danyuk admitted the real purpose of the trip had been to assess the “protest potential” of students and lecturers.
“The outcomes of the project were compiled as memorandums for official use, including by government officials and officers of certain specialized organizations,” Mr. Danyuk announced proudly. “Unfortunately, the destructive promotion of anti-state ideas has been occurring among professors and lecturers—not openly, but without being shy about it.”
Danyuk said that society was “most exposed to destructive spin doctoring during the electoral cycle.”
“Fortunately, our country negotiated the milestone of the parliamentary elections nearly without losses, but our project will be relevant until 2018, when the presidential election will be held. And from the viewpoint of prevention, it will be relevant beyond then.”
The Institute of Strategic Studies and Forecasting at the Russian People’s Friendship University is headed by Georgy Filimonov, a professor in the department of the theory and history of international relations. The university’s website relates that, from 2005 to 2009, Prof. Filimonov worked in the presidential administration as a foreign policy advisor. According to Mr. Danyuk, the “Scenarios of Russia’s Future” lecture series has been implemented with the involvement of the Anti-Maidan Movement, political scientist Nikolai Starikov, and “other media figures.” The project has already been the source of controversy. In May 2015, students and lecturers at the Russian State University for the Humanities attempted to disrupt a lecture by Nikolai Starikov at their university. Mr. Danyuk confirmed to Kommersant that he had been at the event. In his opinion, the protest had been organized not by students, but by lecturers at the university.
“The strategy of our foreign so-called colleagues has changed. The protest potential has now shifted to the regions, and we are really interested in making contact with people from regional universities and organizing events there,” he said.
At the end of the event, the vice chancellors queued up to talk with Mr. Danyuk, vying with each other to invite him to their universities and assess the “protest potential” of their colleagues.
* According to an article, dated March 15, 2016, in the magazine Sekret firmy, businessman Oskar Hartmann was born in Kazakhstan to a family of Russian Germans.
“What is Basil Saying? Where is Oversize Lyokha? And How is Platform Trailer Vadim?” Kommersant Explored How Truckers Are Convoying to the Moscow Ring Road to Protest
Alexander Chernykh and Katerina Shcherbakova
December 3, 2015 Kommersant
The protests by truckers that have taken place over the past three weeks because of the introduction of the Plato payment system are nearing their climax. On Thursday, drivers around the counters waited for President Putin to mention their problems and promise to get to the bottom of them in his annual Address to the Federal Assembly. When this did not happen, truckers begin forming the convoys that will attempt to travel to Moscow and block the Moscow Ring Road.
The Meeting Place Must Be Changed
The protesting truckers should have been in Moscow a few days ago, but the traffic police have been successfully countering them all week. Nationwide, traffic cops have been stop suspicious drivers at every post, checking their documents for several hours, looking for explosives or narcotics in their cargo, fining them for not having first-aid kits and fire extinguishers, and simply turning the most active of them around. This has seriously complicated coordination of the protests: several times, police have shown up right at secret meeting places. To learn the location of another such spot, we had to spend two nights in an online dialogue to convince suspicious drivers that we were reliable. Ultimately, our source did send us a telephone number, a contact name, and the address of a small roadside cafe around 200 kilometers from Moscow. We were given strict instructions to not mention the exact location at all over the phone.
When we got there, it turned there was no more need for conspiracy: the drivers had been been made by the police the day before.
“They didn’t even hide,” smiling in amazement, says Viktor, a young trucker from Novgorod the Great. “I had thought I would never notice if I were being tailed. This business is not my thing. But in this case it is all very simple. That passenger vehicle over there arrived after us and has been sitting next to the cafe for a suspiciously long time. Then a Gazelle [light truck or van] with an antenna on its roof parked next to it.”
When the bored drivers decided to go for a ride in a passenger car, the suspicious automobile immediately pulled out behind them, tailed them for the duration of the trip, and then parked in the exact same place. After this, some of the drivers decided to take their trucks to another stop and drove toward Moscow, but within several kilometers they were all stopped by traffic cops, who asked where the convoy of trucks was headed.
“The guys thought they could outfox them. They said they were really going to Petersburg and were just looking the U-turn on the highways,” recounts one of the drivers who has stayed behind. “But the cops told them they would escort them to the regional border. So they traveled with a motorcade.”
