“I Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Striking on March 27

“I Peeled Myself from the TV and Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Planning to Join the Nationwide Strike
Yekaterina Vulikh
7X7
March 22, 2017

In early March, a video was published in which Sergei Ovchinnikov, an activist and long-haul trucker with the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), announced a nationwide strike that would kick off in fifty regions of the country on March 27. As Ovchinnikov said, the strike would continue until the government sat down at the negotiating table or most goods had disappeared from store shelves.

The truckers’ demands:

1. The Plato road tolls payment system should be abolished or reorganized for transit transport and turned over to the state.
2. The transport tax should be cancelled. (There is already a fuel excise tax for this purpose.)
3. Work and rest schedules of drivers should adapted to real conditions in Russia.
4. The government should resign, and no confidence in the president expressed.
5. Weigh stations should be made to do their job properly.
6. Carriers should be given grounds for how the fuel excise tax is calculated.

7X7‘s correspondent went on a run with Alexei Borisov, coordinator of the OPR’s Ryazan branch, to check the validity of these demands.

“I Didn’t Want to be Father Frost Anymore”
“I have an old Kamaz. It rattles and growls, and the wind blows in through the door. It runs slow. Do you have motion sickness? It can give you motion sickness,” Alexei warns before our trip.

How do I know whether I have motion sickness? I don’t ride the big rigs every day. Honestly, I’ve never ridden in a big rig. I’ll be happy if I can climb into the cab.

Before the trip, Alexei and I agree we’ll address each with the informal “thou” (ty). It’s extremely hard to maintain etiquette when you’re bouncing over bumps in the road and your teeth are chattering from night frosts. Also, Alexei repeats to me several times that he is a carrier, not a long-haul trucker. There is a difference.

Alexei Borisov

9:00 p.m. We leave Ryazan headed for Moscow. Twenty tons of reinforced concrete slabs rumble on the nearly 14-meter-long trailer behind us. It’s dark and drizzling. The cab is hot and drafty at the same time. I hadn’t imagined the romance of the open road like this. I should have listened to an experienced wheelman earlier, instead of singer Tatyana Ovsiyenko’s tender voice.

Tatyana Ovsiyenko, “Long-Haul Trucker” (1993)

We have left the remains of Ryazan’s pavement behind and are traveling down a good road illuminated here and there. Round midnight, the trees, ravines, and hoses on the roadsides merge into one continuous blur, and my eyes close.

“Did you get in some good sleep before the trip?”

“No, I had a lot of things to do.”

“How’s that?”

“As long as I’m talking, I’m fine. But I usually stop in a side lane and doze for fifteen minutes or so. It helps.”

“How much?”

“Another half an hour.”

So we talk about roads and school pranks, fuel prices and children, the remnants of green zones and the nuances of professions.

Alexei is a “hereditary” driver, as they say. His favorite pastime in childhood was riding the bus his father drove. Immediately after graduation, he got a job as a vehicle mechanic in Motor Convoy No. 1310, and then a job as a bus driver. He finished his studies to be licensed to drive articulated buses and, at the same time, trailer trucks.

“I transferred to Motor Convoy No. 1417, which services the passenger route between Ryazan and Moscow. They had just purchased Setra buses. Compared to our ancient Russian buses, they were simply a dream. And I was entrusted with one of these buses. I would sign off on the manifest and I go off on my route in a white shirt and blazer. It was great, but after a while they cracked down on us. They made our work conditions harsher in the stupidest way, and in some cases they would just take the piss out of us,” recounts Alexei, irritated.

That was about six years ago. The stewardesses on the long-distrance buses (not to be confused with airplane stewardesses) were forbidden to relax after they handed out food and drinks. They had to keep serving passengers for the entire trip, and smile to them even if they were drunk. Drivers were forbidden from getting free rides to work on buses from their own motor convoy. The next-to-last straw was the Father Frost suit Alexei was obliged to wear over the New Year’s holidays. (The stewardesses were dressed, respectively, as Snow Maidens). The last straw was a fine for stretching his arms over the steering wheel for a couple of seconds. His back had gone to sleep, and he needed to move around a little. An observer saw him do this.

