Darja Serenko’s Quiet Picket

Picketing the Everyday
Marina Simakova
OpenLeft.ru
May 7, 2016

Quiet Picket, a recent initiative by Darja Serenko, teeters on the verge of artistic intervention and protest action. Every day, Serenko boards public transport (often, the subway) bearing a new placard inscribed with an extensive message. Its purpose is to invite people to engage in a discussion. Serenko thus explores the space of communication itself: the distance between placard and recipient, and how potential interlocutors navigate the distance. So far she has produced fifty-four placards, gone through six markers, and directly communicated with ninety-three people. Marina Simakova spoke with Serenko about the background of the action and its effects.

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Darja Serenko: “I want to carry it myself.”

Tell us how and under what circumstances the idea for the action occurred to you. What was the occasion?

The action grows out of several occasions. On the one hand, the arrest of Ildar Dadin; on the other, the story with the itinerant exhibition {NE MIR}, when we artists were detained by police while carrying our artworks down the street. I had been contemplating a solo picket for quite a long time. I had a dream of doing an ordinary picket, holding a placard at chest level that would resemble the headings in children’s encyclopedias: “And did you know that…” But ultimately a kind of reformatting of the very principle happened in my head. My understanding of it changed.

And what defined its format?

I was riding the subway after the closing of a {NE MIR} exhibition. I had grabbed a small poster by the Lights of Eirene movement. It featured the famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Bed-In for Peace, and next to it, a current photograph in which similar looking people were lying in approximately the same poses. I was carrying the poster unfolded so it would not be crumpled, and I noticed that everyone in the subway car was looking at it. It dawned on me then and there this was the perfect form of communication. It was completely unobtrusive.

Why did you decide to do it alone, without friends? Did you ask anyone else to join you?

I said from the get-go that the format was open. Two young women joined me, but each has changed the format to suit her. One of them, Sasha, joined about ten days ago. She has attached a placard to her backpack (it comes out more static), and she has been traveling with the same placard for a week. On the other hand, she usually prints it out, and it contains references. The second young woman, Valeria, has also been doing a quiet picket on public transport. She wrote me to ask my permission, and of course I agreed. I have asked the young women to share photos of their placards and stories about what happened as they are able. In no way do I want my action to smack of a manifestation where “I, the performance artist, march forth and educate people.” That is not how it is. Although I do conceive of it as an educational project.

So your action could go viral?

It is difficult to talk about a virus when there are only three young women. But this format really is networked, simple, and palatable. It also functions without me.

How has it been documented?

On VKontakte and Facebook, and a bit on Instagram.  I have a small public page on Vkontakte, and I post a written report on my personal page on Facebook every afternoon or evening, when I have a free minute. I try and describe the situations, the conversations, and the behavior, both my own and that of the people with whom I interact. I also post photographs of the placards.

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“#quietpicket is when you feel discouraged and your arms fall.” In Russian, the expression “[one’s] arms fall” means to “feel discouraged.”

And is someone watching and photographing you?

Yes, constantly. Stealthily, very politely. If people photograph at close range, they always ask my  permission. Actually, I have got used to thinking of my action as a tape. Today, something like two hundred people wrote me asking what the action was all about. They had not been following it, and I already find it hard to conceive it any other way and explain it all in a jiffy, because some things were improvised and then they caught on. The format of the action has been changing.

How has it changed?

Initially, I had planned to make a placard early in the morning or the night before, ride around with it for a day, and make a new one the next day. I could not imagine subsequent interventions into the placard. But then I sensed the need to alter it depending on the reactions, to write and draw something extra, to explain something on the back. First, the placards were one-sided, then they became two-sided, and then I started doing several narratives within a placard.

After hearing why I was doing this, one of my accidental interlocutors said, “Oh, I get it. You are making a social alphabet.”

Yes, you could say that as well, and so the alphabet format emerged in my action. I want to put together an entire alphabet. Yesterday, I traveled with Г, for gomoseksual’nost’ [homosexuality], and today it was Ш, for shovinizm [chauvinism].

There is also a storyline involving poems I write on the placards. They can be connected with the topic of the placard, as stated on the other side, or they might not be connected. For example, I have been riding around with texts by the poets of the Lianozovo School, the poems of Vsevolod Nekrasov and Igor Holin, and I have been telling people about poetry. And when people ask me whether I think they are poems, I say that of course they are.

