‘Ere, or, Applied Culanthics

DSCN5744.jpg‘Ere, 2018. Graffiti found in Central Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

This is a soundbite of champagne leftist culanthical research at its worst.

Monstrations are a symptom of a deep crisis of the pro-state nationalist and anti-state liberal discourses that reduce Russia’s complex political reality to two formulaic camps, obliterating space for democratic debate. Could there be an American monstration? One that resists Trump, but also refuses to explain away the phenomenon of Trump by referring to bigots and Russian agents? One that neither demonizes Russia nor justifies the actions of Putin’s regime?

Is Russia’s political reality really all that complex?

Why, if the US is filled with teenagers who can take the stage at a massive rally on the Mall in DC and make inspiring, cogent, coherent speeches, do we need the incoherent, politically feckless, thrift-store surrealism of the Novosibirsk Monstrations?

If we can either impeach Trump, pin him down with a crippling special investigation or, finally, simply fail to renominate or reelect him, why do we need to explain him away or even explain him at all?

What is the difference between Trump and “the phenomenon of Trump”?

If, nevertheless, well-paid, tenured academics force us to explain this “phenomenon,” why can’t we refer to bigots and Russian agents? Are they mere figments of our imagination?

Who does a better job of “demonizing” Russia?

People trying to explain away the phenomenon of Trump?

(By the way, why isn’t it “the Trump phenomenon”? Is “the phenomenon of Trump” more culanthically correct?)

Or are the true demonizers the Putin regime itself, a regime that has been quite demonstrably engaged in setting a new land speed record in sheer gangster nastiness at home and abroad at least since 2014, although we know they started much, much earlier (i.e., when Putin was deputy mayor of Petersburg in the early and mid nineties, and served as Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s bag man and liaison with dicey “foreign investors” and local gangsters)? // TRR

P.S. The culanthics only go downhill from there.

The banners you see at monstrations state their theme obliquely. In the spring of 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea, the slogan “Crimea is ours!” dominated pro-government media channels and billboards. The liberal opposition, conversely, stressed that the Crimea was illegally stolen. Meanwhile, monstrations sided with neither of these accounts. On May 1, 2014, the Novosibirsk monstration walked behind the banner “Hell is ours!”, a statement that iconically and ironically challenged the official slogan, but also refused the simplified version of the political events advanced by the liberal opposition. The march united young people with different political opinions, from those who saw the annexation as an isolated unlawful act to those who refused the liberal oppositional story and instead saw the Crimea in connection with other events, including the attempts of the extreme right and ultranationalist movements in Ukraine to hijack the popular Maidan revolution.

Such is the secret of the trendy “third position” in Russian and Russophile “anti-authoritarian leftism”: to side with nobody but other third positionists, to hover high above Moscow, Peterburg, Crimea, Donetsk, Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta or, in this case, the Berkley Hills like angels of history. God forbid the third positionists should ever do something so rash as actually organize a real anti-war movement explicitly and loudly opposed to the Kremlin’s predations in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.

One, it would involve a lot of needless work.

Two, it could get the third positionists, otherwise accustomed to a heavy schedule of jetsetting from academic conference to art residency to speaking engagement, into a lot of hot water. They definitely do not want to go to prison for any reason, unlike those careless antifascists from Penza and Petersburg, about whom the third positionists mostly have nothing to say, unsurprisingly.

(Russian and Russophilic third positionism requires its adepts to refrain from criticizing Russia’s foreign and domestic policy catastrophes and crimes as much as humanly possible. People who, on the contrary, criticize the current Russian regime’s actions loudly and often are labeled “liberals” and “Russophobes,” the worst words imaginable in the third positionist vocabulary.)

Three, it would mean the third positioniks would have to give up their firmly held conviction, which they share with Vladimir Putin, Alexander Dugin, and Vyacheslav Surkov et al., that all the evil in the world originates solely in the United States and that, however hamfisted and controversial its actions, Russia has only been reacting to the miseries deliberately visited on it by American unilateral imperialism and neoliberalism.

Russophile leftists lap this spiked rhetorical gravy up like hound dogs who have not been fed for a week, so the invitations to appear at conferences and contempory art hootenanies, and contribute essays to “politicized” art mags and cutting-edge scholarly journals keep pouring in. After all, it is what really matters in life, not Syrian children, blasted to smithereens by Russian bombs, or hapless Crimean Tatars, rotting in Russian prisons because they are too stupid to know what is good for them.

Advertisements

Alexander Bikbov: The Neoliberal State of Higher Education in Russia

Sociologist Alexander Bikbov
Sociologist Alexander Bikbov

Sociologist Alexander Bikbov: “I’m Inspired by Small University Trade Unions”
Lena Chesnokova
Inde
June 27, 2016

Where fee-based higher education came from, why universities are jockeying for places in the ratings, and what a lecturer should do if she disagrees with her university’s administration

Part of last weekend’s Summer Book Festival was the fourth edition of the lecture series “Theories of Contemporaneity,” a joint project between Inde and the Smena Contemporary Culture Center (Kazan). One of the speakers was Alexander Bikbov, Ph.D., deputy director of the Center for Contemporary Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Philosophy Faculty of Moscow State University, and an editor of the journal Logos. Among Bikbov’s interests are the theory and practice of neoliberal reforms in the fields of education and culture. Inde spoke with Bikbov about the circumstances in which today’s Russian tertiary institutions find themselves, and what “effective management” and the pursuit of profitability could lead to over time.

Neoliberalism
A term used by scholars since the late twentieth century to describe government policies that reduce social spending (on education, culture, health care, and pensions and benefits) and promote universal competition and the free market. However, the rules of the market are set, supposedly, by the state. In theory, such policies should cull inefficient businesses (which, for neoliberal reformers, comprise everything from factories to tertiary institutions, hospitals, and theaters), provide people with a higher quality of services, and make them richer and freer. In reality, neoliberal reforms often exacerbate income equality and lower the overall cultural horizons of a large part of the populace. Neoliberalism, then, is a state of affairs in which liberal values, such as democracy, individual liberty, and freedom of speech and conscience, are subjugated to the principal value: the free market.

_________

In the last five to ten years, great changes have taken place in Russian higher education. Large universities have absorbed smaller ones, and a system for auditing the efficiency and performance of teaching staff has been put in place. When did these neoliberal reforms kick off, and what stages have there been?

State-controlled reforms began after 2003, when the Russian Ministry of Education signed the pan-European Bologna Declaration. From 2003 to 2005, certain universities served as flagships for the reforms by introducing a division between the bachelor’s and the master’s degrees, and ratings to measure student progress and the success of teaching staff. But the new model was adopted nationwide between 2008 and 2012. In 2009, the Unified State Examination (EGE) was made mandatory for school leavers, and nearly all universities abolished their own entrance exams. In 2010, Federal Law No. 83 came into force, which brought all the country’s tertiary institutions under the new economic model.

But if we speak on the whole about the permeation of Russian higher education by the neoliberal rationale, the process got underway much earlier. In 1991−1992, when state financing of tertiary institutions was abruptly slashed, some universities simply had no way to pay the electricity bills. University administrators were forced into crisis management mode, making sure their universities did not go bust as economic units while simultaneously becoming the full-fledged “proprietors” of these institutions. In the early 1990s, it was totally natural for a university lecturer to be working two or three jobs. It was then that the model for the labor relations that the state is now institutionalizing top down were predetermined: relatively unencumbered hiring and redundancy procedures, hourly pay, and precarious forms of employment with no social benefits.

The intermediate stage between the spontaneous reforms and state-driven commercialization happened in the late 1990s and mid 2000s, when universities established a system of fee-based instruction. By the mid 2000s, so-called commercial students accounted for about half of all students. Now the laws have been amended so this percentage can increase further.

What have been the most significant changes over the past ten years?

The most significant change is the new procedure for financing universities. Universities no longer receive core funding from the state and have begun to get vigorously involved in the fight for project and grant monies. Naturally, this leads to an uneven distribution of resources: economically stronger and weaker universities have begun to emerge. The “weak” universities are forced into subordination to the “strong” universities, despite the fact that higher education institutions deemed economically ineffective may be stronger in intellectual terms.

A very important date on the timeline of reforms is late 2008, when the government abolished the unified wage rate scale. This was a real revolution that instantaneously rocked the entire state sector, including medical care, culture, and secondary and higher education. The original version of the unified scale was adopted way back in 1936. It had evolved over the entire Soviet period and had continued to exist in the post-Soviet period. The Soviet system assumed an individual who worked at his or her job for a long time was a priori competent to perform that job. The older the lecturer, the more serious was his or her academic title, the higher was his or her pay grade, and the more he or she earned.

The new mode of compensation was introduced very quickly, literally in a couple of months. People were summoned one by one to the boss’s office and confronted with a choice: either they signed a new contract or they went looking for a new job. People who had previously been considered valuable employees lost all their privileges. According to the new rules, they are on a par with inexperienced employees and must annually certify their competence. I am not saying the old system was flawless. Obviously, it did not always guarantee the competence of teaching staff and a high quality of education. It had to be changed. But it is just as obvious that the new reforms are excessively radical. One extreme system has been replaced by another, without any steps in between.

