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

Щасливого Різдва!

thugocratic council.jpegA recent meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin. Image courtesy of kremlin.ru

I am not sure what to do with the canard, beloved of “anti-imperialists” the world over, that, because Ukraine has been less than perfectly governed, has been lousy with human rights violations, and has featured an inordinate number of neo-Nazis and other unsavory characters, it has deserved what Putinist Russia has been doing to it since 2014.

If “anti-imperialists” were consistent, they would want the same fate visited on every other country that is badly governed and has a dicey human rights record. I imagine that would mean a hundred or more countries would have to be invaded simultaneously to right all the wrongs in our world, at least as these wrongs are seen, allegedly, by “anti-imperialists.”

This begs the question of why a country with an even worse human rights record, a country governed by a tiny clique of unbelievably corrupt, violent secret police officers who have no intention of ever yielding power to any other group, much less to the country’s people, was the best qualified to invade Ukraine and show it the “anti-imperialist” light. {TRR}

Donbas Family Photo Archive

donbass family albumPhoto courtesy of Donbas Family Photo Archive

Plus/Minus Art Residency
Facebook
December 24, 2018

The visual anthropology project Donbas Family Photo Archive was presented on November 29 at the IZOLYATSIA Platform for Cultural Initiatives. Kateryna Siryk, curator of the Plus/Minus Art Residency in Severodonetsk, and Vadim F. Lurie, an independent researcher, anthropologist, and photographer from Petersburg, presented the project.

The expedition kicked off in February 2018 in three neighboring cities in Luhansk Region: Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, and Rubizhne. The aim was to find and digitize the family photo archives of local residents and compile a database.

“Family life (private life) and public life are bound up in photo archives. The boundary between them is not always visible, a consequence of the ideological structure of society and life in the twentieth century. These things helped us record and analyze culture, history, and the socio-political aspects of life in Luhansk Region,” said Lurie.

According to Lurie, the memory and post-memory of Donbas are not simply timely subjects. They are also painful subjects for many people in Ukraine and Russia.

“The issue of this region’s memory has been politicized. It has been overrun by speculations and rebuttals of these speculations. These are not merely different opinions. They are one of the ideological grounds of the conflict of Eastern Ukraine. The family archives of Donbas residents can lead us to an objective understanding of the people who have lived here,” Lurie argued.

The project’s plans for 2019 include a series of exhibitions and discussions in the cities involved in the project and elsewhere in Ukraine, museumification of the photo archive, and creation of an online database.

Prior to Kyiv, the project had been presented at the seminar War, Photo Archives and the Temporalities of Cultural Heritage, at the Max Planck Institute’s Art History Institute in Florence, the seminar Urban Landscapes of Memory: Conflicts and Transformations, at CISR Berlin, and a press conference at the Seversky Donets Crisis Media Center.

Donbas Family Photo Archive: http://donbasphotoarchive.tilda.ws/ru

Contacts: donbasphotoarchive@plusminus.org.ua, (099) 944-6803

Translated by the Russian Reader

Ayder Muzhdabaev: We Are Not Going to Take a Deep Breath

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Ayder Muzhdabaev

15 Minutes
Facebook
October 14, 2017

Crimean Tatar Journalist Ayder Muzhdabaev to Russian Rock Musician Andrei Makarevich: “It Hasn’t Passed, It Hasn’t Stopped Hurting, We’re Not Going to Take a Deep Breath”

Before arriving in Ukraine to clean up at the box office yet again, Russian TV presenter and showman Misha Kozyrev advises Ukrainians not to let the war into their hearts. By the way, he will again be arriving in the country real soon. Someone has to tell the “embittered” younger brothers what to think and how to live. We are clueless on our own.

And when Russian musician Andrei Makarevich was asked why he wanted to drag his band Time Machine’s keyboardist Andrei Derzhavin, who signed an open letter to Putin supporting the annexation of Crimea and the war, along with him to Ukraine, he wrote on Facebook it was time to stop discussing events that had happened four years ago. “Learn to take a deep breath,” he wrote. As if everything had passed and stopped hurting. No, it has not passed, and it has not stopped hurting. If someone thinks we have forgotten everything, he or she probably should not come to Ukraine.

If your keyboard player, Mr. Makarevich, still slips into the country under your skirt, so to speak, we will drag him from his dressing room and send him home packing. If you are incapable of understanding such a simple, normal thought, then so be it: we will explain it to you. We have not taken a deep breath, and we are not going to, because we had our homeland stolen from us—or at least part of it. We remember that and we cannot forgive what happened, not only the war and annexation but also the indifference to us.