Sometimes, the text on a placard is arranged like a dialogue. There is an enquirer of sorts and a respondent.  There was a photo stand-in placard with holes for the eyes and mouth on which I wrote about the social status of women. The allegory in this case was simple: almost any face could be placed on the placard. But, actually, each placard turns out different from the others.

The last few days I have been stitching the sheets of paper together with thread, because I have run out of tape. (I use A3 sheets, which I combine into one big sheet.) It is an excellent means of representing a placard, because while I am stitching it together, I can turn it over and still remain focused on some task.

Sometimes, I also sew a new placard to an old one. This is a palimpsest placard, and the one is visible through the other. The placards thus form strange seams and montages.

I now always have a pile of posters in my bag.  If I see a person is reacting to the placard I am holding, and realize that I want to say something to them, I take another placard from my bag and sew it to the first. When I was riding around with the placard “Our government is fabricating [in Russian, “stitching up”] yet another case against yet another political prisoner,” I sewed it as well I could, in several rows, with rough stitches. By the way, I have been stitching the alphabet placards into a single notebook so later you can flip through it.

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Darja Serenko, Photo Stand-in Placard on Social Status of Women (Quiet Picket), 2016

How do you think up the texts for the placards? Do you take advantage of items in the news?

Everything is unstable when it comes to this, too. For May Day I made a topical placard, and after Pavlensky’s action [when the artist summoned sex workers to his court hearing as witnesses—OpenLeft] I made a placard about prostitution. But there are issues I simply have to cover, so I conceive of Quiet Picket as an educational project, albeit semi-ironically and semi-seriously.  Although it happens that I see my action as a kind of monstration. I ride in the subway, look at people, and think I would like to cheer them up.

Besides the fact that the project is educational, how do you define it for yourself? As a series of political art performances or as a civic initiative?

I see it as a continuation of my own work as a poet. In the poetry I have been doing, I spent a long time trying to achieve some kind of interaction: I took readymades and inserted them into poems. I think this know-how has influenced Quiet Picket. I am not saying that Picket is a purely poetic endeavor, but thanks to poetry the placard itself has greater opportunities for communicating. And the aspect I cannot keep track of in poetry, the aspect of reading [meaning the reader and her interaction with the poetic text—OpenLeft] is a process I can observe in this case. I see the person’s eyes running over the text, and at the same time she can address me, while I observe how her interpretative mechanisms function, and I can influence them. Quiet Picket takes place in this gap, in the distance between the person and the placard.

Have you thought about urban studies? After all, your action is nothing less than an intervention in one of the most important urban infrastructural spaces, an intervention that would let you get a feel for certain problems, study the behavior of passengers, do work on communications, and so on.

I might prove insufficiently competent as a researcher in this field. I have been trying to document everything I do, and perhaps the outcome will be an article or essay I write. I have not drawn any conclusions for the time being. My research involves collecting information and gaining the know-how of conversing with people on pointed topics that many of them find painful.

There is a rather glaring contradiction in your action. On the one hand, it lays claim to a certain intimacy. It summons a man in the crowd to have a private conversation; it invites him to a politicized discussion. On the other hand, it is very public and open to multiple counter-statements. Could you comment on this?

I don’t see a contradiction here. The fact is that the star of my action is the person who has brought herself to engage in reciprocal communication. She is the master of the situation, not me. She defines her own borders. She can approach me and whisper something in my ear, or she can holler at me from the other end of the subway car, aware that everyone will hear her and thus let other people get involved. It has also happened that a person has asked me to exit the car and have a chat. In that case, I obediently go with him and talk.

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Darja Serenko in the midst of Quiet Picket on the Moscow subway

If we shift the focus from the action itself to its subject, meaning you, we can detect yet another problem. At first glance, you appear as a naïve angel in this action. Eyes downcast, silently but persistently, you broadcast your appeal to people. Prepared for any reaction, you throw yourself at the mercy of angry, tired subway passengers. There is a certain victimhood about all this, almost evoking associations with the holy apostles. At the same time, we can look at you in a different way, as an artist working in the aftermath of Situationism and rationally exploiting the temporal distance. So you are protected from the man in the crowd by theory and your own stance, which have found their own places on your placards, while your potential interlocutor, the so-called man in the street, simply has nothing to oppose to you. You thus possess a certain power from the outset.

First, the image of me as meek silent angel is not true. It has been conjured from a photograph of me that has become quite popular. Usually, I don’t look that way. Second, yes, I have a background in culture, a knowledge of manipulative devices, and a set of readymade arguments. There is no getting away from it, but in the process of communicating I still feel unarmed and naked. The things people say, their experience, and the situations they reference have often stumped me. It has happened that I have nothing ready to say to them.