In parallel with the new system of wages, a system of Key Performance Indicators, including publication citation indices, student attendance, and so on have been introduced. The duration of contracts has been reduced. The experiments are still underway, but permanent contracts no longer exist at most universities. Rigid market-based relations have now come to higher education.

Does the pan-European Bologna Process assume that changes follow the same scenario everywhere, or does each country go its own way? 

There is definitely no common way. In France, for example, the transition to the new labor relations was smoother: lecturers who already had permanent contracts when the reforms were adopted kept them. In Italy, however, junior lecturers can work for years without being paid, because they are listed as trainees. The Russian approach is radical, and I am guessing that, as time goes by, it will experience more and more serious glitches. Permanent confirmation of competencies makes winners of those who are better at playing the game, for example, who are better at writing reports in bureaucratic newspeak or filling out applications for salary bonuses. This does not always mean the person has a profound knowledge of his or her subject or is a skilled teacher.  In addition, lecturers have been subjected to a new set of conflicting rules. On the one hand, the recommended number of instructional hours has been raised from 750 to 900 hours a year. On the other hand, lecturers need to demonstrate high citation indices annually. But when is a lecturer supposed to do her own research when she spends more and more work time on classes, on preparing for them and checking homework assignments?

Are there any universities left in Russia that have either bucked the trend completely or follow the new rules only in part?

Yes, but things are not simple in those places, either. One of the flagships of the reforms, the Higher School of Economics, has full professorships. Full professors are the most protected category of employees. They sign permanent contracts with the university, and collegial methods of decision-making operate within their community. They elect each other, and they solve many problems without interference from the administration. Yet this special regime in which full professors exist is made possible by discriminating against the rest of the teaching staff. Less protected than the full professors, they are involved in the struggle for classroom hours. Their benefits and bonuses are cut, and the administration may suddenly refuse to renew their contracts.

Why have all these changes taken root so quickly in Russian universities? It’s hard to believe no one has protested.

One would imagine that if it is an international reform aimed at uniformity, its aftermath would be similar in all the participating countries. But it turns out that a fairly successful resistance has been mounted against it in France, while in Germany tuition fees were abolished. In Russia, however, the commercial model indeed became dominant quickly and triumphantly.  The short answer to the question of why this happened is that collegial organizations and social bonds among teachers have been traditionally weak in Russia. This was a legacy of the Soviet period, and it was exacerbated by the “crisis management” of the 1990s. Such organizations exist in Western European universities. For example, there was a months-long university strike in France in 2009 in which over two thirds of the country’s universities were involved. Decisions to close universities were approved by vote at general assemblies. There were street demos, and medical workers, postal workers, and other state-sector workers who were going through similar circumstances supported the university lecturers. At the same time, unofficial classes, organized by students themselves, continued on the campuses of certain universities. They invited intellectuals and lecturers they found interesting. The students insisted the strike should not be a period of inactivity. Unfortunately, the strike did not lead to a complete halt of the reforms, but protesters did cushion some of the commercial pressures.

With the raising of neoliberalism to the rank of state doctrine, independent quasi trade unions have also popped up at Russian universities. They are not like the trade unions that existed formally in the Soviet years and arranged trips to health spas. Instead, they are capable of saying a collective no to state-driven lawlessness. They interact with rectors, putting pressure on them and trying to ensure that university administrations negotiate more acceptable conditions with the state as embodied by the Ministry of Education.

Where are these quasi trade unions operating in Russia? Have they achieved any results?

In the late 2000s, an independent organization known as the MSU Pressure Group (Initsiativnaia gruppa MGU) emerged at Moscow State University.  Initially, its members fought for the right to free entry to the dormitories and the abolition of silly prohibitions concerning the use of lecture halls. Basically, they tried to solve very practical issues. The more often the activists got what they had set out to achiever, the stronger they felt. Nowadays, the Pressure Group is part of University Solidarity, a independent nationwide trade union.  All over the country, members of University Solidarity have been defending the rights of lecturers to legal employment contracts. At the Russian State Universities for the Humanities, for example, members have been fighting to abolish the practice of dismissing lecturers for the summer so the administration does not have to give them holiday pay.

Do such organizations exist in the regions?

They do, but they are not as active as in the capitals. Early experience of involvement is vital to civic and professional activism. The conditions for this have to exist. If a university administrations cracks down too harshly on students who make demands, the desire to defend rights and engage in vigorous protest is lost at the time in people’s lives when they are university students or postgraduates. For now independent trade unions have thus been emerging in cities with a traditionally strong culture of activism. I know for sure that, aside from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, such organizations exist in Yekaterinburg and Voronezh.

Given the circumstances, what tactics should lecturers and students choose? What is more effective: joining the new trade unions, starting a rebellion or switching to another line of work?

I am inspired by the small university trade unions, despite the fact they often admit to achieving limited results themselves. But any effective union is a voluntary association of professionals, and the more lecturers and students who are involved in it, the more it is capable of achieving. True, it is not all that simple. We can blame lecturers as much as we like for sluggishness and timidity, but 900 instructional hours a year and the need to think constantly about additional sources of income simply do not encourage many people to make the time to actively pursue their rights or, often, even just contemplate this possibility.

Do the reforms we have been talking about always entail a change of university leadership? In Kazan, for example, the scholar who had been elected to the post of rector was replaced by an appointed manager.

The federal universities tend to have a geopolitical function, and they are structured according to the same rationale that defines relations between Moscow and the regions. The government regards the old universities as platforms for professional and political loyalty where exceedingly abrupt shake-ups can produce uncontrolled change. If a university has a direct line to the ministry or the presidential administration, the changes are likely to be milder. Otherwise, the university faces an abrupt change in management. I gather that regional universities often find themselves in these circumstances.

Can we regard this round of reforms as completed, or are there more shocks on the way?

I have already mentioned the foundations for the situation we are now experiencing were laid in the early 1990s. Back then, Yeltsin’s reformers wanted to shift tertiary institutions to full self-financing, meaning one hundred percent commercial self-sufficiency. This bar has not yet been achieved, although in this instance Russian universities have considerably outstripped their European counterparts: at least half of their costs are covered by extra-budgetary resources. (This figure ranges from ten to twenty-five percent at different European universities.) I doubt the radical dream of full commercial self-sufficiency will ever be realized, because that would be tantamount to a total collapse of the higher education system.

The current leadership sees the universities as economic enterprises that should be cost-effective. This is not specific to Russia: England and Germany continue vigorously slashing “loss-making” departments and programs in philosophy, philology, and Slavic studies. There are also regions in Russia where such things are happening. Another consequence of this take on the problem is the constant desire on the part of university administrators to drastically reduce labor costs. Experiments with forms of employment will thus continue. So-called performance contracts have already been introduced: a lecturer’s salary and continued employment now depend on whether he performs a precise list of official obligations. In addition to giving lectures, the list includes getting published in highly ranked academic journals (there should be no fewer than a certain number of such publications per year), obtaining external financing, performing an extracurricular workload, and other factors that used to be more a matter of valor than obligation for educators.

In the early 2010s, some universities discussed introducing a system under which all lecturers would be casualized and hired under temporary contracts for ongoing projects, for example, for a semester-long or yearlong academic module. It is only at the idea stage for the time being, but it suggests that movement in this direction will continue.

What could be the long-term consequences of these reforms?

A shift to increasingly short-term and precarious contracts with lecturers will produce increased social insecurity. Further reduction of all “unprofitable” spending will increase inequality in academia. In addition, the gap in the quality of education will grown between individual universities and departments.

It is important to understand that a university’s intellectual level is inseparable from the social and financial standing of its teaching staff and the patterns of their employment. An individual who constantly changes the subjects she teaches, regularly experiences periods of unemployment, and is forced all the time to worry about maintaining at least a minimum income, ceases to see high-quality, creative teaching as a priority.

Universities have sought to increase the ratio of students to lecturers, class sizes have been growing, seminar hours have been reduced, and advanced optional courses are often not counted as part of the instructional load. The outcome is that a meaningful dialogue between students and lecturers has been rendered almost impossible. They find themselves in the positions of suppliers and consumers of standardized services, which are delivered along with increased formal monitoring of discipline on the part of both groups.

The draft federal budget for 2016 has again shown that spending on education is slated for cuts. This means the burden on family budgets will grow, and tertiary institutions are going the way of primary and secondary schools, where money for repairs, computers, and other necessities are collected from pupils’ parents. Such levies can be direct, but they can take the shape of rising tuition fees. In any case, the focus of the reforms is slashing the number of full-ride scholarships.

I have already talked about the closure and merger of unprofitable humanities departments. The trend has been deepening. Often, even if a department is kept open, its program is commercialized. A good number of liberal arts teachers even now can allow themselves to work only because they have other sources of income in addition to their university salaries. It is the same with students. The choice of a humanities specialization is often determined by the availability of free time and the absence of the need to start contributing to the family budget immediately. In ten years or so, philosophy and philology will probably become bourgeois disciplines, not in the Soviet sense of the word bourgeois, but in the sense that only wealthy people will be able to study them.