We are not aquarium fish or serfs who remember nothing and have no right to rage. We do not need any Russians here except those who are wholeheartedly against the Putin Reich, support the return of Crimea and Donbas to Ukraine, and support Ukraine unconditionally, without any provisos. If you are incapable of understanding us, if you lack the humanity to put yourself in our shoes, to feel and share our pain, you had better stay home, in the so-called Russian world.

I hope the so-called Russian world will take it easy on you, Mr. Makarevich. I hope it treats you more gently than it has treated the Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. Although I do not think it will happen. Life is set up in such a way that right after the Jews were massacred, trouble came for the Germans. But who knows. If you continue to sit still and choose your words carefully, maybe you will be luck personally.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Radio Europe/Radio Free Liberty

Bhaskar Sunkara: “You Say East Ukraine, I Say West Russia”

Has Bhaskar Sunkara ever been to “West Russia”?

west-russia

Source: Facebook

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Bhaskar Sunkara. Photo courtesy of Magculture

Bhaskar Sunkara (born June 20, 1989) is an American political writer, editor and publisher of Jacobin magazine.

The son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, Sunkara described Jacobin as a radical publication, “largely the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus like Dissent or New Politics.”

The New York Times interviewed Sunkara in January 2013, commenting on Jacobin’s unexpected success and engagement with mainstream liberalism. In late 2014, he was interviewed by New Left Review on the political orientation and future trajectory of the publication and in March 2016 was featured in a lengthy Vox profile.

Sunkara writes for Vice magazine, Washington Post and The Nation, among other outlets. He has appeared on the PBS Tavis Smiley program, MSNBC’s Up w/ Chris Hayes and the FX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.

Source: Wikipedia

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Residents in eastern Ukraine face worst fighting in years in war with Russian-backed separatists
Sabra Ayres
Los Angeles Times
February 15, 2017

The news reached Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko via a morning phone call from an assistant: A rocket attack damaged 11 houses on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city.

There were no casualties, but a major concern had become a reality: The escalation of fighting elsewhere in the nation in recent weeks had reached the industrial city, a key component in southeast Ukraine’s struggling economy.

“We’ve gotten used to a peaceful life,” Boychenko said during a recent interview at his office. “I really don’t want to return to the problems we had started to forget.”

Ukraine’s nearly three-year battle against Kremlin-backed separatists in the east erupted into the worst fighting in two years in late January. Exactly why the fighting intensified recently remains unclear, though such encounters have occurred with some frequency during unrest that included Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

The small city of Avdiivka, 90 miles north of Mariupol, became the epicenter of the recent violence. The fighting quickly spread along a 300-mile line separating the Ukrainian government-controlled lands and those claimed by separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Mariupol had seen only sporadic fighting over the last two years, primarily in the region’s eastern villages. But as news trickled in about the bombardment of Avdiivka, Mariupol began again hearing the deep rumble of explosions and heavy artillery fire less than 10 miles away.

The fighting halted vital shipments from Avdiivka’s coal processing plant to Mariupol’s massive iron and steel works plants, jeopardizing production at one of the region’s biggest employers.

Many local residents said they feared the renewed violence could quash the growing sense of confidence in Mariupol after nearly two years of relative stability.

One concern in the region is that President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin could strike a deal that would lift U.S. sanctions on Russia or force Ukraine to make painful compromises with Moscow. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has urged Western leaders to keep sanctions in place.

“Sanctions are the only way to get Putin to the table,” he said last week in an interview with journalists and academics in Kiev, the capital.

Nationally, there is little faith in the Minsk agreements, a road map to peace brokered in 2014 by European leaders between Ukraine, the Kremlin and the separatist rebel leaders. Poroshenko maintains that Ukraine is committed to its obligations to the agreements.

“Minsk is my plan. Putin accepted it. His signature is there,” he said.

Mariupol has gone through a noticeable transformation since war erupted in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014. Once the epitome of a run-down, Soviet industrial port city with two massive metallurgy plants puffing out pollution day and night, Mariupol in the last two years has emerged as a center of civic activism in Ukraine’s southeastern battlefront.

The city was the center of several violent outbreaks in spring 2014, when Ukrainian forces and supporters of the pro-Russian separatist groups fought gun battles in the downtown streets. The charred former police headquarters and city council buildings still stand as reminders. On Jan. 24, 2015, a missile attack hit an eastern region of Mariupol dense with Soviet-era concrete housing blocks, killing at least 30 people.