You assumed this experience would change you, pose new questions, and, perhaps, even force you to undergo a kind of metanoia.  Or am I wrong?

I haven’t had the time to keep track of what has been happening to me. But as a woman and feminist, I do think about my own feminine subjectivity (and objectivity). The placard is an amazing agent. When I use the placard to broadcast a feminist agenda, which I do quite often, I am simultaneously the subject and author of the placard and its object.  When I have to dialogue with someone on the topic, I have to act as a subject. So I balance between these points like a pendulum, and this affects me. Of course, I know about the experiments of artists whose bodies, including social bodies, have become sacrificial bodies. But I am faced primarily by the task of a cultural worker. I really wanted and still want to tell people about certain facts. It pains me these facts are hushed up, many people don’t have access to them, etc.

And why should people believe what you tell them? The legitimacy of your claim to know the facts is supported by what? Are you appealing to the status of cultural worker?

Since my format is encyclopedic, I appeal to sources. You will have noticed the references on my placards. People and I often google something: they verify the information on the Internet. I realize that the informational field is infinite, and for various reasons people often deal with only a fragment of this field. I offer them an alternative.

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Darja Serenko, “This is how our government has been fabricating yet another case against yet another political prisoner” (Quiet Picket, 2016)

The action has been running for five weeks, and you certainly have managed to collect the most incredible textured. Could you tell us about the most memorable, unexpected or personally important incidents during the picket? I will phrase my question even more openly. Tell us about whatever you would like.

For example, an elderly woman read my placard about political prisoners and thanked me. We were sitting opposite each other in the subway, and she told me about her life. She was a medical worker who helped athletes recover after injuries. On the back of my poster was an old poster, the May Day poster, on which the phrase “Thank you for your hard work” had been written.  She then asked me to exit the subway with her and offered to reward me for my work by having a look at my back and spine.

How long are you planning to continue the action?

For a year. I have a palpable dream that one day I will hit on the right phrasing, the right interactive possibility, and a person will want to make a placard in response right in front of me—as a creative act, as a statement, as an expression of contempt for me or, on the contrary, out of a desire to express agreement or disagreement.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of OpenLeft.

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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.

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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.

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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

Ilya Matveev: Without Stalin, Crimea Is Not Ours!

Without Stalin, Crimea Is Not Ours!
Ilya Matveev
February 14, 2015
OpenLeft.ru

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The unveiling of a monument to Stalin (and Churchill and Roosevelt) in Yalta is an event both outrageous and telling. It is clear why it is outrageous, but it is telling for the following reasons.

On the one hand, the monument displays the state’s current approach to historical memory, an approach that is one-dimensional, instrumental, and mobilizing. The message is clear: “There were times, sonny, when we would shake our fist at everyone. Everyone feared us, and we decided the fate of the world on a par with Europe and America. Yes, and there was order at home, too. Don’t worry, sonny, those times will return. They’re already coming back!”

On the other hand, in a gesture of self-justification and self-defense typical of the current regime, Stalin was returned to the streets not alone but with two other rulers, as part of a well-known grouping, on the principle that “you’re sure not going to toss Stalin out of this spot!” It is embarrassing, of course, and a bit frightening to erect a monument not just to anyone but to Stalin. But these feelings can be suppressed if you strike a defensive posture: this is not just Stalin, but Stalin at the Yalta Conference, the world-famous Stalin.

Characteristically, State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin’s speech at the opening of the monument was defensive rather than offensive. According to Naryshkin, the monument was intended not to convey the right idea but to dispel the wrong one: “The opening of the monument is simultaneously yet another warning to those politicians and historical speculators who have been attempting to brazenly and cynically distort the history of the Second World War and the post-war world order.”

A clear imperial message (“There were times, sonny…”) appears in the form of self-justification: “We won’t let them cynically twist the truth.”

This is approximately how Russia behaved in 2014 and has continued to behave in 2015: offense in the guise of defense, aggression in the guise of self-declared victimhood. The damned west refuses to listen to us, what else can we do but provoke it a bit? How else can we draw attention to ourselves?!

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It is the same with Stalin. We will erect a monument to him, and if push comes to shove, we will say, “That really happened.” Similarly, two lines from the Stalin-era Soviet national anthem—“We were raised by Stalin to be true to the people, / To labor and heroic deeds he inspired us!”—were unexpectedly restored to the renovated lobby of the Kursk subway station in Moscow in 2009. This was justified by the alleged need to restore the station’s “historic look,” although the restorers were somehow ashamed to bring back a statue of Stalin that had also been part of the “historic look.”

