Dmitry Kozhnev: Anyone Defending Their Rights Is Branded a Fifth Columnist and Agent of the State Department

“Anyone who tries to defend their rights is a fifth columnist and agent of the State Department”
A trade union leader talks about pressure from the security forces and badgering from the National Liberation Movement
Darina Shevchenko
March 24, 2015
Yod

The automotive industry has been laying off employees around the country. Since the beginning of the year, the demand for cars has fallen 20-30%. Management has forced workers to quit, shift to part-time work or agree to significant pay cuts. The Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (ITUWA) has countered with strikes and pickets. Center “E” (Center for Extremism Prevention) has responded by taking measures against union members. Last weekend, Center “E” officers detained members of the ITUWA Kaluga local. They demanded that the activists confess to working for western secret services and acting to destabilize the situation in Russia. Dmitry Kozhnev, leader of the ITUWA Kaluga local, told Yod that the trade union has long had a difficult relationship with the local security forces, and more recently, members of the National Liberation Movement (NOD) have targeted workers for persecution.

The ITUWA was founded in 2006 by members of trade union organizations from the Ford plant in the Petersburg suburb of Vsevolozhsk and the AvtoVAZ plant in Togliatti.*** The trade union unites workers from more than fifteen companies. Its chair, Alexei Etmanov, was elected to the legislative assembly of Leningrad Region in 2011. The ITUWA’s motto is “Don’t cry, organize!”

On what grounds were trade union members taken in by Center “E” over the weekend?

Under the pretext that a robber who had hit a passerby with a bottle and stolen something had dashed into the room where we had gathered for a routine meeting. About forty security forces officers arrived. They detained fifteen of us, took us to a police station, and asked us about our activities, what protests we were planning. They told us that, under the guise of defending workers’ rights, we were spying for the US, destabilizing the regime, and engaging in provocations. We hear this song from Center “E” constantly. Apparently, law enforcement officers find it difficult to believe that an organization can be independent and act on its own.

Have Center “E” and the FSB showed interest in your activity before?

Our union emerged in 2008. During this time we have become stronger and our actions have gotten results. In [2012], a strike at the Benteler Automotive plant led to the workers signing a collective agreement that we drafted. We got the bonus included in the salary and a ban on duties other than those stipulated in the contract. At the Volkswagen plant we forced management to increase salaries by almost four times, from seven to thirty thousand rubles a month.

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Dmitry Kozhnev (left) on the picket line during the 2012 strike at Benteler Automotive

In the summer of 2013, Volkswagen management was changing equipment. They wanted to let the workers go for a week, and then have them work off the missed days on weekends. By law, management has a right to do this, but plant workers opposed it. They were furious at the prospect of working weekends in the summer, when every day off is worth its weight in gold. We told management they should pay the missed week as down time, while the workers would go to work voluntarily and at double the pay. Management stood their ground, and then we began to prepare for a strike. By the way, according to Russian law, it is almost impossible to strike. Management must be notified seven days in advance. During this time, management can succeed in appealing the strike in court and then the strike cannot start on time. So we start the strike and notify management simultaneously. That is what we did back then at Volkswagen. We also picketed dealerships and informed consumers that we could not vouch for the quality of the cars assembled during the strike. We got what wanted.

Now our trade union has influence at different plants and can exercise control over the situation. After the number of union members went over four hundred at Volkswagen in 2009, and we began doing street protests, Center “E” got on our case.

And as soon as relations between workers and management would heat up, Center “E” would show up and put pressure on us, including arrests, harassment, and surveillance. But pressure and persecution have only strengthened the organization.

Give an example of persecution by Center “E”.