The previously politically passive, mostly Russian-speaking city created community groups that mobilized to gather whatever money they could to buy medical kits, food, and flak jackets and helmets for Ukraine’s ill-prepared military. The fighting displaced 1.75 million eastern Ukrainians, but locals opened their homes and about 56,000 newcomers settled in Mariupol.

“We don’t call them refugees anymore,” Boychenko said. “They are ‘new Mariupolites’ and have already become part of our city.”

Once-thriving Donetsk is now occupied by rebel forces, so Mariupol, the largest city in the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, became the de facto cultural hub of the eastern industrial area along the Don River basin, known as the Donbas.

Displaced activists from Donetsk opened an avant-garde theater and creative space that has hosted some of the country’s big names in modern talent.

Small businesses — grocery stores, small restaurants and mom-and-pop shops — whose owners fled the fighting returned, and new cafes have opened. Ukraine’s most popular music group, Okean Elzy, gave a free concert in May attended by more than 30,000 people.

“We’ve been working all year to create a positive mood in the city,” Boychenko said.

Alex Ryabchyn, a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament who was born in Mariupol, said the city is in the early stages of reinvention.

“The population is starting to think of themselves as being the center of southeastern Ukraine. That’s new, “ said Ryabchyn,  who was an economics professor in Donetsk State University before fleeing to Kiev after the pro-Russia rebel takeover.

Mariupol faces major challenges, particularly in the economic sphere. Ukraine’s economy has been battered since protests ousted a Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. The war ripped apart the country’s coal mining and steel processing industry, destroying many plants and severely curtailing production in those that survived.

The aging steel plants need modernization and the economy needs diversification to revitalize the region. Highways linking Mariupol to other cities are so bad that drivers are forced to reroute to avoid the worst sections. Train rides from Kiev to Mariupol, about 500 miles, take 18 hours, and the airport cannot accept commercial flights because of its location near the front lines of fighting.

Mariupol can feel like an isolated peninsula in Ukraine, an image many hoped was changing.

“You can see why [an increase in fighting] is a problem,” Irina Chirkova, 24, a waitress in Mariupol, said as a series of explosions pierced the cold air. “We have a lot of potential here — a big port, an airport and nice beaches. But our infrastructure needs investment, and who is going to invest in us now with this war?”

A Snowy Sunday in Petrograd with Donbas Separatists

Promo flyer for the exhibition Mikhail Domozhilov, Militiaman's ID, Art of Foto Gallery, Saint Petersburg, January 15-February 3, 2016. Courtesy of the gallery
Promo flyer for the exhibition Mikhail Domozhilov, Militiaman’s Pass, ARTOFFOTO Gallery, Saint Petersburg, January 15-February 3, 2016. Courtesy of the gallery

This morning I got an urgent message from a friend, alerting me to the fact a funny sounding exhibition of photographs was underway at a downtown photo gallery I had never heard of.

It was true, as my friend pointed out, that the announcement for the show, an exhibition of portraits of Eastern Ukrainian pro-Russian separatist fighters (opolchentsy), taken by Petersburg photographer Mikhail Domozhilov, sounded quite dicey politically, as posted on the website of the exhibiting gallery, ARTOFFOTO.

It sounded a little less outwardly partisan when translated into English and printed on the flyers I would later find lying on a windowsill in the gallery:

“The self-proclaimed and still unrecognized state [of the] Donetsk People’s Republic appeared as a result of a civil war in Ukraine in April, 2014. The Donbass People’s Militia became the driving force of the new republic. In the year that passed after the declaration of the DPR, its militia transformed from an anarchic group of super activists [sic] divided into small groups and willing to go weaponless and die for an idea into a regular army with all its necessary attributes—[a] code [of military conduct], subdivisions [sic] and their chiefs, headquarters and machinery.

“This episode is about transition and transformation, about a shaky equilibrium between belonging to one country and to another, utopic in its essence. And also about the self-identification of the participants throughout the conflict. In several months former miners, builders, mechanics have become professional warriors, and a new, extreme reality has replaced the ordinary one. With major destruction[], artillery shelling and [a] non-continuous front, these people suddenly found themselves in the middle of historical events and news reports.

“This episode includes several close-up portraits of militia members in mobile studios at military and training bases, as well as on [the] frontlines.”