Finally, it has to be mentioned how wretched and obtuse the monument is. Only Zurab Tsereteli could have come up with the idea of copying a photograph while also enlarging the subjects to the size of the Hulk. Apparently, as in Egyptian paintings, the bigger a subject’s size, the greater his or her significance. The opening ceremony was a match for the monument, with The Surgeon, leader of the Night Wolves biker gang, in attendance, and all the other signs of our time on display.

* * *

So much for the monument. I want to talk now about alternatives to the current politics of memory. The one-dimensional, one-way nature of what is being done now is stunning. Monuments are supposed to convey a single idea, and that idea must necessarily great-powerist, revisionist, and revanchist. The Obelisk to Revolutionary Thinkers in Alexander Garden in Moscow just had to be turned back into a monument to the Romanovs, again with a direct, literal message. “It’s as if the ages have closed ranks,” as Rossiskaya Gazeta quoted Patriarch Kirill saying at the rededication ceremony. History is no excuse for a conversation and no place for a discussion. In this sense our authorities are in total solidarity with the Ukrainian nationalists who have organized the so-called Leninopad (the mass demolition of Lenin statutes in Ukraine). Tear down something old and/or put up something up new: what matters is to return to an authentic, utopianly consistent past. We must make sure “the ages close ranks.”

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The alternative to the current historical activism should not be substantive (switching one set of monuments for another) but methodological. It is no good simply changing pluses to minuses. It is pointless to turn a blind eye to the imperial milestones in our history, to just dismiss them. In my view, the politics of memory in a mature, pluralistic Russia would involve saying, “That all happened, BUT…” We were a militarized aristocratic empire, BUT more radically than anyone else in the world we rethought its foundations in 1917. So this happened, and so did that. And how to deal with it can only be understood through a broad public dialogue, a dialogue that can be provoked by playing up the monuments of the past (rather than demolishing them), by working with context. Monuments should not go on the attack (much less should they should go on the attack defensively, like the monument to Stalin in Yalta). They should point to the past in its controversial entirety. Only in this way can we better understand the present in collective dialogue about the past. But for this to happen, of course, we need to effect sweeping political change in Russia and, what is perhaps even more difficult, leave Zurab Tsereteli without commissions.

Ilya Matveev is a teacher and researcher.

Images, above, courtesy of OpenLeft and Afoniya’s Blog

Ilya Matveev: Austerity Russian Style

Austerity Russian Style
Ilya Matveev
November 19, 2014
OpenLeft.ru

Despite attempts to confuse and misinform the public, protests in the social sector will continue to grow.

sm13“Only the rich will survive”

Reforms of the social sector in post-Soviet Russia have always had a very important feature: their course has been completely confusing and opaque, and everything connected to the reforms, even their strategic goals (!), has been shrouded in mystery. This is partly a consequence of the extreme fragmentation of the Russian state apparatus, unable to implement a completely coherent reform strategy, but in many ways it is a quite deliberate policy: a policy of disinformation.

The Russian authorities are confident that painful reforms are not necessary to explain, let alone announce, sometimes. One can always give journalists the shake, because who are they anyway? As for the public, it suffices to blame them for not understanding the grand design, for confusing reform and optimization, optimization and modernization, modernization and business as usual. This “spy” policy towards reform leaves wide room for maneuvering. It is always possible to note the level of public indignation and pull back a bit (while making the obligatory remark, “That was the way it was intended!”).

This has been borne out by research. For example, Linda J. Cook, author of Postcommunist Welfare States, has written that when carrying out reforms, both the parliament and the government have relied on a strategy of delays, deliberate obfuscation, and denial of responsibility.

At moments of crisis, chaos and uncertainty in the social sector only grow. Yet now, in my opinion, an absolutely unique situation has taken shape.

First of all, the social sector in Russia has been moved into an austerity regime. This must be noted. Funding will be cut, along with the quantity (and quality) of public services in education, health, and other areas. But how has this austerity been organized?