As soon as our work started to produce results, we began getting summons to Center “E” and were threatened with criminal prosecution. Once they blocked my car on the street and took me down to the station. They tried to catch several comrades with allegedly faked sick leave forms, threaten to take them to court, and force them to inform on trade union leaders. One worker and trade union member had a weapon planted on him. He got into a car with security officials. They handed him a bundle, said it contained a gun used to commit a crime, and now he would either rat on his colleagues or be convicted for the crime. The comrade refused to be an informant and took the story public big time, and they left him alone. Another comrade of ours was press-ganged into the army. Because of a serious leg injury, the guy had been declared unfit for military service. During a routine medical exam at the draft board, he was suddenly declared healthy. He insisted on an independent medical examination. The guy was then abducted on the street and sent to the army. He served his term, and came back angry and able to use weapons. And he is working in the trade union again. The ranks of our trade union’s foes continue to swell. Recently, the National Liberation Movement (NOD) joined them.

How come? You don’t participate in opposition rallies, do you?

NOD considers us Banderites because anarchists carrying flags with anarchist symbols attend our rallies. They think that since the Banderites have black-and-red flags, and anarchists use the same colors, they are in cahoots. It is ridiculous, of course. It is useless to ask the NODites questions; it is better not to talk with these cartoon characters. Anatoly Artamonov, governor of Kaluga Region, has also called us agents of the West. And this is a guy who has built his region’s economy on cooperation with companies from NATO countries and has awards from NATO countries! This is the trend now. Anyone who defends their rights is a fifth columnist and agent of the State Department.

The security forces’ interest in you has to do with the crisis in the automotive industry and presumed activism on the part of trade unions. At what plants is the situation the most tense?

It is easier to say which plants have no problems: the plants that produce luxury-class cars. They are the only ones where everything is all right. All the other plants are undergoing layoffs, which are hidden for the time being. Workers are being persuaded to quit voluntarily, to accept part-time schedules and pay cuts. But I think the crisis will continue, and the actions of management will become harsher. But we will vigorously defend the interests of workers.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Russian Reporter

*** Editor’s Note. The ITUWA was originally known as the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (ITUA). It changed its name in 2013, although the union’s well-known abbreviation in Russian (MPRA) has remained the same.

Ivan Ovsyannikov: Friends of the Imaginary People

anticapitalist.ru

Friends of the Imaginary People

There is one point on which there is striking agreement among liberals, Putinists, and the “populist” segment of the Russian left. This is the idea that the majority of the Russian population adheres to leftist values, as opposed to the narrow strata of the middle class and intelligentsia in the big cities.

This simplified representation of societal processes, typical of both semi-official and opposition propaganda, is based on a juxtaposition of the so-called creative class with the notional workers of the Uralvagonzavod tank and railway car manufacturing plant, supposed wearers of quilted jackets with alleged hipsters. Discussion of such complicated topics as the Bolotnaya Square protests, Maidan, and Anti-Maidan revolves around this juxtaposition. The various ideological camps differ only in terms of where their likes and dislikes are directed.

V. I. Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (1894)
V. I. Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (1894)

Leaving aside left-nationalist figures like Sergei Kurginyan and Eduard Limonov, the most prominent proponent of the “populist” trend within the leftist movement is Boris Kagarlitsky. The whole thrust of his current affairs writing is to exalt the silent majority (the working people), who are organically hostile to the parasitic petty bourgeoisie that, allegedly, constituted the core of the anti-government protests in Russia in 2011–2012, and in Ukraine in 2013–2014.

Ukraine in the Mirror of Russian “Populism”
In an editorial published on the web site Rabkor.ru, entitled “Anti-Maidan and the Future of Protests,” Kagarlitsky (or his alter ego: unfortunately, the article has no byline) describes the events in Ukraine as follows: “Nothing testifies to the class character of the confrontation that has unfolded in Ukraine like the two crowds that gathered on April 7 in Kharkov. At one end of the square, the well-dressed, well-groomed and prosperous middle class, the intelligentsia, and students stood under yellow-and-blue Ukrainian national flags. Across the square from them had gathered poorly and badly dressed people, workers and youth from the city’s outskirts, bearing red banners, Russian tricolors, and St. George’s Ribbons.” According to Kagarlitsky, this is nothing more or less than a vision of the future of Russia, where only the “state apparatus despised by liberal intellectuals defends them from direct confrontation with those same masses they dub ‘white trash.’”