(English-language flyer for the exhibition Mikhail Domozhilov, Militiaman’s Pass [Opolchenskii Bilet], ARTOFFOTO Gallery, Bolshaya Konyushennaya, 1, Saint Petersburg, January 15–February 3, 2016)

It was also true that the photographer, Mr. Domozhilov, had shown a penchant in his career for subjects that might be characterized as rightist, such as this fascinating series on the ultras for Petersburg’s Russian Premier League side, FC Zenit.

The ultras series featured virtuosic albeit historically and aesthetically coded works such as this.

domozhilov-terrace
Mikhail Domozhilov, From the series Ultras, 2010. Courtesy of the photographer’s website

On the other hand, Mr. Domozhilov’s tearsheets included portraits, just as compelling, of pro-Ukrainian fighters on the Maidan in Kyiv.

But I did not think it fair to pronounce judgement on the work on the basis of a couple of websites, so I set off into the winter wonderland that Petrograd has become in the last week to see the show for myself.

Continue reading “A Snowy Sunday in Petrograd with Donbas Separatists”

Vlad Kolesnikov: A Real Russian Hero for Russia Day

“At the military enlistment office, I turned on the Ukrainian national anthem”: 17-year-old Vlad Kolesnikov talks about his decision to combat Putin’s propaganda
Dmitry Volchek
June 10, 2015
svoboda.org

Vlad Kolesnikov

Hundreds of people have been writing to Vlad Kolesnikov, a 17-year-old technical college student from Podolsk. They have been writing with offers of assistance and shelter, and to thank him and advise him to be more careful.

“I cannot express in words the emotions I feel reading Facebook,” says Vlad, his voice trembling with emotion. “There has been so much support from strangers, it is simply incredible.”

Vlad has acquired a lot of friends on the Internet, but his own grandfather, a former KGB officer, has condemned him. At the technical college where he studied he was assaulted. (Vlad asked not to write that he had been beaten up: “It was only a split lip, a couple of bruises, a couple of blows to the head, and three drops of blood.”) And now the police have taken an interest in him.

And all because Vlad Kolesnikov not only does not hide his political views but has also decided to declare them openly.

​​Vlad Kolesnikov: Putin sits with his pack of criminals and runs the country with the aid of powerful propaganda. This is my subjective opinion. Maybe I am wrong, but I believe it is true. You know the Russian media have been vigorously promoting the image of khokhly [a Russian term of abuse for Ukrainians] and pindosy [a Russian term of abuse for Americans] as enemies. I also supported this until I watched a video on YouTube. It was 2014, and I will probably never forget it, because the video changed my life. The content of the video was completely banal. It was just an American family. The wife is Russian, the husband, American. He gives her a gift, they go to a shooting range. And instead of the propaganda we get—that it is a fascist regime where everyone is obsessed with sex and money, and everyone betrays each other—I saw people like myself. The only difference was that they smiled more. Since then I have been digging more, looking for different kinds of information, and reading the western press. I have realized the Russian media makes lots of mistakes, exaggerates, and in most cases just blatantly lies.

Radio Svoboda: And your relations with your relatives have been complicated because of the fact they do not share your views?

Vlad Kolesnikov: Yes. And not only my relations with relatives, but with everyone, you could say. I know only two people who more or less share my views: my friend Nikolai Podgornov and one other person whom I won’t name. But all the people I know—my whole college, all my relatives—they are all against me. It is just Nikolai and me,

Radio Svoboda: You and Nikolai decided to hang up a banner in Podolsk that read, “Fuck the war”?

Vlad Kolesnikov: Yes, it all started when I was at the military enlistment commission and told them I did not want to serve in the army and did not want to fight against my brethren. Maybe that sounds sentimental, but that is the way it is. We decided we could not tolerate it anymore and would voice it openly. First, we wanted to hang a banner in Moscow, but then we thought it would be torn down quickly, and so we looked for a good place in Podolsk. We walked around for a long time and found a building with an accessible rooftop in the middle of town and decided to hang the banner there. We went to a fabrics shop. We bought a five-meter-long piece of cloth. We spent a long time picking out cloth that would be sturdier. We bought paint. This is expensive for a college student, but it was worth it. We spent all night making the banner and sitting on the rooftop. We fastened the banner to iron cables so that it would hang longer, and we locked the door [to the rooftop] so that it would take the police longer to get in. They had to summon the Emergency Situations Ministry guys. I think we gained two or three hours more time on them that way.kolesnikov-2

Radio Svoboda: You told the military enlistment commission straight out that you did not want to fight?