Paradoxically, it was launched not by a technocratic decision hatched in the bowels of the government, but by Putin’s populist decree on increasing the salaries of state employees. Disinformation has reached its peak: cuts are made to the social sector via a decree that at first glance has nothing to do with it. However, it does, as it turns out. The mechanism is simple. Given insufficient federal subsidies for executing the decree, the regions can carry it out only one way: by cutting some workers while increasing the workload (along with the salaries) of other workers. Of course, the decree does not function in isolation: for example, in health care it is combined with measures to move to “single-channel” financing, meaning that salaries have to be increased, but the only available money is from the health insurance fund. Together, the decree and single-channel financing form a lethal package, leading to indiscriminate layoffs and the closure of health care facilities.

Such is the strange state into which the social sector has been immersed. No less strange is the political spectacle being played out around this issue, a spectacle that reprises in caricatured form the conflict between Party activists and bourgeois specialists in the 1920s. When government and regional “specialists” warn about the impossibility of fulfilling the “order of the Party” (Putin’s May 2012 decrees), “activists” from the All-Russia People’s Front reply, No objections! If you mess up, it’s the firing squad for you! Putin weighs in wisely: the decrees must be carried out, but taking mistakes into account, and without excesses at the local level.

However, the banal fact is that from the outset the federal funds allocated for implementing the decree were not nearly enough, and subsidies will be cut even more in 2015. In such circumstances, implementing the decree on salary increases, in fact, automatically translates into layoffs, increased workloads, and the closure of public facilities.

At the same time, according to Kommersant, “[I]n general, suspension of the decrees may not have to be announced: technically, the government and the administration do not have to do this.”

It is a kingdom of crooked mirrors. “Salary increases” mean layoffs and increased workloads. These increases/layoffs can be stopped at any moment, but what that depends on is unclear. “Activists” are fighting “specialists.” Putin remains calm.

But will society remain calm? The juggling act with Putin’s decrees has not gone unnoticed by independent trade unions representing state employees, including Action, Teacher, and University Solidarity. University Solidarity has already announced protests against cuts to subsidies for increasing the salaries of university lecturers in 2015. The layoffs cannot be hidden, even if they are presented as “increases.”

The rally against the dismantling of the Moscow health care system, on November 2, was the largest social protest since 2005. The protests will continue to grow. In this situation, in my opinion, it is important to point to the clear link between cuts to the social sector and Putin’s policies. The “activists” are no less to blame than the “specialists,” but the main culprit is Putin, who, after all, signed these very decrees. The only way to stop the degradation of the social sector and prevent permanent crisis in the Russian economy, which actually has lasted since 2008, is broad political change.

Ilya Matveev is a researcher and teacher.

Ilya Budraitskis: The Perpetual “Trotskyist” Conspiracy

Who Is Behind the Trotskyist Conspiracy?
Ilya Budraitskis
November 21, 2014
OpenLeft.ru

Speaking at a meeting of his All-Russia People’s Front a couple days ago, Vladimir Putin said, “Trotsky had this [saying]: the movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing. We need an ultimate aim.” Eduard Bernstein’s proposition, misquoted and attributed for some reason to Leon Trotsky, is probably the Russian president’s most common rhetorical standby. He has repeated it for many years to audiences of journalists and functionaries while discussing social policy, construction delays at Olympics sites or the dissatisfaction of the so-called creative class. “Democracy is not anarchism and not Trotskyism,” Putin warned almost two years ago.

Putin’s anti-Trotskyist invectives do not depend on the context nor are they influenced by his audience, and much less are they veiled threats to the small political groups in Russia today who claim to be heirs of the Fourth International. Putin’s Trotskyism is of a different kind. Its causes are found not in the present but in the past, buried deep in the political unconscious of the last generation of the Soviet nomenklatura.

The strange myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy, which emerged decades ago, in another age and a different country, has experienced a rebirth throughout Putin’s rule. Sensing, apparently, the president’s personal weakness for “Trotskyism,” obliging media and corrupted experts have turned this Trotskyism into an integral part of the grand propaganda style. Until he died, the indefatigable “Trotskyist” Boris Berezovsky spun his nasty web from London. Until he turned into a conservative patriot, the incendiary “Trotskyist” Eduard Limonov seduced young people with extremism. Camouflaged “Trotskyists” from the Bush and, later, the Obama administrations have continued to sow war and color revolutions. Unmasking “Trotskyists” has become such an important ritual that for good luck, as it were, the famous Dmitry Kiselyov decided to launch a new media resource by invoking it. So what is the history of this conspiracy? And what do Trotskyists have to do with it?