Tertiary institutions have already begun competing with each other for students and financing. The same rationale will probably penetrate even deeper. Departments and programs will begin competing amongst themselves for pieces of the university budget, and universities will open resource centers that will rent space to their own schools and departments for academic conferences.

Are the neoliberal reforms reversible at the national level? Are there forces within the system capable of slowing down the process?

I believe the only potentially effective force are lecturers themselves, united to defend their professional interests, the quality of their work, and the quality of education. That is why independent university unions are so important now.

There is also an alternative within the system, but it is a variety of neoliberalism. This is neomercantilism. The state’s rationale in this case is not extracting as much profit as possible from students, but keeping young people in the area, tethering their consumption to the local market, and protecting borders. Because the major federal universities, which were established in a dozen or so cities around the country, are basically a geopolitical project.

But then you might want to create a better environment for teachers and students?

Right. And here we approach the neoliberal model’s most important and intrinsic internal contradiction. The demands of reformers contain conflicting codes right from the get-go. For example, one neoliberal slogan is the absolute flexibility of skills and expertise that individuals build up over an entire lifetime. But this is contrary to reducing the time to the degree. In the Russian recension, the approach of neoliberal officials goes like this: we have too many people getting a higher education, but nobody to put to work in the real sector of the economy. Yet the assumption is that people employed in the real sector should be sufficiently competent. And there are more than one or two such fatal contradictions.

You ask why the reformers are so persistent in ploughing ahead with the changes. Don’t these contradictions bother them? But the fact of the matter is the neoliberal model is not a well-shaped ideology, but a technique for governing. It is almost impossible to imagine it as a consummate, consistent set of rules that could be checked for internal consistency. So that is why it is impossible to fully implement it in practice. But this is a challenge and incentive for commercially minded officials, who see the educational field as unnecessarily complicated, confusing, weak, dependent, and unproductive. I think reformers will keep trying to tame it for a long time to come.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VT for the heads-up

“A Home for Every Russian”

The other day, a comrade on a leftist email discussion list to which I subscribe sent the list a link to this recent article, published on the website Russian Insider. Russian Insider is a pro-Putin propaganda website whose goal is to further thicken the already briar thicket-thick wool in the heads of many western leftists and any other fellow travelers in the website’s radius as to the realities of what is going in and around Russia and its current regime.

The argument made in the article is well summarized by its headline and subheading: “A Home for Every Russian: How Putin Delivers on the Russian Dream. Russia is in the throws [sic] of a housing boom that is transforming the country and hugely increasing its sense of well-being but which has gone completely unreported in the West.”

The bulk of the article consists of incoherent razzle-dazzle with numbers, whose only purpose is to show that the journalist has done his groundwork, seemingly.

(Another comrade on the email discussion list discovered that the journalist is quite a dicey character himself. This is in keeping with the utter cynicism and recklessness of the Putinist propaganda and “soft power” campaign of the past ten years, especially after the lid blew off a year ago. The Putinist spin-doctors will literally hire anyone without a conscience, especially if they are agile on the keyboard and unencumbered by the need to check in with “fact-based reality” from time to time.)

But all that actually incoherent number crunching is only meant to reinforce the nearly orgiastic joy that will be experienced by many western comrades (longing for the “good old days” they still have not made sense of, really) when they reach the article’s money shot, in its penultimate paragraph:

The fact that the emphasis on house building in Russia remains on cheap affordable homes incidentally confirms something else. This is that the Western image of “Putin’s Russia” as ruled by a “corrupt kleptocracy” selfishly focused on its own interests has to be wrong. The emphasis on cheap affordable housing for the wider population on the contrary shows that Russia, as its constitution says, is very much a “social state”. 

This is such utter rubbish that I felt compelled to respond. What follows is an edited version of my original response to the mailing list.

__________

The first thing you should know about the so-called housing boom in Russia is that it has been made possible largely by incredibly cheap, disempowered, heavily abused migrant labor from Central Asia. This labor has often verged on slave labor. It is almost totally non-unionized and dirt cheap and utterly expendable.

As in “If you don’t like the conditions, non-Slavic laborer [my euphemism: this isn’t the local ‘term of art’], fuck off, because we’ll find another ten ‘blacks’ [a term of extreme racial abuse in Russian, although there are much worse epithets] to take your place.”

And the local police and federal migration service have been taking a cut from the cutthroat developers and taking caring of things if the Tajiks or Uzbeks get uppity. Such as deporting them back to Central Asia lickety-split.

And the neo-Nazis and skinheads were also, until recently (maybe they are still doing it) coming in to bust heads and slice a few hundred or thousand throats just in case someone had missed the point.

And the laborers have lived in subhuman conditions, such as this shack I photographed four years ago at a site where yet another “elite” block of flats was under construction.

IMG_2667

All this stuff has been documented and heavily reported, mind you, but not on fly-by-night Putinist sites like New Cold War (which, it almost goes without saying, picked up and reprinted Russia Insider’s “scoop” on the incredible socialist housing boom in neoliberal capitalist Russia) and Russian Insider, which have sprung up only yesterday just to muddy the waters, and nothing more.

The second thing you should know about the so-called housing boom in Russia is that it has been mostly fueled either by “funny money,” ill-gotten gains, mortgages that have usually come with stiff interest rates, even during the recent “good times,” when the economy was flush with easy (but extremely unequally distributed) oil-and-gas money. (According to an August 5, 2014, article published on the website Global Property Guide, “every fourth property (24.6%) was bought on a mortgage in 2013, according to the Federal Service for State Registrations.”) Sometimes, these were dollar- or euro-denominated loans, which people are now finding hard to pay back because the Russian economy has flatlined.

Or they have been financed by co-investor buy-in schemes, in which a large percentage of an apartment’s price or even the whole price is paid up front before the foundation pit has even been dug, and the construction and zoning permits secured from bribed public officials.

Many of these co-op schemes have gone south when the ruthless developers split with the money. The co-op members have been left holding empty bags and staring at unbuilt or partly built apartment blocks. There have been huge numbers of such sad stories over the past ten years, stories that been heavily documented in the Russian and even the western media. Not so strangely, the authorities have usually been very reluctant to help these people get their money back or their apartments built.

There is a special term for these people in Russian, obmanutye dol’shchiki, which can be translated as “hoodwinked investors.” It is a term that literally everyone in the world who speaks Russian knows, except maybe those Old Believer villagers in Oregon.

Do the “militants” at New Cold War and Russia Insider, so desperate to recreate the Comintern, even speak Russian?

At Friday’s May Day festivities in Petersburg, there were whole columns of “hoodwinked investors” and people now staring down the barrels of once-advantageous foreign currency-denominated home loans among the marchers on Nevsky Prospect.

IMG_7973

“Where are our apartments? The hoodwinked investors of the Okhta Modern Residential Complex.” Photo courtesy of paperpaper.ru

 

152851_1000

“We demand an end to the genocide [sic] of foreign-currency-denominated loan borrowers.” Many of the marchers are wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I’m not the slave of a foreign currency-denominated mortgage.” Photo courtesy of alliruk.livejournal.com

 

The third thing you should know about the housing boom is that, especially in the big cities like Moscow and Petersburg (which are the only places where there have been real housing booms, for the most part), is that it has been realized at devastating expense to the existing built environment, for example, in the older, pre-Revolutionary districts of the cities, which should be heritage listed, and sometimes are, but that has not stopped rapacious developers and their allies in local governments from gutting them in the name of progress (i.e., quick profit).

This has especially been the case in Petersburg, ALL of whose central districts and large parts of its suburbs are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the current housing boom (i.e., the precipitate of easy money, criminal greed, and absence of rule of law and normal planning standards) has also impinged badly on the post-war Soviet new estates, which Soviet planners had the wisdom to equip with lots of green space, parks, leafy courtyards, and lots of other great amenities, like schools and kindergartens.

IMG_3024

The building of a kindergarten attended by a friend in the late 1970s, now lying in ruins in Petersburg’s Nevskaya Zastava district, July 2011. Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

All this “empty space” has been a favorite target of the utterly ruthless developers in their quest to squeeze more and more real estate into less and less space. If you had been really interested in what has been going in Russia (and urban Ukraine, by the way) over the past ten years, you would know that one of the biggest grassroots social movements to have emerged was the movement against reckless infill construction both in the inner cities and the Soviet new estates.

You can probably say lots of bad things about radical leftist figurehead Sergei Udaltsov (now doing jail time for “planning a riot” on May 6, 2012) and his Left Front, but there are no doubt tons of ordinary Muscovites who were glad to have them and other partisan (including liberals and other leftists) and non-partisan activists on hand when they were fighting off the ruthless developers trying to destroy their eminently livable, superiorly planned Soviet or pre-Soviet neighborhoods.