“I couldn’t stand it and I quit. Some might find it stupid. For example, a friend of mine still works there. After every new twist on the part of management, he would sigh and say, ‘They know better. If we’re not dealt with strictly, we’ll lose all fear.’ Why should I fear anyone? I was a responsible employee. I never argued with the passengers. I don’t drink. I don’t even smoke,” Alexei tells me buoyantly, meaning we’re going straight through without stopping.

12:00 p.m., Moscow Region. Through the murky window I notice road workers and convenient multi-level parking lots. A lot of new buildings are going up at a fair distance from the Moscow Ring Road, not as in Ryazan, where they are built right next to the the roads. Speaking of the roads: they exist, and they’re very good.

The big rig alternates between buzzing and barely dragging along, and calming down and cruising more briskly.

“My Kamaz truck is a bit old, and the trip is rough on it. On the other hand, it’s easier to maintain. Spare parts for foreign-made trucks cost so much the guys have to take out loans. The transport tax on them is higher. On the other hand, old trucks like mine won’t be allowed into cities. Right now, this truck feeds a family with two children. I haven’t thought about what I’ll do next.”

We turn off the Ring Road and drive into a pitch-dark neighborhood. The road has been paved with concrete slabs, but none too smoothly. Here and there, we bump along as if we are driving up steps. There is a shaft of light ahead and the outlines of high-rises.

02:05 a.m. A construction site in Mitino, our destination.

According to Alexei, we must “now unload quickly and hightail it back,” to make it through Moscow during permitted hours. He disappears behind mountains of slabs, bricks, and god knows what else.

Another multi-ton rig is already waiting to unload.

My legs numb, I clamber out of the cab. There is frost. The puddles no longer chomp underfoot, but crackle. After stretching my legs and strolling round the half-deserted construction site, I climb back into the cab and look for the thermos.

Alexei comes back in a very bad mood.

“They’ll unload that rig over there now, and then the crane will be busy. They won’t get to us till morning, so we’re hardly going to get through Moscow before the Ring Road has been closed to trucks. There’s the option of bypassing the city on the A107, but that’s an extra 100 kilometers. So this run will be a loss for me. Or . . . We’ll wait and see. I’m going to pull down the bunk for your now. Do you want the sleeping bag?

Oh, what a sinner I am. Remembering all the unprintable expressions I know, I climb up on the bunk located behind the seats. At first, I “modestly” cover myself with my down jacket, but within five minutes I realize my ear, back, and feet are freezing, and I give up, asking Alexei whether I can have the sleeping bag after all. I warm up instantly and doze off. Through my drowsiness I can hear the rumble of a construction crane, the occasional shouts of workers, and the roar of caged packages of bricks being loaded.

Alexei settles down on the seats to sleep.

Marriage, the Photo Shoot, and the Big Bosses
05:50 a.m. Nearly sea-like pitching wakes me up. They’ve finally begun unloading our Kamaz. Nearby, a scandal is brewing.

It turrns out one of the slabs is defective. The first “big boss” flatly refuses to sign for it. The second boss, who is even bigger and more important, orders it removed from the trailer and tossed “in that pile way over there.” He says the supplier has already sent them several defective slabs, but it’s not a disaster and not a rarity. It’s just that building material has to go back to the supplier on one of their own trucks. We still cannot head home, because Alexei has to sign several papers, and they won’t be available until eight o’clock. Eight o’clock! Apparently, we’ll have to hang around in some dump until 10 p.m.

For a while, I take pictures of the old Kamaz, the beautiful sunrise, and landscapes near and far. That is when I am detained until they “discover the purpose of the photo shoot.”

“Why are you shooting the construction site?” asks a heavyset guard.

“No reason,” I reply sincerely, “I’m shooting the truck.”

“You infiltrated the construction site in this truck?”

“Excuse me, what did I do? I infiltrated the site like a spy, and now I’m openly snapping pictures?”

I laugh, but just in case I hide my camera behind my back.