A roadside cafe chockablock with truckers is an ordinary sight for those who travel federal highways at night. But this time the setting resembles a black-and-white Soviet film about revolutionary sailors and striking railway workers. Several drivers sit at a table in the corner and noisly discuss where protesters set out for Moscow and where they got stuck. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the protest has no unified leadership, truckers from different cities do not know each other, and communications between individual convoys have to be established right now.
Mysterious phrases break through the buzz of the conversation.
“What is Basil saying?”
“Where is Oversize Lyokha?
“How is Platform Trailer Vadim?”
“He says he has thirty platform trailers behind him.”
“We are confused ourselves,” gaily remarks Viktor to universal laughter. “We are confused about the highways, the days of the week, and about life in general.”
Communication between the convoys is maintained by delegates, trucker drivers who have got behind the wheel of passenger cars to get past the traffic police posts.
“Andryukha traveled to the Don Highway and talked with the groups [of truckers] parked there. In some places there were a hundred trucks, in other places, thirty,” explains Vova, a well-built man in a sweater. “We have to get the lay of the land, to understand how many trucks in all are planning to convoy and what people’s moods are. Meaning the protest movement is looping back on itself. Tonight, everyone should be on the line so that the coordination is tighter the closer we get to Moscow.”
No one knows the exact number of protesters involved, even the date is still under question, but all the truckers know what they have to do: get to the Moscow Ring Road on Saturday, get into the far right lane, and reduce speed to the minimum allowed.
“Picture this. At the same time, we drive onto the ring from different directions and take up positions in our rightful lanes, one and two,” describes Vova, his eyes blazing. “And our Moscow activists switch to passenger vehicles and driver alongside us in lanes three, four, and five. You thus end up with a giant snail: five lanes on the Moscow Ring Road in both directions. And in Moscow, two such snails are enough for everything to short circuit and grind to a halt,” he says, smiling proudly.
The truckers do not know what they will do next.
Heavy Duty Arithmetic
The date when the snail was to crawl on the Moscow Ring Road has been postponed several times. Now the truckers have seemingly come to a final agreement. On Thursday (December 3, 2015) at noon, they will watch President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly.
“This whole time, nobody has reported about us and our demands, neither Channel One nor NTV,” Victor says with resentment in his voice. “Only the Internet has written about us, but radio and TV have been silent. We are waiting for the address in order to see whether Putin knows about the problem or not, whether he intends to do something or whether we are ‘uninteresting’ to him.”
“I think he doesn’t decide such issues. It is all done for him. Well yeah, the Rotenbergs are his friends. But the law was passed while Medvedev was still president, and he signed this ‘rubbish.’ Maybe Putin just does not have all the information,” says a young driver, a little haltingly.
“Personally, I am fed up with this uncertainty,” wearily says a very thin young man with close-cropped hair as he approaches the table. He is Alexander, a convoy delegate who recently returned from Rostov. It is evident he can barely stand on his feet from lack of sleep, but he shakes hands with everyone and sits down at the table.
“Putin should say it clearly: pay, guys. That is what we have decided and we are not going to change it. It would be good if he came out to the people and told them straight in the eye.”
“And then what?”
“Then I’ll sell my truck, pay off my loans, and go live in some other country.”
Currently, Plato charges 1.53 rubles per kilometer, but beginning in March of next year this rate will double, to 3.06 rubles per kilometer. Self-employed truckers are completely certain that the new toll system will bankrupt them within a few months. To prove this, they discuss their incomes and expenses in detail, citing figures.
“Well, look. A freight run between Petersburg and Moscow costs 36 to 40 thousand rubles. This is considered a very good rate for a round-trip run,” says Viktor. “But almost 20 thousand rubles of this sum goes for fuel. The exact figure depends on the truck. European trucks use less fuel; American trucks use more. Russian trucks use even more.”
On the road, truckers need to fuel up themselves.
“You can see yourselves what the prices are like in the cafes. You go into eat and you spend no less than 300 rubles, sometimes a whole 500 rubles. You run up a food bill of no less than two or two and half thousand rubles during a run.”
A run lasts from three to five days. Moscow is closed at night to trucks, so they often have to idle on the approach to the capital.
“As a result, I have one, at most two runs a week,” says Viktor. “Excluding fuel and food I make 16 to 18 thousand rubles per run. And that is if nothing has broken down on the road. It can happen that you run over a piece of metal and burst a tire. Then you hand over that 18 thousand for repairs. You haven’t been home for an entire week, and you show up with no money.”
In addition, there are monthly expenses on routine maintenance of the truck—topping up the oil, making small, preventive repairs—whose costs come to about 20% of the fuel consumed over a month.