The allegation made in the article about the superior quality of the new houses versus the bad old Soviet apartment blocks is also quite hilarious. A friend of mine lives next to a tower of such recently built “elite” flats in southern Petersburg. She told me there had been a rash of burglaries in this building, because the walls had been built so thin the crooks could literally punch their way through them from one flat to the next, and grab whatever loot they liked. And this was in, I repeat, an “elite” block of flats. (“Elite” has been the buzzword among the cutthroat developers over the past couple decades.)

In my own experience, substandard architectural and infrastructural quality has been the rule in the housing boom, because the point has been to throw up as many square meters as possible, as if Russia were still the old Soviet Union, where high figures like this were touted every years a sign of the progress toward communism. But that made some kind of sense back then, because those figures represented real people moving from crowded and often horribly squalid communal flats and barracks into individual flats with indoor plumbing and all the mod cons.

Providing every citizen with a decent home was a problem the Soviet Union never did solve right up to the day of its bitter collapse, but at least it made a much more honest attempt than the current regime, which has never even set itself this goal. Or, rather, it has at times pretended to have set itself this goal, but only as part of the array of populist tactics and NLP it uses to disguise what it has really been up to.

Nowadays, on the contrary, the point has been to do everything as cheaply as possible in terms of labor inputs and environmental impacts, while front-loading as much of the profit onto the preliminary financing stages, which is also when the high-percentage bribes and cutbacks get passed around to compliant and interested officials. This often means that buildings just do not get built at all, because the developers and financiers “go bust” (that money landed somewhere offshore, in Cyprus, for example) before they get built.

When has an out-of-control housing boom ever been a sign of good social or economic policy or, for that matter, of a “social state”? Remember that much of this housing, when it does get built (and lots has been built, especially in “the two capitals,” as Moscow and Petersburg are called nowadays), is not built for anyone to live in, but as investment vehicles for richer Russians with too much cash on their hands and not enough good ways to launder or invest it. Or, at best, it is built to be sold as rental properties, thus sending the rents sky high in Moscow long ago.

They have been going that way in Petersburg for a long time as well, because owners want to milk the rental market for as much as it can bear, and because the demand has been huge.

Petersburg and Moscow, after all, are basically the only cities in Russia where younger, ambitious, and heavily encashed Russians want to live or to move, because the rural areas have been left to rot, and many of the bigger “heartland” cities and towns have been de-industrialized beyond their breaking points.

**********

In 1975, when my wife’s family moved into a three-room apartment in a newly built block of flats in one of Leningrad’s central districts, the apartment was FREE. As in my wife’s family didn’t have to pay a kopeck for it. Not a single kopeck. Similarly, my wife got a terrific free education at a specialized grammar and high school and, later, at Leningrad State University. Her family did not pay a kopeck for any of this, either. It was all FREE.

She also had plenty of free (state-subsidized) opportunities to pursue a career in sports (something she ultimately chose not to do) and explore her passion for biology at a very high level while still a teenager, including going on real scientific field expeditions to the Crimea.

Even more insanely, when my wife got ill as a child and young woman, the medical care she got was also free.

I could go on with this pinko drivel, but you get the picture.

IMG_2963

A bust of Lenin stares out at an ugly new “elite” block of flats, erected right across the street from the wooden house where Lenin and his comrades founded the Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class, in 1895. In recent years, this outer district of Petersburg, Nevskaya Zastava, has been targeted for “renovation” by the new capitalist powers that be. Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

This system was called, rightly or wrongly, socialism. I am not actually a fan of the Soviet Union for a large number of what I think are serious, almost damning reasons, which I will not go into here, but as western leftists, let us at least acknowledge that there are monumental differences between “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in terms of economic and social policy, and the freewheeling reign of pirates, highwaymen, extortionists, murderers, thugs, and Chicago School boys we have witnessed in the “post-Soviet space” over the last nearly quarter of a century.

After 1991, my wife’s family privatized their flat for free, as did millions of other Russians around the same time.

In 2000, they sold it for around 25,000 dollars. That was the going rate then. At today’s going rate, the same flat would probably sell for around 250,000 dollars.

There is a fairly substantial class of people, although they are a distinct minority, who could afford to buy my wife’s family’s old flat cash on the barrel head, but the vast majority of people living in Petersburg would not be able to do this, unless they had their own, similarly priced, privatized flats that they could sell to generate the cash necessary to trade up (or down, for that matter) to another flat. There are still quite a few people in the big cities who have this important asset, which is a legacy from the Soviet era. One could say that it made life livable to a great extent for many of these people in the lean years.

But it also generated, eventually, a real estate market, which did not exist (or at least exist in this way) in Soviet times. And this real estate market has been as cutthroat as they come. In the 1990s, when I worked for a Big Issue-style newspaper called Na Dne (The Depths), we did a special project where we advertised all over the city asking homeless people to come in and tell us their stories. (These stories were eventually published as an anthology in Russian and English.) What we discovered was that easily over half these people had been swindled out of their flats and their rooms in communal flats, to which they had been legally entitled, by so-called black realtors, many of whom were able to launder their ill-gotten gains and then resell them on the emerging “legal” estate market.

That was how they had become homeless.

IMG_6251

“Citizens! Given our indifference, this side of life is the most dangerous. Over 4,000 homeless people die on the streets of Petersburg annually. Find out how to help at Homeless.Ru.”

 

As for the homes touted by Russian Insider as proof that “Putin delivers,” they are not handed out for free, as most of them would have been under socialism. (In the late Soviet period, there were also co-op houses paid and, to some extent, built by their future inhabitants, but that is another, quite interesting story.) No, they are sold for the going rate, just as in other capitalist countries.

In September 2014, the going rate in Petersburg per square meter in newly built residential buildings was about 94,000 rubles, while the average price per meter in the four historic central districts (Central, Petrograd, Vasilyevsky Island, and Admiralty) hovered between 120,000 and 160,000 rubles, according to real estate website bsn.ru.

At the then-current exchange rate, this translated into a price range between 2,600 and 4,500 dollars per square meter.

An acquaintance of mine who does IT work and has been trying to organize an independent IT workers union in Petersburg, wrote on his Facebook page the other day that, according to Headhunter.ru, the average (not the median) monthly wage in the city was now 35,000 rubles. At current exchange rates, this comes to around 680 dollars a month.

He also included a screenshot of the Yandex jobs site. It shows that the average monthly wage for the fifty-five thousand some vacancies the site was then currently listing as vacant, in Petersburg, is 33,000 rubles per month, or 640 dollars.

11179967_435139846654777_2601751041563840702_n
Screenshot from Yandex Work page. Courtesy of Comrade AN

I should add that before the “crisis” set in, that is, during the “boom times,” the average wage in the city was somewhat better, but only marginally so.

So who could afford and can afford all the homes “delivered” by the international left’s new kewpie doll, Vladimir Putin?

A) The wildly and mostly illegally rich, including oligarchs, sub-oligarchs, and corrupt government officials, who need some place (lots of places, actually, if you think about the distorting effect they have had on the real estate markets in London and New York, for example) to park their loads of cash.

B) Honest, hardworking people with average or higher than average salaries who, of course, would have take out loans, sometimes very big loans, to afford these homes.

Except for the special occasions, as when, once a year, around the Victory Day holiday or the holiday commemorating the end of the Leningrad Siege, the government loudly hands out a few free flats, usually built in the middle of nowhere, to WWII veterans or Siege survivors, these homes are not “delivered” by Putin or his minions in any sense.

These homes are sold for big bucks, often to folks who cannot really afford them in terms of their actually meager salaries (see the screenshot, above). These homes are used to hide ill-gotten assets, money that could be used productively elsewhere, e.g., in the real economy, in increasing social benefits for the poor and disadvantaged, and in building the real infrastructure Russia and all other countries will need for a planet-friendly, twenty-first century economy.

These homes are built mostly cheap and poorly, and with no consideration as to their environmental impact and aesthetic effect on the existing built environment.

IMG_4631

A soul- and landscape-destroying newly built block of flats near the Parnas subway station in northern Petersburg, March 2013. Photographed by the Russian Reader

 

They are mostly built by disempowered migrant workers from Central Asia who are a) non-unionized, b) underpaid, c) often cheated out of their wages entirely), and d) constantly hassled and shaken down by police, immigration officials, and skinheads.

I think it might be useful to close these notes with a few recent reminders of what the Putin regime has really represented in terms of social, economic, housing, and urban planning policy:

**********

P.S. A comrade recommended the book on the subject of housing policy in the new Russia, described below. Someone who has studied the subject in depth, apparently, rather than dishonestly fantasized in print on behalf of the Putin regime over the course of an hour, has written it. It seems like a good place to start an honest exploration of housing policy in today’s Russia.

But then again, as the last year has made painfully obvious to me, many leftists are responding to traumas and phantom pains, not to actual economic and political realities, so why would they bother with a book like this or the millions of column inches dealing with these issues printed in magazines and newspapers over the past fifteen years?