I’m asked to report to the boss, and then to another boss. The biggest security boss is surprised when I tell him the Plato toll rates have not been decreased, but are scheduled to go up. He clicks his tongue in sympathy, but still asks me to delete the shots where it is clear what residential complex this is.

“The tenants walk around shooting, and then they discuss the whats and wherefores on the internet. They complain regulations have been broken here. You can’t shoot here. It’s forbidden.”

“What regulations have been broken? Let’s talk about it.”

The boss politely but silently escorts me to the truck.

“What now?” I hopelessly ask my traveling companion.

“What now? We’re out of here!”

And yes, we’re driving on the Moscow Ring Road. It’s 7:40 a.m.

“We Wanted to Explain It All to Putin”
“We’re going to be fined,” I predict.

“What’s the difference? Either we pay the fine or we fuel up for a 100-kilometer bypass. Or we wait until nightfall. You want to do that?”

I don’t want to do that at all. I ask Alexei how he get involved in the OPR and became a coordinator for them.

“It all kicked off in late 2015, when the authorities informed us Plato would be introduced. Working and surviving got noticeably tougher then: the dollar went up, and prices skyrocketed. Fuel and spare parts were suddenly like gold. But instead of instituting preferential terms of some kind for carriers, they hit us with Plato. [The system’s name in Russian, Platon, is, technically, an abbreviation for “payment for tons,” but what comes to any Russian speaker’s mind when they hear the name Platon is not freight haulage tolls, but the great ancient Greek philosopher. Hence, throughout the numerous articles on the struggle of Russian truckers to band together and defeat what they regard as a death blow to independent trucking I have posted on this website, I have consistently translated the term as “Plato,” because, in part, this is the only way to convey the boundless cynicism of the Kremlin insiders and cronies who christened their system for fleecing hard-working men and women with the name of a brave man who willingly accepted death rather than betray his convictions. — TRR.] It was then that many headed to Moscow to seek the truth. We weren’t thinking about politics. We just wanted to explain to Putin we couldn’t work this way. Everyone would go bankrupt. We sincerely thought he didn’t know anything, and we would tell him how things were, and he would get to the bottom of it. Now it sounds funny, but that’s what believed then. Reporters and volunteers, friends and families, sympathizers and fence-straddlers came to our strike camp in Khimki, but no one in the government bothered to talk with us. Most of the media either said nothing about our protest or cooked the facts. I spent four and half months in that camp. I figured out a lot of things. I peeled myself from the TV and saw the light. I met outstanding people. The camp broke up on May 1, 2016, but on April 30 we held a founding congress and the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR) was established.

“Maybe It’s Better Not to Make Them Angry?”
11:10 a.m. We are leaving the Moscow Ring Road behind.

I silently rejoice in the fact that no one stopped us and fined us. True, along the way, we encounteredd several Plato system monitoring detectors, but more about that a bit later.

The conversation turns to profits and expenses. From everything Alexei tells me, it emerges that the better your rig, the more you earn, and the more you have to give back.

“I’ll get 15,000 rubles [approx 240 euros] for this run. That’s not a lot: it should be at least 18,000. Out of that money, I’ll spend 7,500 rubles on diesel fuel. An excise tax of 6,500 rubles has been added to the price of each liter. Plus, wear and tear on the tires costs another 1,000 rubles. So I end up making 6,500 rubles. It would be a good thing if I set aside some of this money for changing tires. I buy the cheapest tires I can find, Chinese-made, but even for them I’ll have to pay more than 250,000 rubles [approx. 4,000 euros] to ‘reshoe’ the tractor and trailer. I should also set aside money to pay the transport tax. I pay around 13,000 rubles, but my truck is low-powered. The rate for multi-ton tractors with 400 to 500 horsepower engines is around 40,000 rubles [approx. 645 euros]. Next comes the annual insurance payment. That’s 10 to 12 thousand rubles. Then there are the annual payments individual entrepreneurs make to the pension fund (23,400 rubles) and for the obligatory medical insurance policy (4,590 rubles). So when you set aside money for this and that, it means you haven’t earned anything. If you don’t set aside money, you’ll have to take out a loan to make all the insurance and tax payments. Finally, you have to rely only on luck in this job, because you might have to send your rig in for repairs for an indefinite period. You might be ill, and a client might not pay you.