“I also pay 40 thousand a year in motor vehicle taxes,” the drivers says, bending his fingers. “Plus around six thousand for insurance. And I am registered in Novgorod Region, where the rates are tiny. Vovka pays twice as much in Leningrad Region.”
Vovka nods in agreement.
“And there is the excise tax for fuel, seven rubles a liter,” continues Viktor. “And I also have to pay for vehicle inspection, tire replacement, and all expendable supplies. We all here are just barely earning the minimum, and they are trying to finish us off with a new tax.”
According to Viktor, he puts between 100,000 and 150,000 kilometers a year on his truck.
“Next year, the toll will be 3.06 rubles [per kilometer],” the trucker reminds us. “So I will have to pay at least 400 thousand rubles [approx. 5,500 euros at current exchange rates] to the Rotenbergs. Meaning to Plato.”
The truckers have no idea where they will get the money. Officials at the Ministry of Transportation have tried to persuade them that their wallets will not suffer because their customers will end up paying the difference.
“Yeah, the customer will pay me more, but he will raise his prices. I will go into his store and pay more,” says Viktor, shrugging.
In addition, the Ministry of Transportation has not taken into account the fact that truckers have to run empty for many kilometers.
“I live in Novgorod the Great. It is a small city. We have nothing to transport,” says the trucker. “The largest freight turnover is between Moscow and Petersburg. For me to get to a customer in Petersburg I have to travel 200 kilometers, mileage I pay out of my own pockets. Dropping by home is 200 kilometers there and 200 kilometers back. And so it goes every time.”
“I am from Tver. We have work for a fifth of our drivers at most. Everybody else goes to Moscow or Petersburg,” confirms the man sitting next to him at the table.
“Listen, but even if you are traveling empty, you are still damaging the road, no?” I ask.
The truckers eye me suspiciously. Stating that trucks have negative impact on the road surface is a grievous heresy to them.
“Look at the ring roads in Moscow and Petersburg,” they argue. “Cargo vehicles are forbidden from driving beyond the second lane. So what is the lowdown? In the left lanes, where only passenger vehicles travels, the ruts are much deeper and the bumps bigger than in the lanes where trucks travel.”
“And most importantly, what are we paying for?” asks Alexander. “I traveled though Totma just now, the snow was coming down, and they were putting down asphalt? Right under the snow, can you imagine? And they are demanding money from us for this.”
And yet the drivers point out that Platon will be a blow not just for them but for all of small business. Alexander quietly tells us about a small furniture factory in Saratov owned by three young men his age. The factory used to send three truckloads a day to stores in Moscow and Petersburg, but in recent months, they have been sending three truckloads a week.
“They say that because of the crisis all their supplies have become more expensive,” recounts Alexander. “The parts and the leatherette are from China, their furniture has become more expensive, and people don’t want to buy it at the new prices.”
If the factory now has to pay its driver an additonal five or six thousand rubles for each run, it will simply go bust.
“And it is local people who work there, not Uzbeks. I have talked to them. They make 40 to 50 thousand rubles a month, good money. I went into the cafeteria, and there you can eat for fifty rubles, without a markup,” says Alexander. “Who is going to win if the factor closes and dozens of people lose their jobs? Who wants that?”
“That is why we private drivers are so worried< he says, turning to me. “We see our customers, talk with them, and realize that many of them will just not be able to cope. This road toll will finish them off.”
“Well, what are we all going to do?” Viktor asks angrily from the other end of the table. “My daughter is five months old. My wife is taking care of her and cannot work for now. And my wife has a problem with her milk, she has been underfeeding her. We have been buying dry milk now. A can costs 1,200 rubles and lasts for a week. Figure out how much that comes to for a month.”
“I don’t mean this is such an unbearable amount,” he continues with such fervor it immediately becomes clear that this is big money, why hide it? “But it’s another fifteen hundred for diapers. Then it’s something else, and something else again. Now it’s this Plato,” he says angrily. “What am I supposed to? What are we supposed to do now? Where do we go? To be honest, all we know how to do is drive trucks.”
The other truckers look at him in silence.
An eighteen-wheeler slowly passes the window.
“There is another one driving under the black flag,” someone at the table scornfully utters. “Profiting at our expense, the bugger.”
Due to the fact that some drivers are involved in the protests, there has been a deficit of free trucks in recent weeks. Customers have begun offering two times as much for runs, and many private drivers have gladly agreed to haul their goods. But, in order to save money, they also have not installed the Plato system. The striking truckers regularly ridicule them on CB radio, but they prefer to remain silent.