In Housing the New Russia, Jane R. Zavisca examines Russia’s attempts to transition from a socialist vision of housing, in which the government promised a separate, state-owned apartment for every family, to a market-based and mortgage-dependent model of home ownership. In 1992, the post-Soviet Russian government signed an agreement with the United States to create the Russian housing market. The vision of an American-style market guided housing policy over the next two decades. Privatization gave socialist housing to existing occupants, creating a nation of homeowners overnight. New financial institutions, modeled on the American mortgage system, laid the foundation for a market. Next the state tried to stimulate mortgages—and reverse the declining birth rate, another major concern—by subsidizing loans for young families.

Imported housing institutions, however, failed to resonate with local conceptions of ownership, property, and rights. Most Russians reject mortgages, which they call “debt bondage,” as an unjust “overpayment” for a good they consider to be a basic right. Instead of stimulating homeownership, privatization, combined with high prices and limited credit, created a system of “property without markets.” Frustrated aspirations and unjustified inequality led most Russians to call for a government-controlled housing market. Under the Soviet system, residents retained lifelong tenancy rights, perceiving the apartments they inhabited as their own. In the wake of privatization, young Russians can no longer count on the state to provide their house, nor can they afford to buy a home with wages, forcing many to live with extended family well into adulthood. Zavisca shows that the contradictions of housing policy are a significant factor in Russia’s falling birth rates and the apparent failure of its pronatalist policies. These consequences further stack the deck against the likelihood that an affordable housing market will take off in the near future.

Open Left: Moscow Doctors Talk about Their Work-to-Rule Strike

“Two of us covered eight precincts for a week”: Moscow doctors talk about the work-to-rule strike
Alexander Grigoriev
April 22, 2015
Open Left presents a unique set of interviews with the doctors involved in the first protest in the Moscow medical care system since 1993
openleft.ru

italian 1Medical workers in Moscow have been on a work-to-rule strike since March 24. The work action has been sparsely supported: around twenty people in seven of the city’s medical centers have been involved. They oppose the downsizing of staff, regular unpaid overtime, and workplace management that is detrimental to standards of good medical care.

The current work-to-rule strike is the first in Moscow since 1993, when ambulance staff protested. Although it cannot be said that there had been no problems in the Moscow and Russian healthcare systems all this time, the situation has deteriorated markedly in recent years, and this is due primarily to ongoing reforms by the government.

Since Soviet times, clinics and hospitals have been funded by the state. This meant that all costs for medical care were covered. In addition, since the 1990s, compulsory health insurance (OMS) funds have been operation in Russia. They are financed by contributions from employers. Currently, the size of each contribution is 5.1 percent of a person’s salary, with the maximum salary capped at 624,000 rubles a year. Higher salaries thus contribute the same amount of money to the OMS funds as salaries of 624,000 rubles. The idea is that the OMS funds allocate money to cover costs incurred by medical facilities in providing care to patients. However, rates for services have been set disproportionately low. For example, a chest X-ray is estimated to cost 275 rubles whereas the real cost is around one thousand rubles. Costs have not been covered by OMS funds, so the entire system has continued to be financed by the state.

2010 saw the passage of the basic law governing compulsory health insurance. The idea was that the money from the funds would “follow” the patient, and medical care facilities would be financed from OMS funds every time they provided care to patients. At the same time, rates for services were not changed, so clinics continued to cover the shortfalls that arose with money from the state budget.

When Putin signed the so-called May decrees on May 7, 2012, it became clear that major changes were coming to the existing system. According to one of the decrees, by 2018, salaries of doctors had to be increased to a level twice the amount of the average salary in each region, but there was no question of correspondingly sharp increases in budgetary allocations. On the contrary, spending on health care has been falling with each passing year. In 2014, the economic crisis further exacerbated the shortage of funds.

The Moscow city government continued to finance municipal medical facilities under the old scheme for quite a long time, but gradually reduced its budgetary allocations. Beginning in late 2013, Moscow authorities researched the municipal health care system in order to identify possible options for redistributing costs. Several options were suggested: casualizing some employees, combining several positions into one and thus preserving the old system of positions and salaries, and increasing the specialization of hospitals.

italian 2Queue at a Moscow clinic

Officials settled on the option of reducing the number of facilities in two stages: merging facilities and turning some clinics and hospitals into affiliates of other clinics and hospitals, and subsequently eliminating some of them altogether. Conversion of a clinic or hospital to an affiliate implied the dismissal of specialists who were already officially on staff at the main facility or other affiliates. It was announced that a total of twenty-eight facilities would be closed, including fifteen hospitals.

All this took place amidst protests in the regions, where the situation has been even worse. For example, in 2014, ambulance staff in Ufa twice went on hunger strike. Their demands were generally similar to those being made now by the work-to-rule strikers in Moscow: increased staffing and additional pay for additional shifts. The government of Bashkortostan has repeatedly claimed that it fulfilled all the protesters’ demands, but in March of this year, the hunger strike in Ufa kicked off again and has continued for over a month.

In November and December 2014, there was a series of rallies against healthcare reform in its current form, staff downsizing, and hospital closures. According to organizers, up to ten thousand people attended the largest of these rallies in Moscow. Not only health professionals came to the rallies but also members of various political and grassroots organizations. However, the Moscow authorities chose not to enter into negotiations, claiming it was not medical workers who organized the rallies but outside forces. The demands of the protesters were not met.

The healthcare workers union Action (Deistvie), which originally formed in Izhevsk but is now a nationwide organization with three and a half thousand members in twenty regions, was actively involved in organizing the rallies. It is Action that has now organized the work-to-rule strike by doctors in Moscow.

Open Left has tried to get to the bottom of the situation by speaking with the principal figures in the strike.

 italian 3

Andrei Konoval

Andrei Konoval is managing secretary of the trade union Action. Under his leadership, the organization has carried out a number of protest actions. Konoval talked to Open Left about the reasons Moscow doctors went on strike, why this form of strike was chosen, and the goals the protesters are pursuing.

Andrei, what is the state of the trade union Action at the moment?

The trade union has around forty-five locals in twenty-five localities, cities, and regional centers, about three and a half thousand members in total.

Let’s move on to the work-to-rule strike. What caused you to declare it, and why was this form of protest chosen?

Because other ways of highlighting the systemic contradictions in the management of outpatient clinics would have been ineffective. We had to attract public attention. So we chose a form of protest with a flashy name—an “Italian strike” [the usual name for work-to-rule strikes in Russian]. Although the gist of it is simply that, on the spur of the moment, physicians start working in strict accordance with the Labor Code and the standards of medical care.

What are the reasons for the strike?

The reason is that now a medical clinic employee’s actual workday is ten to twelve hours long, sometimes even longer. This overtime is not taken into account and not remunerated properly, as per the Labor Code. Doctors are put into circumstances where they have to speed up the time spent examining patients, which objectively cannot help but affect the quality of care. Less than ten minutes are allotted for receiving and examining patients, which increases the risk of medical error and reduces the quality of work. Under these circumstances, people who work in health care facilities are deprived not only of the possibility of spending time with their families, raising their children, and relaxing after the workday but also of feeling that what they do is important and useful, because when the pace of work is such that is, their ability to perform their professional duties is discredited. Real professionals with a sense of duty cannot put up with this situation and they are opposed to it. So now we are trying to show that the Moscow healthcare system is totally underfunded, there is a real shortage of doctors, and something urgently needs to be changed.

Do you agree with the argument that the strike has failed?

The authorities are no longer saying this. They are silent on this score. This was said during the first week: it was just a PR attack. As we stated from the very beginning, at the press conference, we have around twenty strikers in six medical centers (seven, even). Others had wanted to join the strike, but they abandoned the idea under pressure. This is normal; there is nothing new here. Taking on the system is something that only people with a certain stamina and courage, and who are also well versed in the legal aspects of the issue, can do.

I want to emphasize that the strike’s success depends less on the numbers and more on the fact that we have provided an example of working the right way. Even if only one person in Moscow said that he or she were ready to undertake a work-to-rule strike—and survived the pressure—even then we would consider the protest a success.

But have you managed to achieve anything by striking?

Yes, at specific institutions. On the eve of the protest and especially in the early days, first they promised and then later they really began making changes to the work schedule in keeping with our wishes: to reduce the intake time, increase the time for house calls to patients, and change the standard exam time for a single patient from ten to twelve minutes, for example. Several strikers set individual appointment schedules in keeping with federal requirements and the real time demands for working with each patient. At Diagnostic Center No. 5, they managed to get the head doctor, who was planning to sack five hundred people, fired. And there are the little things, like the provision of stationery supplies, which previously one doctor had to buy at her own expense. In some clinics, they have stopped putting unpaid Sunday shifts on the schedule. Certain processes have been set in motion, but this is only at the local level, while our objective is to bring about changes to the way the medical system is managed. Our main achievement is that we have attracted the attention of the public and certain authorities to the problem.

Are you going to strike in other regions?

Our trade union operates from the grassroots, not from the top down. If our locals are ready to pose this question, then the central leadership supports them. A strike like this took place in April 2013 in Izhevsk and ended successfully: ninety percent of our demands were met. The know-how we are now amassing in Moscow will be summarized and used in teaching materials. In fact, it does not necessarily have to be used in a work-to-rule strike, because, strictly speaking, what is happening now in Moscow is not a strike at all. The goal of the work action is not to cause economic harm to the employer and, much less, to the patients. On the contrary, when our strikers see them, patients receive objectively better medical care. So we might not call it a work-to-rule strike, but simply introduce this know-how as a recommendation for protecting the rights of medical workers, resorting to the term “strike” only when we need to draw the public’s attention.