The fact that the venerable sociologist has been forced to resort to such demagogic methods as assessing the class makeup of protesters by reversing the proverb “It’s not the gay coat that makes the gentleman” indicates the conjectural nature of his scheme. (I wonder how much time Kagarlitsky spent poring over photos from Donetsk with a magnifying glass.) When discussing the social aspect of Maidan, most analysts have noted the dramatic changes that occurred as the protests were radicalized. “At the Euromaidan that existed before November 30–December 1,” notes political analyst Vasily Stoyakin, “it was Kyivans who dominated, and in many ways the ‘face’ of Maidan was made up by young people and the intelligentsia, albeit with a slight admixture of political activists. Many students, people with higher educations, and creative people attended it. […] After November 30, when the clashes began, […] a lot of blue-collar workers without higher educations arrived, in large part from the western regions.”

According to Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, as quoted in late January, “[T]he backbone of Euromaidan is men between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five, ‘angry young men,’ often unemployed. […] In my opinion, it would be mistaken to call Maidan a lower-class protest, just as it would be to call it a middle-class protest. It is a Maidan of all disaffected people who are able to get to Kyiv.” According to a study carried out in mid-December 2013 by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, every fifth activist at Maidan was a resident of Lviv, around a third had arrived from Ukraine’s central regions, every tenth activist was from the Kyiv region, and around twenty percent were from the country’s southeast.

Sixty-one (two thirds!) of the protesters killed at Maidan were from villages and small towns in Central and Western Ukraine. As political analyst Rinat Pateyev and Nikolai Protsenko, deputy editor of Ekspert Iug magazine, noted, “Among the victims, we see a large number of villagers, including young subproletarians. […] On the other hand, occupations favored by the intelligentsia are fairly well represented [in the list of the slain]: there is a programmer, a journalist, an artist, several school teachers and university lecturers, several theater people, as well as a number of students.” By “subproletarians” Pateyev and Protsenko primarily have in mind seasonal workers “who live on the money they earn abroad.” Isn’t this all fairly remote from the portrait of the “well-dressed, well-groomed and prosperous middle class” painted by Rabkor.ru’s leader writer? We should speak, rather, of the classical picture observed during revolutionary periods, when peaceful protests by students and the intelligentsia escalate into uprisings of the working class’s most disadvantaged members (who for some reason were not prevented from fighting by either liberals or hipsters).

As evidence of Anti-Maidan’s class character, Rabkor.ru’s editorialist adduces no other arguments except to point out the “short text of the declaration of the Donetsk Republic,” which “contains language about collective ownership, equality, and the public interest.” However, many observers have also noted the growth of anti-government and anti-oligarchic sentiments at Maidan. Journalist and leftist activist Igor Dmitriev quotes a manifesto issued by Maidan Self-Defense Force activists: “The new government of Ukraine, which came into office on Maidan’s shoulders, pretends it does not exist. We were not fighting for seats for Tymoshenko, Kolomoisky, Parubiy, Avakov, and their ilk. We fought so that all the country’s citizens would be its masters—each of us, not a few dozen ‘representatives.’ Maidan does not believe it has achieved the goal for which our brothers perished.”

Maidan and Anti-Maidan, which have a similar social makeup, employ the same methods, and suffer from identical nationalist diseases, look like twin brothers who have been divided and turned against each other by feuding elite clans and the intellectuals who serve them. There is absolutely no reason to force the facts, cramming them into a preconceived scheme drawn up on the basis of completely different events that have occurred in another country.

Is Russian Society Leftist?
But let’s return to Russia and see whether the “populist” scheme works here. Can we speak of a “leftist majority” that deliberately ignores protests by the petty bourgeoisie, who are protected from popular wrath by the authorities?

This belief is common within a certain section of the left, but there is no evidence at all to support this view. Poor Kagarlitsky is constantly forced to appeal to absences. For example, commenting on the outcome of the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, he declared a “victory” for the “boycott party” (that is, people who did not vote in the election), which by default is considered proof the electorate is leftist. It logically follows from this that the absence, say, of mass protests against fee-for-services medicine must testify to the triumph of neoliberal ideas within the broad masses of working people.