The average price of the tachograph truck drivers are now required to install is 60,000 rubles. We have driven 380 kilometers on a federal highway, so the Plato system toll should amount to 580 rubles. From April 15, the rate will climb to 3.06 rubles a kilometer, so the same run would cost 1,163 rubles in tolls. [Fontanka.ru reported earlier today, March 24, 2017, that Prime Minister Medvedev, after meeting with a group of unidentified truckers, had agreed to reduce the planned per kilometer tariff to 1.91 rubles. When I pointed this development out to a civic activist working closely with the OPR, he told me, “That circus won’t stop the guys. They weren’t involved in the negotiations.”— TRR.]  According to Alexei, it is seemingly not that much, but if you add each payment to all the previous payments, you wind up with a whopping sum of money. Alexei says many carriers resort to the help of logistics companies, who also have to be paid for their services.

“Can you earn more?”

“You can. You can get three or four orders a week, but then your expenses go up, too, on fuel and depreciation. You can take orders that have to be unloaded in Moscow itself. But to get into the city you have to buy a pass. If I’m not mistaken, the starting price for it is 35,000 rubles a month.”

That’s  probably what matters most. Carriers cannot count on earning a stable living. You can’t guess how many runs you’ll get, but you have to pay all the bills.

Alexei’s Kamaz truck

“Is everyone used to Plato?”

“Almost no one pays,” says Alexei, noticeably coming to life. “They dupe the system as they’re able by paying much less than the mileage they’ve traveled, and many drivers don’t pay at all. It’s a sort of tiny rebellion. But that’s for the time being, because the bugs haven’t been worked out of the system. We’ve been promised a crackdown in April such that we’ll paying out more than we earn. And those aren’t empty threats,” Alexei says confidently.

“How can you not pay the road toll if those detectors, which are equipped with video cameras, are out there?”

“Well, they don’t see our license numbers,” my companion utters mysteriously. I realize he won’t say anything more on the subject.

We pull into roadside cafes, simply stopping to down the tea in our thermos. Then we head to Kolomna for loading, but that job has nothing to do with the earnings from today’s run. They’re just old obligations. The road drones continuously in my head, and my legs and back seemingly no longer belong to me.

4:00 p.m. Ryazan, Village of Yuzhny.

Alexei drives the big rig into a parking lot (another expense), located in a field next to a cemetery. He tidies up his “work area.” The last thing he does is turn off the radio, which broadcast the strike notice and the strikers’ demands the whole time we were on the road. Drivers reacted in different ways.  Someone confidently said, “The Rotenbergs won’t stop here. They’ll push through a systematic increase in tolls for travel on federal highways, just as they have made a tradition of increasing rates for utilities and housing maintenance.” Others were blatantly afraid and suggested not angering them: otherwise, they would stop employing the truckers. Still others awkwardly feigned they had no idea what was going on.

“How many Ryazan trucks will go on strike?” I ask finally.

“I’m hoping around twenty, but it’s better not to guess beforehand.”

Alexei closes the tractor’s doors and checks to make sure they’re shut.

“Do you believe in change?”

“If I didn’t believe in it, I would pay my rates and keep my mouth shut.”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“I’m tired,” he replies, partly closing his eyes. “I’m tired in general and tired of being afraid.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. All photos courtesy of Yekaterina Vulikh and 7X7. See the original article in Russian for many more photos from Ms. Vulikh’s road trip with Mr. Borisov

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Waiting for the Anti-Platonists: Striking Truckers Prepare to Convoy to the Moscow Ring Road

“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.”

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

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.

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

“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.”

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

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.”

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

“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!”

“No to Plato!” Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

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.

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

“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.”

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

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.

