The young woman (left) and the late Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky (right) have nothing to do with the story, told below, of a Central Asian female migrant, working as a residential building caretaker in Petersburg, and her temporarily misplaced daughter. In recent days, however, this “graffiti” portrait of the Nobel laureate, which was quickly painted over, has been the talk of Brodsky’s hometown. The brutal conditions in which Central Asian migrant workers live in Petersburg and other Russian cities are virtually never the talk of the town, although it is their poorly paid drudgery that makes it possible for the “natives” to lead such rich spiritual and intellectual lives, chockablock with fine poetry and heated debates about “street art” and aesthetics. Photograph courtesy of the Instagram page Dom Muruzi
While I was at work, I found a little girl outside the entrance of a residential building. She was calling for her mother, her mommy. She was lost. Although the girl could speak Russian, she was unable, of course, to say where she lived and when she had last seen her mommy. But she was enjoying playing with a broken plastic motorcycle.
I couldn’t go to the police. Who knew what problems with papers the little girl’s family had? In any case, the police would shake down the girl’s mother and father and rob them.
An old lady in the neighborhood with whom I organized an ACSC (ad-hoc committee for saving the child) agreed with my assessment. During the ten minutes of our existence as a committee, we couldn’t come up with anything. Fortunately, the mother—a local building caretaker—showed up and fetched her daughter.
How disgusting it is to live in a society where you can’t go to the police, because the police are robbers and looters with blank stares.
George Losev is a housing authority electrician and revolutionary leftist activist in Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader
Here are four very different but complementary reflections on the dangers of Putin’s new Syrian adventure by, respectively, an electrician and veteran grassroots activist, a sociologist, a magazine editor, and a political scientist and leftist activist.
Russia pacified the North Caucasus just as the US pacified Afghanistan. The Taliban have disappeared from the news but not from life.
The US has started many wars, and the Russian Federation has already started two. The US has got into conflicts in the Middle East primarily for domestic political reasons, and the Russian Federation has done the exact same thing.
The US lies constantly, and the Russian Federation does, too. (As do the EU, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and everybody else.)
But is there even a single reason to support the dispatch of Russian forces to Syria? There are no such reasons, just as there were no reasons to support the NATO bombing of Libya or the [US/UK] bombing of Iraq.
And now, as in the case of the war in Ukraine, just watch carefully and take note of what you see.
P.S. That is, while there is no chance to do anything more substantial.
You would have to be Putin, of course, to support Assad by way of restoring order.
Assad is a man who, in the past four years, has:
let slip an armed grassroots uprising;
permitted a civil war with hundreds of thousands of victims;
used chemical weapons against his own citizens;
allowed the full-scale deployment of an international terrorist group;
and lost control of two-thirds of his country.
And this man, of course, is the man who will pacify all of Syria and calm everyone down.
It has often been said of Putin that he takes a cynical (i.e., “realistic”) approach to foreign policy. It is nothing like this. In the case of Syria, it is Obama, who says we should get together and appoint them a leader who can restore order, who has taken the cynical approach.
The approach of Putin and his elite, however, is not cynical but stupid. The point of this approach is that you should always support the current regime. Simply put, the boss is always right just because he is the boss. They arrived at this hard-won conviction through their own uncomplaining obedience. This belief is the basis of their power and their philosophy in life. For its sake they are even willing to entangle themselves in an international conflict.
Until today, this business with Syria seemed strange to me in the sense that it would not be easy to sweep the Russian people off its feet with it. I understand about small victorious wars, but I imagined that this was not like Ukraine, which is next door, or Hungarian geese, which we could even fondle with our own hands until recently. And then, we are talking about a country that has lived through a war in Afghanistan, despite the incomparable scale of the conflicts and so on. But this morning I was riding the subway and saw this guy, an ordinary guy in his forties with a decent face, even, a guy who looked a little like actor Yevgeny Mironov. This guy was riding the subway and looking at something on his telephone. He was not just looking but literally devouring the phone with his eyes and putting it next to his ear from time to time to make out the sound over the roar of the subway. (For some reason he was not using earphones.) I peeped a little and saw that Sergei Ivanov was on the screen of the dude’s phone. This was when I got curious and a bit anxious, because, on the one hand, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a normal person would get so excited by a speech by Sergei Ivanov. On the other hand, in the morning I had heard on the radio about the Federation Council, which Putin had again asked for authorization, just like that other time, and that had made me a little queasy. So I broke down and gently asked the man what was happening.
“Sy-ri-a!” he mouthed to me, clearly afraid to miss something important in the broadcast.
Then he briefly turned to me again and sighed, “We are going to bomb!”