How do you see the future of the trade union Action?

Unions have to be massive. This allows them to have a serious impact on social and labor relations with employers. This is not an easy task, but there is no other way.

Open Left also contacted the strikers themselves and asked them about the reasons, goals, and outcomes of the protest.

 italian 4Yekaterina Chatskaya

Yekaterina Chatskaya is an OG/GYN at Branch Clinic No. 4 of City Clinic No. 180. She had struggled on her own to improve her working conditions, but had failed to change anything. After her little son tearfully begged her not to go to work, because he never saw her at home, she realized it was time for decisive action.

Tell us about the conditions in which doctors are now forced to work in the clinics.

Our situation is like this. Our workload had already been quite large. I work in Mitino, a young, growing district, at a women’s health clinic. We have a lot of pregnant women and, accordingly, women who have given birth, and female cancer patients.

We had always had a shortage of doctors, and yet management periodically took on new doctors, and the staff gradually expanded. This, of course, provided some relief. But when this optimization kicked in, the number of doctors at our clinic was dramatically reduced, and the service precincts were disbanded, but no one really counted how many women there were in the service precinct. The residential buildings were simply divvied up (it is not clear on what basis) and the patient load, of course, has increased significantly.

Even before this, UMIAS2 (Unified Medical Information Analysis System 2) had been installed. This was in 2013. By order of the Ministry of Health, an initial consultation with a pregnant woman should last thirty minutes, and a follow-up visit, twenty minutes, but UMIAS set the new time it should take to see one patient—fifteen minutes. That is, they deliberately reduced the time we have to see patients and made it impossible to really help a woman during this time. However, the numbers of high-tech care techniques, such as in vitro fertilization, grows, and so I end up in a situation where a woman comes to see me and, say, she has been infertile for many years or has suffered many miscarriages (some women have ten miscarriages, twelve miscarriages), and now she has finally become pregnant, as she wanted. How can I consult her in fifteen minutes? It turns out that doctors should just engage in a sham, roughly speaking. It is all just for show, for ticking off a box on a form: the patient came in, showed her face, and left. Everything else is outside the time limit. Or the second option is that the doctor does real clinical work, the whole appointment grid shifts, and the doctor does not have time to do anything during the time allotted for seeing other patients, and she starts seeing the remaining patients on her own time.

I cannot deal with a woman like this in only fifteen minutes. In the end, my working day lasts ten to twelve hours, sometimes even longer. Because I have to do paperwork for all the patients I see, and there are also a lot of reports, whose numbers grow constantly. And it turned out that no one had been taking this time into account, it was of no interest to anyone, and basically everyone got paid the standard salary.

The situation was already critical, and I had repeatedly appealed to management to clear up and resolve this situation somehow. They told me that we had to try and make do somehow, everything had been decided, they were powerless to do anything, and we had to meet the norms. Then we were set a norm of twelve minutes per person, which was even shorter, and were told there would also be layoffs. The time for seeing patients was increased, that is, the number of people we had to see increased. However, this standard is not written down anywhere: it is all a matter of verbal instructions.

So things have deteriorated even further since the reforms to the healthcare system began?

The situation has deteriorated dramatically.

I see. And you got no response at all from management?

Absolutely none. They tried to smother “in house” all our attempts to change anything so they would not go any further. I myself personally repeatedly offered to management to write about this to the higher authorities. I even drew up a document, but I got no support from management.

What was your point of no return? What finally convinced you of the need to protest?

For me personally, as a mother, it was when I would go to work in the morning, and my son would still be asleep, and when I would come home from work, he would already be asleep again. I simply did not see him. At some point, he woke up when I was heading off to work yet again. He grabbed my arm and started crying, “Mom, don’t go!” I just realized that was it, I had to change something. When I got home that day, he was already asleep, naturally, and I was very tired. I had had a very rough day. I came home and sat down. I was crying my eyes out. I simply did not know what to do. I plucked up my courage and wrote it all down. I described the whole situation, as it had come to be at our clinic, and sent it to the labor inspectorate. So far, there has been no response, though it has been almost two months.

In the end, I waited a couple of weeks, and then I realized that the matter would remain there, it would go no further. I started looking for like-minded people, because fighting alone, of course, is quite difficult. And so I found colleagues who also wanted to change something. I met with them and talked, and we came up with the idea of a work-to-rule strike.

Why do you think this strike has not yet evoked such a response within the medical community? Why have other doctors decided not to join you?

It’s all a mess. Doctors probably have a well-developed sense of passivity. Very many of my colleagues support me; I would say that almost all of them do. And no one has ever told me that I was wrong. On the contrary, everyone says more power to you, they are on my side, but very many of them are afraid of taking active steps. In our clinic, however, several colleagues have supported me; I am not the only one involved in this. And yet many people fear activism. We have a lot of retirees who just want to make it to retirement. We have a lot of people who have sized up this whole situation and begun to seek work elsewhere. They are planning to leave. When they leave, it is unclear what will happen.

At our clinic, for example, an ultrasound doctor was laid off. The load on the other doctors dramatically increased, and one doctor left: she could not stand the stress. We were left with one doctor who could do ultrasound tests on pregnant women in a huge district. In my opinion, it is simply absurd that, in the twenty-first century, a pregnant patient of mine should wait two or three weeks for an ultrasound. And it turns out that either I should “gently” hint that it would be nice if she paid to have it done (because it is urgent) or she has to wait, and I worry we will let something slip.

Twenty-four appointments for a pelvic ultrasound were issued for next week at our clinic. Only twenty-four appointments for an ultrasound and gynecology exam! This is an outrage. Ideally, every woman should have an ultrasound at least once a year, and those who have had problems, sometimes once a quarter, sometimes once a month. But we have no such possibility.

I have another question for you. These are not just your problems, after all, but the problems of your patients, of the populace. Does management not react to this in any way, either?

Absolutely not. We have instructions from the health department to increase the availability of appointments. Not the availability of health care, but the availability of appointments. In our clinic, it turns out that the overall time each doctor should receive patients has increased, while the time each patient can be seen has decreased. In addition, all repeat appointments have been abolished at our clinic, meaning that as a doctor I cannot make an appointment for someone to see me again; the woman has to make the appointment herself. But the earliest appointment is generally within two weeks. For example, a woman has come to see me to get a signed sick leave form. I give her five days of sick leave, but I cannot take her off sick leave in five days, because I have no room on my schedule. And I am forced to see her on a first-come-first-served basis, as it were, over and above my scheduled appointments.

In order to further increase the availability of appointments, so that they light up in green on the computer monitor at the health department, they do another really interesting thing. Registrars are given verbal instructions to randomly cancel three or four appointments for receiving physicians. While we are given orders, again verbally, to see both those patients who had appointments and those who had to get new appointments.

This increases your workload even more?

Of course. We are also required to see emergency patients, but that is not even up for debate. Rendering emergency aid is a doctor’s direct duty, and if a woman comes in with pain or bleeding, she has to be seen, too. The patient load is truly enormous.

Our service precincts had not been calculated, and when we began our protest, they finally counted the number of people attached to our clinic. By order of the Ministry of Health, the gynecological norm is 2,200 women per doctor. But after the calculations were done in Moscow, it turned out that there were service precincts with 2,900 women per doctor, and precincts with 7,000 women per doctor. So they just divided all the service precincts in half, and now we all have 5,500 women per doctor in each precinct. But each doctor gets only the standard salary.

And the last question. How do you see the future of your movement and the trade union Action in general?

Our trade union is gaining momentum. More and more people are joining it, because they see the real outcomes of our fight. I think the scenario looks positive.

As for our protest, I am still hoping for dialogue with the authorities. We have already had one meeting at the Ministry of Health’s Public Chamber. They took the proposals that we drew up for them, in which all the problems had been laid out. They took all this and promised to get in touch with us. So far, however, they have been silent, but they promised they would call, so we are waiting.

So there have been no breakthroughs so far?

Sundays had also been made working days at our clinic, though officially we have a five-day workweek. This was done without additional agreements or even oral instructions. They would just make appointments for a doctor on Sundays, and that was that. It was assumed the doctor was obliged to go in to work that day. After my written request to management (I asked them to clarify on what basis appointments had been made for me), such shifts were abolished at our clinic and declared illegal. This is one of our victories

 italian 5Elena Konte

During the course of a week, Elena Konte had to cover eight service precincts along with another doctor, after which she decided to start fighting for her rights. So far, Konte has seen no major positive changes, but she remains optimistic.

Could you tell us about the conditions in which doctors are now working in the clinics.

Well, there is a lack of personnel. In our department, four doctors are covering eight service precincts.

This was a major problem for you?

Yes, and the instability of wages. A lot depends in this instance on incentive payments, but now they are here, then they are gone, and it is unclear what percentage of extra pay they will give you, and so on.