“Well, so what should we call them?” one of the drivers asks me indigndantl. “Strikebreakers? What kind of breakers are they? They’re out-and-out ‘reptiles’ is what they are!”
Viktor recounts how he recently quarreled with his father-in-law, who is also a truck driver, but said that resistance was useless and installed the Plato system.
“The war hadn’t even begun, and he had already surrendered,” said the driver, outraged. “I told him so. I said, ‘You are my enemy, and I don’t want to know you.”
“You remember how Stalin didn’t free his son from the Germans?” Victor asks unexpectedly. “Well, I thought that if Stalin did not spare his son, then why the hell did I need such a father-in-law. The boys here with me, they are my family.”
The Road to the Moscow Ring Road
Late at night, most of the drivers disperse to their trucks to sleep. Those who are participating as passengers stay up to drink with stringer photographers who have shown up from somewhere. The whole time well-built men drink vodka sourly at the next table. Suddenly, one of them approaches the drivers and screams at a photographer, allegedly, for taking a picture of him. The situation becomes heated instantly. The strangers began pushing and challenging the other men to “come outside and talk.”
“They look like titushky,” says one of the truckers. “We saw them today. They were hanging around that car that has been following us. Now they’ll start a fight, and the cops will show up and detain everyone.”
“No, they’re just drunks,” his comrade disagrees with him. “But it’s unpleasant all the same.”
A fight has already begun outside, and the drivers advise all outsiders to leave the cafe until morning. We go to warm up in the truck of Valera, a calm 49-year-0ld man who proudly tells us he has been driving big rigs since 1987.
“Take off your shoes and come in. We’re going drink tea now,” he cordially invites us into the cab of his truck as if it were a flat.
Hearing about the drunken comrades, he shakes his head disapprovingly.
“We are already losing soldiers on the way to Moscow.”
Valera ignites a small burner and puts a tiny metal teapot on it. As the water heats up, we thaw in the warmth and inspect the cab.
“I’ll have to sell the truck now,” the middle-aged driver says softly. “Although who wants it? I’ll get kopecks for it. Yes, it’s old, but I bought it that way on purpose, then repaired it myself. I am good with my hands.”
I ask him why private truckers would rather leave their jobs than work for a haulage company.
“A comrade of mine worked for a company. He made 50 thousand rubles a month,” Valera drily replies. “Only he spent one or two days at home a month. He gets back to Petersburg from a run, leaves his truck at the boss’s lot, gets on a commuter train, rides seventy kilometers, spends the night at home, and in the morning gets a call telling him to come in right away. Is that a life? I cannot take that anymore, I’m too old. And nobody can take it. That is why almost 80% of long-haul drivers are private drivers or tiny individual entrepreneurs who own a couple of trucks.”
We drink hot tea as Valera unfolds the sleeping berth.
“We all realize, of course, that the government suddenly needed money,” he says as we part. “We have got the turmoil in Syria, and missiles also cost money. But MPs should find other reserves to pay for this, not pay for it at our expense.”
In the morning, the drivers sleepily gather for a smoke next to their trucks.
“Policemen approached us last night and warned that everyone would be stopped at the nearest Road Patrol Service post and charged with extremism,” one of them grimly recounts.
“Come on, he was pulling your leg. What kind of extremists are we?” a comrade responds to him incredulously.
“Well, maybe he was kidding, but it is unpleasant in any case,” concludes a third driver.
While the drivers gather in the cafe, where they have planned to watch the president’s speech together, we drive to a Road Patrol Service post.
“We are not looking for any extremism here,” the police commander answers firmly as his subordinates snatch trucks and semis from the stream of traffic with waves of their batons.
“We are just in the midst of Operation Anti-Terror, and we are selectively checking all vehicles,” he explains in an official tone before adjusting a young policeman’s sagging reflective vest and walking away.
The policemen at the post copy down the license numbers and passport details of the truck drivers.
“Are you waiting for the anti-Platonists?” asks one of the policeman, unable to contain himself. “They won’t make it here. They will be stopped before they get here.”
Ten minutes before the start of the broadcast, the drivers suddenly change their location and drive a couple of kilometers to the next cafe, where about a dozen truckers are already sitting. The drivers silently listen to the president. They refrain from commenting on his speech, but with each passing minute they lose more and more interest in it. When the head of state begins talking about the problems of villagers, the drivers start telephoning their comrades and discussing different routes to Moscow.