“Rotenberg Is Worse than ISIS!”: Russian Truckers on Strike in Dagestan and Elsewhere

“On November 30, we will go to Moscow and shut down the Moscow Ring Road!”: Major protests by truckers in the Caucasus
Irina Gordiyenko | Dagestan
November 22, 2015
Novaya Gazeta

A major protest by truckers is taking place in the Caucasus. Officials are trying to ignore it, and in response truckers are threatening to move on Moscow 

“No to Platon! On November 30 We Block the Moscow Ring Road.” Photo: Irina Gordiyenko/Novaya Gazeta

Strikes by truckers against the introduction of a new road tax have swept across Russia. The biggest of them is still underway in Dagestan. Hundreds of truckers have lined up along dozens of kilometers of highway. Manas, Khasavyurt, Kizlyar, and Kayakent are the spots where people have been striking for a week. The protests have been ignored. Officials have avoided contacting the strikers, while television has refused to cover the strike. Amateur videos posted on the web are immediately removed and their users blocked.

The strikers are determined. If their demands are not heard, they intend to move on Moscow on November 30.

The roadside of the Rostov-Baku M29 highway near Khasavyurt looks gaudy at the moment. Trucks with yellow, red, blue, and green cabs are parked in two tight rows next to each other. The trailers are hung with enormous posters reading, “Hands off long-haul trucking!” and “Stop robbing the people!” The chain of trucks stretches for dozens of kilometers, and at any moment the annoyed truckers could block this federal highway.

“We don’t want to do it,” says Dibir, a trucker from a small village nearby. “We know it will be violently dispersed. But they don’t want to hear us. We went to the city administration, to the Ministry of Transportation, and to Rosavtodor (Russian Federal Road Agency). They wouldn’t even let us in the door. We called the TV channels: they have refused to come cover us. Instead, they sent in trucks of riot police.”

An excited crowd of around two hundred people stands around an improvised stage. From time to time, someone mounts the stage to appeal to the truckers not to give up and stand their ground.

They have been here for five days. They sleep in their cabs, cook their own food, and during the daytime they welcome the growing number of colleagues who have been joining the strike. They are no strangers to hardship. They have been tempered by runs on rough roads lasting many days.

As of November 15, vehicles weighing over twelve tons are charged an additional fee for each kilometer of federal highway they travel. The government issued a decree setting the fee at three rubles six kopecks per kilometer. The new system of taxation has been dubbed Plato. In effect, truckers (or trucking companies) are obliged to register with Plato and choose one of two methods of payment. They can either buy a special onboard device that counts the kilometers of federal highway they travel and then calculates the fee, or before each run, they can buy a detailed route map from the company running Plato.

If they refuse to pay, individual entrepreneurs can be fined 40,000 rubles [approx. 580 euros]; legal entities, 450,000 rubles [approx. 6,500 euros].

In the best case scenario, you can make forty to fifty thousand rubles per run,” says Dibir. “The [new] tax adds an additional fifteen thousand rubles in costs. What are we going to live on?! We are not on the Forbes list.”

All Russian truckers now know about the Forbes magazine list of Russia’s wealthiest people and the spot occupied on the list by Arkady Rotenberg.

The surname Rotenberg is now quite popular in Dagestan. Posters bearing it can be seen all along the the M29, for example, “Rotenberg is worse than ISIS” (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) and “Russia without the Rotenbergs.” Every trucker now knows that billionaire Arkady Rotenberg is a friend and supporter of President Putin, that Arkady Rotenberg has a son named Igor Rotenberg, and that Igor Rotenberg owns a little company that mysteriously signed a contract with the government farming the new federal transportation tax out to this private company.

Truckers are not only the people who haul loads from their own regions to other regions, for example, Dagestani cabbage. (There are several districts in Dagestan that traditionally cultivate green cabbage on an industrial scale and then supply it to other parts of Russia during the winter.) Truckers are one of the foundations of the Russian produce economy.

Watermelons, tomatoes, onions, aubergines, pomegranates, and oranges: all this produce is brought from Iran and Azerbaijan, and the geography of further transshipments covers the entire country. For example, Dagestani truckers literally “pick up” and transport the entire harvest of Krasnodar Krai, Stavropol Krai, Astrakhan Region, and Volgograd Region to other parts of the country. They supply the major markets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg with produce.