What impact have the recent reforms had on the situation?

The most direct impact.

It was right after them that the firings began?

Yes. Our GPs were not dismissed, but our specialists were. The physiotherapist, the opticians, and some others were dismissed. Lab technicians.

I see. And how did management behave?

You mean—

The clinic’s management. You probably complained to them about the shortage of specialists. Did they react somehow?

Of course. But these were not written complaints. They were oral complaints at the general clinical conference that is held once a week. They said the same thing in response to all our recommendations: it was a done deal, no one is going to change anything, so that is why we switched to this scheme of working, work as you like, but be patient and keep working, because nothing is going to change, everything was decided long ago. It is standard practice.

I see. But when exactly was your point of no return, the point at which you decided you needed to go on a work-to-rule strike?

Ha! It was after another doctor and I covered eight care precincts alone for a week!

Why do you think many doctors are hesitant to join your movement?

I think it is this “great Russian patience,” passivity.

Last question. How do you see the future of the trade union Action and the strike itself?

That is a great question. I think the trade union Action has a bright future. More and more people are beginning to understand that it is a trade union that is worth joining and that can really solve our problems. For example, many of our doctors are now quitting the state-sponsored trade union.

As for the work-to-rule strike, to be honest, I have the sense that for now we are looking at an indefinite action, because it still has not solved anything at all.

italian 6

Anna Zemlyanukhina

Anna Zemlyanukhina is one of the strike’s coordinators. She presented a broader picture of what is happening now at the leadership level. She made the decision to strike after facing the total incomprehension of her clinic’s management. She is confident in the trade union’s successful future.

Could you say a few words about the conditions in which doctors work today.

The main difficulty is that there are not enough doctors. They are laying off not so much pediatricians as narrow specialists. So the flow of patients to the remaining doctors is quite large, and often it is a problem getting an appointment to see a particular doctor.

In addition, the Moscow City Health Department has announced a campaign for improving access to healthcare, but given the shortage of doctors this is implemented by lengthening a doctor’s workday and reducing the time an individual patient can be seen. But since it is impossible to examine a patient humanely in that amount of time, we have to go beyond the time limits, and in fact the physician’s workday is increased.

How have the recent reforms in the health sector affected this situation?

Frankly, until January of this year, things were more or less normal. Of course, they were hard, but they have gotten worse. Most importantly, the reforms have led to the closure of inpatient facilities, and now it is much harder for a patient to be admitted to an inpatient facility. There are verbal orders from above not to admit patients to hospital, and when a doctor refers a person to an inpatient facility, the ambulance service refuses to hospitalize him or her. A patient might be refused admission three or four times. Patients are admitted only when they are already quite ill.

What role is played in all this by clinic management? What is their stance?

They are subject to their superiors, who send them their orders.

Meaning that they do not try and meet you halfway?

It depends a lot on the individual. Some try. Typically, the lower-level bosses—the department heads—are mostly competent people, and try and meet you halfway, but at the higher levels… No, there are competent people there, too, but they are hamstrung. They get these orders from the top brass and are forced to follow them.

What was your point of no return, when you realized that protest was the only solution?

My point of no return was the increase in mortality rates among patients. And the top brass’s reaction to our protests. At a meeting with them, we raised all these questions—that it was impossible to see a patient in that amount time, that it was impossible to do our work—and the response was the same: “The decision has been made.” People are trying to get across that this is wrong, and they are told it was decided at the top and nothing can be done about it.

That is clear. Why, in your opinion, has your movement not yet engendered a broad response among other doctors? Why have they not joined?

In fact, some have decided to join. Why is this not happening en masse? Because our system “works” well. In many institutions, as soon as doctors show the desire to join up, the top brass immediately gets involved. They coerce them. They promise to get them put in jail, I don’t know, or fired or something else. And god forbid there should be any leafleting. After that, as a rule, the desire to join up diminishes.

And the last question. How do you see the future of your trade union and your protest action?

I see the future of the union as something quite positive. Many doctors are now exiting the official trade union as they no longer trust it, while our organization is gaining in popularity.

Have there been any concessions on the part of the authorities and top management?

For now, the main and only concession is that they have increased the time for seeing each patient. It is fifteen minutes again. Previously, it had been twelve minutes, and they were thinking about reducing it even more.

italian 7

Maria Gubareva

The last person with whom we were able to speak was Maria Gubareva. Before the strike, she had had to see thirty-six patients in seven hours or so, which is quite a lot for a gynecologist. She tried to appeal to the Ministry of Health, but received no reply. In her opinion, the protesters have managed to achieve some success, but they have not yet achieved any major changes in the healthcare system.

Could you tell us about the conditions in which doctors are forced to work today in clinics.

Specifically, in our clinic, the length of time we see patients and the number of patients we see during this time have increased. In other words, the grid interval in UMIAS has been reduced. In particular, after all these changes, the daily intake for gynecologists (I am a gynecologist) is seven hours and twelve minutes, and thirty-six patients. This exceeds all conceivable norms. It is physically impossible, agonizing both for patients and doctors. Plus, it is impossible to refer patients for tests (at our clinic, these are usually ultrasounds, blood tests, and such) because some ultrasound doctors have also been sacked, the workload has increased, and when it went critical, they started quitting, because it is also impossible to work in this way. Well, as for tests, you have to sign up for a blood test ten days in advance. Many other tests are just not done at all anymore, quotas on blood clotting test were introduced, and so on.

In addition, some of our midwives were fired. (We work with midwives, not with nurses.) The doctors work alone: there are one or two midwives for several doctors. The midwife is planted in a separate room and “services” patients there. In other words, the women first go see the doctor. He or she makes recommendations. Then the women sit in the queue to the midwife for another hour or two, go berserk, and go ballistic on each other and the midwives. The midwives are supposed to assign them tests and write out prescriptions, make appointments for them to see specialists through UMIAS, and so on. Basically, it is torture for everybody, for doctors and patients.

All these changes occurred as part of the reforms to the healthcare system? The reforms have had such an impact on the situation?

Yes, the changes have been very serious.

And how does clinic management act given the shortage of specialists and the increased load on doctors? Have you appealed to the authorities about this?

Before the start of the work-to-rule strike, we tried, but no one listened to us. When it was first announced, three months ago, that the workload would increase, I personally asked the deputy chief physician, “How is this possible? It is a violation of labor laws and basically just cannot be done.” To which I was told, “Anyone who does not like it can quit. The country is in a crisis: everyone has to tighten their belts.” It is like. “Everyone off to work. Work, while the sun is still high!”

I see. And what exactly made your cup of patience run over and forced you to go on strike?

It was when I was seeing patients in this crazy way for a week. Even before all the layoffs. I had written about all of it to the Ministry of Health and the labor inspectorate, but had gotten no replies from them. Then a week passed, the week when we had this crazy intake, and it became clear that working this way was just impossible. Either I had to do something or I had to leave.

Why have others not dared to follow your example? Why has the strike not taken on a broader scope?

Because people do not believe you can change anything in this country. The general opinion is that fighting the system is useless. Because the changes are implemented from the top down, they are government policy, Ministry of Health policy, everyone thinks the system cannot be moved. It will just crush its tiny functionaries—that is, those of us who do not agree with it. Plus, those who at first had almost decided to go on strike with me (they, as I have said, were in a really difficult situation) immediately came under pressure with the aim of putting the whole thing to a stop. Management acted against us with all possible means, mainly verbal. They accused us of sabotage and treason. They told us that the state had given us a job, and now we had gone against the state. And so on. Many people simply abandoned the idea. They decided to spare themselves the trouble.

How do you see the future of the union and the work-to-rule strike?

I haven’t especially thought about the future of the union. I guess if its membership grows, it will gain strength and might be able to start solving some of our workplace management issues, to do what a trade union is supposed to do: protect the legal rights of its members.

As for the strike, I cannot give you a clear answer, because the statement by the authorities that the strike failed is ambiguous. When viewed from the perspective of the twenty people who have taken part in the strike, all of our demands have been satisfied, because they were legitimate. It turned out that management has had nothing to counter us with: everything had been done strictly according to the law, in keeping with all the norms. And we have observed all the requirements, so now I see a humane number of patients, I have a humane amount of time to see them. Basically, everything is as it should be.

But this does not solve the overarching problem of healthcare, which would have happened had a significant number of people joined the strike. In our department now, where I am the only one on strike, the patients who do not get in to see me are simply fobbed off onto the other doctors. So they are seeing their own patients and that other guy’s patients, and that other guy is me. But if we had all said we would see patients as they should be seen, then half the patients would have been unable to make an appointment to see a doctor. They would have attacked the head physician and the health department, and ultimately management would have had to hire staff, which, in fact, would have solved the problem.

Alexander Grigoriev is a student in the history faculty at Moscow State University.

Publication of this article was made possible with the support of Open Left’s readers. Please help us to develop and publish more detailed reports on social activism and the struggle of workers for their rights.