Sure, in today’s Russia statues of Lenin are not knocked down so often, and Kremlin mouthpieces eagerly borrow motifs from Soviet mythology. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is still the largest opposition party (but is it leftist?), and many people see the Soviet Union as the touchstone of state and economic power. But are all these things indicators of leftism in the sense the editorialist, who considers himself a Marxist, understands it?

To get closer to answering this question, we need to ask other questions, for example, about the prevalence of self-organization and collective action in the workplace. The statistics on labor disputes in Russia, regularly published by the Center for Social and Labor Rights, are not impressive. Even less impressive are the statistics for strikes. Independent trade union organizations are negligible in terms of their numbers and their resilience, and the rare instances of successful trade union growth are more common at enterprises owned by transnational corporations, where industrial relations approximate western standards. Activists in such trade unions as the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (which rejects the paternalist ideology of the country’s traditional trade union associations) are forced to resort to translated textbooks on organizing and the know-how of foreign colleagues, not to native grassroots collectivism or the remnants of the Soviet mentality.

The above applies to all other forms of voluntary associations, which currently encompass a scant number of Russians. Whereas Russian Populists of the late nineteenth century could appeal to the peasant commune and to the cooperative trade and craft associations (artels) and fellow-countrymen networks (zemliachestva) that were common among the people, the “populists” of the early twenty-first century attempt to claim that a society united by nothing except state power and the nuclear family adheres to leftist values.

The standard explanation for the failure of the Bolotnaya Square protests is that they did not feature “social demands,” meaning slogans dealing with support for the poor, availability of public services, lower prices and utility rates, and increased pensions and salaries. But such demands are part of the standard fare offered by nearly all Russian political parties and politicians, from United Russia to Prokhorov and Navalny. These demands sounded at Bolotnaya Square as well. Successfully employed by the authorities and mainstream opposition parties, this social rhetoric has, however, absolutely no effect on the masses when voiced by radical leftists, strange as it might seem. We are constantly faced with a paradox: opinion polls show that the public is permanently concerned about poverty, economic equality, unemployment, high prices, and so on, but we do not see either significant protests or the growing influence of leftist forces and trade unions. Apparently, the explanation for this phenomenon is that a significant part of the population pins its hopes not on strategies of solidarity and collective action, but on the support of strong, fatherly state power. The Kremlin links implementation of its “obligations to society” with manifestations of loyalty: this is the essence of its policy of stability.

Leftists in a Right-Wing Society
Finally, should we consider ordinary people’s nostalgic memories of the Soviet Union during the stagnation period a manifestation of “leftism,” and rejection of western lifestyles and indifference to democratic freedoms indicators of an anti-bourgeois worldview? According to the twisted logic of the “populists,” who have declared most democratic demands irrelevant to the class struggle and therefore not worthy of attention, that is the way it is. Instead of accepting the obvious fact that proletarians need more democracy and more radical democracy than the middle class, and that protests by students and the intelligentsia can pave the way to revolt by the lower classes, theorists like Kagarlitsky try to paint ordinary conservatism red.

They tacitly or openly postulate that workers can somehow acquire class consciousness under a reactionary regime without breaking with its paternalist ideology and without supporting the fight for those basic political rights that workers in the west won at the cost of a long and bloody struggle.

It is time to recognize that we live in a society far more rightist than any of the Western European countries and even the United States. What European and American right-wing radicals can imagine only in their wildest fantasies has been realized in post-Soviet Russia in an unprecedentedly brief span of time and with extraordinary completeness. The Soviet legacy (or, rather, the reactionary aspects of the Soviet social model) proved not to be an antidote to bourgeois-mindedness, but rather an extremely favorable breeding ground for a strange capitalist society that is simultaneously atomized and anti-individualist, cynical and easily manipulated, traditionalist and bereft of genuine roots. And we leftists must learn to be revolutionaries in this society, rather than its willing or unwitting apologists.

Ivan Ovsyannikov, Russian Socialist Movement
April 20, 2014