Vlad Kolesnikov: I don’t have very good eyesight, so I am not fit for military service. I went through the medical examination, and there was I before the draft board. There were tables shaped like the letter П set up there, and the people who did the assessments were seated at these tables. I had the Ukrainian national anthem recorded on my telephone. I don’t like the Russian national anthem, because I consider it mendacious. Everything it says about freedom and so on is just pure rubbish. Before entering the room I decided to turn on the Ukrainian anthem, because I do not support the Russian army at all and consider serving in it disgraceful. So I turned on the Ukrainian anthem and said, “Guys, I’m not going to fight in the Russian army.”

Radio Svoboda: Vlad, you would agree that you are a very unusual young man. You are immune to propaganda, and are fearless to boot.

Vlad Kolesnikov:  In fact, I was just lucky. I just did not have a TV for a certain time, and I did not watch the news. And when I got a TV, I turned it on and saw the nonsense that was going on there. I turned right to that program where [TV journalist Dmitry] Kiselyov fiercely argued that the hearts of gays should be burned. I was sitting there and thinking, Is this a comedy show? Then I realized that a new kind of news had emerged in Russia. It is hardcore, and produced in keeping with all of Goebbels’s principles of propaganda: enemies surround us, the country has been occupied. Total drivel.

Radio Svoboda: So, you turned on the Ukrainian national anthem at the military enlistment commission. The members of the draft board were probably stunned when they heard it, no?

Vlad Kolesnikov:  It was something incredible. Some people were dumfounded. Others jumped up and shouted, “What are you doing? Do you know where you are?” After a while, a man came running in. He took me to a separate room and laid two certificates in front of me. One said that I had problems with my eyesight, which is true. The other said that I had a personality disorder and something else. In short, the military enlistment commission had assigned me to the loonies, because I had gone in there playing the Ukrainian anthem and expressed my opinion. That was a turning point. When that certificate was put in front of me, I realized I would not put up with this anymore. I had simply gone in there, and I was immediately classified as a loony.

Radio Svoboda: And there is your latest feat. You came to school in a t-shirt with the Ukrainian flag on it.

Kolesnikov arrived at school with an Ukrainian flag on his chest

​​

Vlad Kolesnikov: Yes. I had voiced my political views earlier at the college, and had often argued with the teachers on this score. As you can imagine, nothing good had come of this, but neither did anything super bad, except lowered marks and other trifles. But then it got fun. Near the college, I immediately met the class teacher. At our college, they are called professional masters. I will never forget that look. At first, he looked at me like a normal, decent person. Then he saw what I had on my t-shirt. He looked up at me, and I saw this hatred! Then I went upstairs and walked into the classroom. Within five minutes, the people sitting in front of me turned around (I was sitting in the back row) and said, “Kolesnikov, should we smash your face in now or later?” Well, just you try, I said. As you know, they kept their promises, not that day, however, but a few days later, after I had published my posts, when they had heard a lot of interesting things about themselves. I can argue my position, why I think Crimea was annexed, why Donbas was occupied. I have arguments, I have facts, and I know people who served there. On TV, they say there are no Russian troops there. In reality, of course, it is the other way round. They could not come up with convincing arguments. It all came down to my being a disgrace to the country, and I should tear the flag from my shirt. It is an interesting policy, actually. It turns out if you express your opinion you are disgrace to the country.

The inscription on the flag reads, “Give Crimea Back!”

Vlad Kolesnikov was forced to leave college (he was immediately expelled) and leave Podolsk. His grandfather, with whom he lived, also did not share his political views and sent his grandson to his father in Zhigulyovsk. It was just in time. Kolesnikov called his grandfather to say he had arrived safely and heard the disturbing news that two police officers had come and asked where he had got the Ukrainian flag and where his t-shirt was now.

“All democrats in Russia were sent into exile, and that is how I feel now, as if I am in exile. Many people are now advising me to go to Kiev. But that is the most extreme option. If someone thinks I will sit this out, get a foreign travel passport, leave for Ukraine, and that will be the end of it, they are mistaken. For now, I am planning after Zhigulyovsk to return to Moscow and do a couple of protest pickets,” promises fearless Vlad Kolesnikov.

Translated by the Russian Reader

UPDATE. Vlad Kolesnikov was found dead on December 25, apparently from an overdose of prescription drugs.

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Russia Day (Russian: День России, Den’ Rossii) is the national holiday of the Russian Federation, celebrated on June 12. It has been celebrated every year since 1992. The First Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Federation adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on June 12, 1990.