“We are in the fifth day of our strike. Around three hundred train carloads of persimmons have piled up on the Azerbaijani border, right in the middle of the fruit’s season,” one of the strikers explains to me. “Three hundred train carloads is nine hundred truckloads that we should have delivered to Russian markets. Instead, the produce is spoiling. Take a look at how much persimmon prices skyrocket now.”

“Rotenberg is worse than ISIS.” Photo: Irina Gordiyenko/Novaya Gazeta

There are over two million heavy trucks officially registered in Russia. Around half of these are registered in the south of Russia. Cargo transportation is now in the truest sense one of the most important sources of income in Dagestan, a republic of three million people.

Take, for example, the large village of Gudben. Its population is around fifteen thousand people, and it has two thousand registered trucks. The average family in Gudben consists of five people, so at least ten thousand residents of Gudben survive on the money earned from cargo runs.

“We would love to find other work,” says Guben resident Tahir, “but there is just no other work in Dagestan. This is the only way we can feed our families.”

The second major site of the trucker protests is the federal highway near the small village of Manas. Several days ago, outraged truckers blocked the highway, demanding that authorities come meet with them. The authorities did come, but incognito. They threw up their hands and left. Then they sent in truckloads of riot police, who dispersed the protest.

So far the truckers have agreed not to block the highway. They are waiting. But riot police are on duty there. Every day they detain dozens of people, charge them with misdemeanors and send them to jail for ten days, videotape the truck drivers, and rip the license plates from their trucks.

The truckers are philosophical about such methods of coercion. We will not succumb to provocations. We want to be heard, they say.

The Dagestanis have been joined in their protests by truckers from other regions.

“I cannot imagine how we will go on living. This is going to be a big blow to our wallets,” says Vladimir from Saratov.

A couple days ago, Vladimir unloaded a cargo of Sakhalin fish in Krasnodar. Hearing that a big strike was underway in Dagestan, he decided to join it.

“In other parts of Russia, the protest actions have quickly come to an end. They have been quickly dispersed. But the folks here are stubborn,” says Vladimir.

And Vladimir is not alone. Many truckers from other regions who made runs to the south over the past week have joined the Dagestanis, including Chechens. In Chechnya itself, there is a strict taboo on any protest, so they are forced to travel to neighboring regions to strike against the injustice.

“A liter of diesel costs thirty-three rubles. For example, you need half a ton [of fuel] to get to Moscow,” continues trucker Tahir. “Under Medvedev, the price of diesel went up by seven rubles and we were promised a decrease in the transportation tax. We believed them. But the tax never was decreased. And now a new tax has been introduced to boot.”

In addition to fuel, every trucker has to pay the transportation tax (around forty thousand rubles a year), insurance (around fifteen thousand rubles per run), and customs duties (if the produce hails from Iran or Azerbaijan), plus license fees and a ton of other related formalities. We should also consider that any breakdown is the driver’s responsibility. Spare parts for all trucks, whether they are Volvos or KamAZes, are expensive.

“I ran into a pothole on a dark highway in Volgograd Region. I was stuck there for a week. I paid twenty thousand rubles [for repairs]: that is about half of what I earned from the run. You cannot imagine how awful the roads are around Volgograd and Samara! And for this we have to pay more?!” relates one trucker.

But there is yet another nuance. The new road tax will inevitably lead to higher rates for cargo transportation. The truckers will be forced to include them in the cost of their services, and so prices for the goods they transport will increase nationwide.

“We do not want to do it. People here live very poorly as it is,” says the trucker Dibir. “Price have gone up at the markets in Khasavyurt. We will fight to the last. And if they do not want to hear us, we will drive to Moscow and set up camp on the Moscow Ring Road. We are used to living in field conditions.”

“Peace to the world. No to Plato!” Photo: Irina Gordiyenko/Novaya Gazeta
Translated by the Russian Reader

 

Further reading (in Russian):

 

UPDATE (?) Carl Schreck, “Road Warriors: Russia Yields On New Transport Tax After Long-Haul Trucker Protests,” RFE/RL, November 20, 2015. Thanks to Comrade SC for the heads-up