Photos courtesy of Open Left. Translated by The Russian Reader

Ilyushinites: “Leningrad’s builders are being made homeless”

“Ilyushinites” Move to Tents in Front of the Smolny to Protest Evictions
October 20, 2014
paperpaper.ru

Residents of Ilyushin Street, 15, which has been in the process of resettlement since 2007, will begin an indefinite hunger strike in front of city hall today. They plan to set up tents in Smolny Garden and stay there until Petersburg authorities solve the issue of their building.

Recently, four families have been evicted from the building. As Olga Baranova, a resident of Ilyushin Street, 15, recounts, bailiffs broke into the flats, made an inventory of the things in them, then changed the locks.

“We live in the corridor, which is not heated. We have nowhere to return. They threw out all our things: our sofa, our blankets and pillows, our clothes. Leningrad’s builders are being made homeless.”

ilyushinites picket

An Ilyushinite picketing Nevsky Prospect in late May of this year. Her placard reads: “Leningrad’s builders are being made homeless. Ilyushin Street, 15, building 2.”

The house at Ilyushin, 15, was built as a dormitory for employees of Glavleningradstroy, a Soviet construction enterprise. In 1991, it was privatized by the firm Fourth Trust, of which the residents were unaware, but in the 2000s the company demanded that the residents buy back their flats or vacate them. City hall offered social housing to the “Ilyushinites.” Several families agreed to the offer, but some residents have refused to leave the building.

____________

The Ilyushinites went on hunger strike in the winter of 2013, as shown by the local affiliate of REN TV in the following report, which also makes it clear that the Ilyushinites refuse to vacate their building not on a whim, but because twenty years ago city hall bureaucrats had promised them title to their flats, and they now claim that the Smolny has offered them only temporary, not permanent housing, meaning they fear they could end up homeless again within a few years.

According to reports from other Petersburg grassroots activists, three Ilyushinites were detained by police yesterday as they tried to set up tents across the street from the Smolny, Petersburg city hall. They have been charged with disobeying police officers, a misdemeanor.

Before gubernatorial and district council elections in September, the Smolny had promised to solve the problems of the Ilyushinites. Now that the freest, fairest elections on planet Earth are successfully past, city hall has apparently forgotten its promises.

Photo, above, courtesy of BaltInfo

 

Ilya Matveev: A Word to the Wise (On Putin’s “Leftism” and Solidarity with Russians)

I have been banned on Facebook by Mark Sleboda, and for the most innocuous of comments. For those of you who don’t know this guy, he is an American who voluntarily came to Russia to work with Alexander Dugin, the conservative “Eurasianist” imperialist/traditionalist circus clown who went from hanging out, in the nineties, with the likes of politically dicey counter-culturalists like musician Sergei Kuryokhin and writer Eduard Limonov (with whom he co-founded the National Bolshevik party) to being a “respected” media commentator, “academic,” and Putin loyalist, in the noughties.

I’m writing in English in order to warn my Anglophone friends. There is a whole network of expats in Russia working on the “ideological front” defending Putin, frequently portraying him as an anti-Atlanticist battling NATO and EU hegemony. Many of these people pose as “leftists.” Basically, they are bought-and-paid petty ideologists, no better than our own homegrown Russian journalists and Kremlin think tankers. However, many of them, like Sleboda, sincerely believe Dugin’s “theories” and willingly support the Kremlin propaganda machine. What they offer is propaganda pure and simple: that is why I was banned for modestly questioning Sleboda’s position on Euromaidan. Different views are not tolerated, because the purpose of propaganda is to overwhelm a person with a stream of repeated buzzwords, not to discover the truth.

However, I am writing not just to warn you about the work of guys like Sleboda. Some political considerations are in order.

Apparently, the Putin regime’s “external” propaganda makes Putin out to be a “leftist” somehow. There are three key points in this portrayal. First, geopolitically, Russia is presented as an alternative to NATO and the EU. Second, politically, Russia is said to be against the neoliberalism imposed by the Atlanticist bloc. Third, culturally, Russia is combating “decadent perversions” such as the LGBT movement (which, again, has been imposed by the west).

In some respects, this is different from what we get here in Russia. Our “internal” propaganda does not focus on Putin’s alleged anti-neoliberalism, since very few people here are receptive to such “leftist” claims. Not so in the west: many people there sincerely believe that Putin is an anti-neoliberal.

What I want to do here is to refute all three points of the Kremlin’s “external” propaganda.

First, geopolitically, Russia is weak and only masquerades as an enemy of the west. It constitutes no regional bloc against western imperialism, as Latin America does. To be a genuine counter-power, you need to have an alternative set of values and an alternative model of the future. Putin’s Russia is far from possessing any real ideological commitments. It engages only in pure opportunism.

Second, politically, Russia is neoliberal through and through. There are neoliberal reforms in the public sector underway, Prime Minister Medvedev’s “technocratic” government is planning more privatizations (!), and not a single person within the government’s financial/economic bloc is an anti-neoliberal, even a moderate one. They are all neoliberal experts trained in the Chicago school of economics.

Third, culturally, Russia might be against “decadent perversions,” but such “perversions” are not what defines the west culturally. LGBT rights are the result of a brave struggle over many generations, not an organic part of western culture. However, if we can speak of “western culture” at all (which is very doubtful), we might very cautiously say that consumerism, a private sphere inhabited by atomized individuals, and the degradation of public virtues (in short, Guy Debord’s “spectacle”) are what define western capitalism. All these things are prevalent here in Russia, even more than in the west itself. Russia is more immersed in private life, and more consumerist than many western countries, and Putin fully supports that. So culturally speaking, he offers no opposition to capital’s creeping influence, and that is the most important thing.

Don't get into bed with Putin, comrades!
Don’t get into bed with Putin, comrades!

Okay, now that this has been said, should a western observer be a Russophobe, like the notorious blogger La Russophobe, who frequently writes for conservative US media outlets? No. The point is not to attack Russia as such, not to express solidarity with the Russian “people” against the Russia “government.” That is an empty formula used by the likes of John McCain. The point is to educate yourself about alternative political and social forces here in Russia—social movements, independent unions, leftist groups, and the opposition movement as a whole (in all its complexity, with its neoliberal and anti-neoliberal currents). As a leftist, I feel responsible for refuting the crazy idea that Putin is somehow a leftist. However, I also feel responsible for fighting against one-sided Russophobia, which essentially supports the US and EU agendas. Solidarity is very much needed here in Russia, but it should be solidarity coupled with political awareness. It should be against Putin, against neoliberalism and imperialism, but for genuine solidarity with the international left and with social movements across the globe. That is what I was wanted to explain here.

Ilya Matveev is an editor of OpenLeft.Ru, a member of the PS Lab research group, a lecturer in political theory at the North-West Institute of Management (Petersburg), a PhD student at the European University (Petersburg), and a member of the central council of the University Solidarity trade union.

Editor’s Note. Readers who enjoyed Ilya’s comments might be also interested in this recent blog post by Anton Shekhovtsov, “The pro-Russian network behind the anti-Ukrainian defamation campaign.”

Kirill Medvedev: The Crisis of the Russian Intelligentsia

In distant Soviet times, I found Bertolt Brecht’s statement that “for art, not being a party member means belonging to the ruling party” the height of absurdity. Nowadays, this line has a different ring to it. It sounds okay. In any case, it makes you think.
Lev Rubinstein (in Grani.ru)

In order to talk about democracy (people power) we have to give the word “conviction” a new sense. It should mean: to convince people. Democracy is the power of arguments.
Bertolt Brecht, Me-Ti: The Book of Changes

The principal symptom of the cultural situation in today’s Russia is the crisis of the liberal-intelligentsia consciousness and its schism. For over fifty years the consciousness of this stratum consisted of two main components. The first component was the intelligentsia’s well-known anti-statism, its sense of empire (inherited from the revolutionary intelligentsia) as a repressive force. The second element, on the contrary, was inherited from the statist intelligentsia that had produced the famous Vekhi (“Landmarks”) almanac in 1909: the cult of private values and a hatred of everything “leftist,” everything that called the “bourgeois” into question; that is, a mindset that sanctified inequality and exploitation as the order of things. For the Vekhi crowd itself, this hatred was aggravated because they had dallied with Marxism in their youth. For the Soviet and post-Soviet intelligentsia, this hatred was stirred by their own genetic origins among those very same “socialists,” “destroyers,” and “lefties” who had planned and carried out the Revolution. While it was natural that it rejected Soviet (“imperial,” “collectivist”) reality, this type of consciousness became unbelievably hypertrophied. It was this stratum—a hodgepodge of dissidents, moderate frondeurs, crypto- or latent anti-Soviets—that captured the position of cultural hegemon in the nineties on the crest of a general anti-totalitarian wave and the collapse of the Soviet bureaucratic model. It was this stratum that rediscovered the culture that had been wholly or partly forbidden by the Soviet authorities. It was this stratum that set the tone in the press of those years. Using innocent slogans that seemed logical at the time, it was this stratum that threw its ideological weight behind the notorious reforms of the nineties. Continue reading “Kirill Medvedev: The Crisis of the Russian Intelligentsia”