He said it as if a weight had finally been lifted from his shoulders, as if the going had been tough, but now, thank God, it had been decided.
And at that moment I had the terrible desire not to be here, to disappear somewhere completely. I realize this was cowardice, a momentary weakness, but I felt it all the same. And I also remember a conversation I had with Bob when we were sailing down the Irrawaddy River, and thought that perhaps he had been right: “You may hate him, but you cannot get rid of him.” I don’t want to be responsible for these motherfuckers. I don’t want to think constantly about whom else they have taken it into their heads to crush or bomb. Let them build underwater chapels for scuba divers and invisible bus stops, but please, please, don’t let them bomb anyone.
Bob, an Australian who looked like a gray-haired Homer Simpson, spoke intermittently and passionately, now and then dipping his elongated head into his third glass of claret.
“Very well, I know you Russians have it hard. You always have someone to answer for, either Putin or Stalin. ‘He’s Russian? Very well, let’s ask him about Putin.’ It’s the same crap with the Americans. At the drop of a hat they get told, ‘It’s all because you made a mess of things in Iraq, fellows!” You guys are constantly confused with someone else, with some big, important motherfucker. We have it much easier in this sense. ‘Australia? Isn’t that the place where there are kangaroos ?’ We are just Aussies, you know, Alex? I travel where I wish, live where I can earn money, and nobody is going to torment me with your Putin.”
“I already told you,” I replied, “I don’t like Putin.”
“Bingo!” Bob roused himself. “You may hate him, but you cannot get rid of him. Although I know that things are even more complicated in Russia. You Russians hate yourselves most of all.”
Then, in keeping with the conventions of bad movies, Bob laughed heartily and, winking conspiratorially, said, “I’ve read Tolstoyevsky!”
If I were in Putin’s shoes I would think hard about the following paradox. Of course, you can accuse America of “destroying sovereignty” everywhere from Libya to Ukraine all the time. But America cannot just up and destroy sovereignty. It can encourage the opposition. It can even drop bombs. But it is not capable of just up and destroying state institutions themselves. The problem is that wherever a state has collapsed, it had already been weak. And a state’s weakness lies in the absence of its autonomy vis-à-vis narrow group interests, be they elite clans, oligarchs, tribes, and so on. A weak state is also labeled “patrimonial,” meaning it has been “privatized” by particular interests. This weak state syndrome was typical of absolutely all the countries Putin thinks the State Department got to. The paradox is that the Russian state, the Putinist state, is weak. It has low autonomy vis-à-vis elite groupings, and its formal institutions are window dressing for backroom deals. The more Putin “immunizes” the state from the opposition, the “fifth column,” and so, the more he strengthens precisely these same elite groups, all those Sechins and other “friends of the president,” who have an interest in weak institutions. Thus, everything Putin does only weakens the state. The easiest way to illustrate all this is with the dilemma of his successor. Putin has built a state in which no one knows what will happen after Putin, including himself. Ukraine-scale chaos is quite possible at the very least; Libya-scale chaos, at the very most. But unlike Libya and even Ukraine, Putin will only have himself to blame for this. After fifteen years, there is nothing left of the government, the parliament or the courts. All that remains are Putin’s “friends” and his “manual control.” It is a sure bet that the State Department and American imperialism are not to blame for this. In this case, it is homemade.
The EU and US have imposed sanctions against a number of Putin’s friends and several major Russian companies. The sanctions basically boil down to the fact that these people and companies cannot borrow money from foreigners.
In response, the Russian authorities have announced that these sanctions are against the whole of Russia. The Russian authorities have been seeking to make it possible for Putin’s friends and major Russian companies to borrow from foreigners once again.
In addition, the Russian authorities have imposed retaliatory sanctions. They have banned the import of produce from several countries. Not from specific individuals and companies, but from whole countries. Of course, even just six months before the sanctions were introduced, no one knew anything about them and was not preparing for anything of the sort. This has led to yet another hike in food prices and has primarily hurt the working class.
And yet the official propaganda of the Russian Federation declares that this produce is dangerous (!), and that all countries destroy contraband (!!), and the murderer and mafioso [Russian agriculture minister Alexander] Tkachev has been doing the rounds on TV, explaining that the problem should be solved once and for all.
That is the picture. Total capitalist whack jobs who have privatized the state and have been using it for their own personal interests are plundering the working class and the poor and pushing the country towards war with the whole world.
And yet half the folks on my Facebook feed, including leftists, have started moaning, Oh, enough of this destroying produce already, oh, shame on them, shame.
But what do you want to see? What issues are more important?
“Food to the workers, death to the bourgeoisie!”
Photos courtesy of Comrade SG, who took them in the Russian city of Petrozavodsk recently.