Conspiracy theories are always conservative by nature. They do not offer an alternative assessment of events but, constantly tardy, chase behind them, inscribing them after the fact into their own pessimistic reading of history. Thus, in his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797), the Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel, a pioneer of modern conspiracy theory, situated the French Revolution, which had already taken place, in the catastrophic finale of a grand conspiracy of the Knights Templar against the Church and the Capetian dynasty. Masonic conspiracy theories became truly powerful in the late nineteenth century, when the peak of the Masons’ power had already passed. Finally, the idea of a Jewish conspiracy acquired its final shape in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fabricated by the tsarist secret police at the turn of the twentieth century, when the power of Jewish finance capital had already been undermined by the rising power of industrial capital. Conspiracy theories have always drawn energy from this distorted link with reality, because the fewer conspirators one could observe in the real world, the more boldly one could endow them with incredible magical powers in the imaginary world.

In keeping with the reactive, belated nature of conspiracy theories, the myth of the Trotskyist conspiracy emerged in the Soviet Union when the Left Opposition, Trotsky’s actual supporters, had long ago been destroyed. Unlike, however, the conspiracies of the past, generated by secret agents and mad men of letters, the foundations of the Trotskyist conspiracy were tidily laid by NKVD investigators. The distorting mirror logic of the Great Terror dictated that, although the “Trotskyists” skillfully concealed themselves, and any person could prove to be one, the conspiracy must necessarily be exposed. An unwritten law of Stalinist socialism was that the truth will out, and this, of course, deprived the conspiracy theory of its telltale aura of mystery.

After Stalin’s death, when the Purges were a thing of the past, and Soviet society had begun to become inhibited and conservative, the conspiracy myth took on more familiar features. The stagnation period, with its general apathy, distrust, and societal depression, was an ideal breeding ground for the conspiracy theory. No one had seen any live Trotskyists long ago, and it was seemingly silly to denounce them, but everyone was well informed about the dangers of Trotskyism.

10486371_10205372588653614_1077162896_nDuring meaningless classes on “Party history,” millions of Soviet university students learned about the enemies of socialism, the Trotskyists, who had been vanquished long ago in a showdown. Millions of copies of anti-Trotskyist books were published; by the 1970s, this literature had become a distinct genre with its own canon. Its distinguishing feature was a free-form Trotskyism completely emancipated from any connection with actual, historical Trotskyism.

In fact, the Trotskyism of Soviet propaganda was structurelessness incarnate, a misunderstanding. It was “lifeless schema, sophistry and metaphysics, unprincipled eclecticism, […] crude subjectivism, exaggerated individualism and voluntarism.” Unlike the classic monsters of conspiracy theory, the Masons and the Elders of Zion, the Trotskyists did not run the world. They were failed conspirators: they were always exposed, unless, through their own haste and impulsiveness, they managed to expose themselves. In keeping with Stalinist socialist realism, their inept evil deeds caused seizures of Homeric laughter among the people and the Party. And yet, recovering from each shameful defeat, they kept on trying. The Trotskyists had no clear plan for establishing global domination, but without a clear purpose, they were dangerous in their passionate desire to instill chaos in places where harmony, predictability, and order reigned.

In their work, these Trotskyists were guided by the crazed “theory of permanent revolution” (which had nothing in common, substantially, with Trotsky’s theory except the name). Its essence is that the revolution should not have any geographical or time constraints. It has no aims, no end, and no meaning. It raises questions where all questions have long been solved. It instills doubt where all doubts have been resolved long ago. A normal person would never be able to understand anything about this theory except one thing: it was invented to ruin his life.

Mikhail Basmanov, author of the cult book In the Train of Reaction: Trotskyism from the 1930s to the 1970s, quoted above, noted, “Unlike many other political movements that had the opportunity to confirm their ideological and political doctrines through the practice of state-building, Trotskyism has not put forward a positive program of action in any country in all the years of its existence.” It is so destructive, that “with its cosmopolitanism, carried to the point of absurdity, which excludes the possibility of developing national programs, Trotskyism undermines the stances even of its own ‘parties’ in certain countries. […] Trotskyism is entangled in the nets of its own theories.”

It is important that the idea of the Trotskyist conspiracy against practical reason, reality, and stability was never popular in late-Soviet society: it did not grow, like the “blood libel,” from the dark superstitions of the mob. It remained a nightmare for only one segment, the ruling bureaucracy, which transmitted the myth of the senseless and merciless “permanent revolution” to future generations in Party training courses and KGB schools.

The Soviet theory of the Trotskyist conspiracy reflected the subconscious fear of ungovernability on the part of the governing class.  Devoid of any personalities, the legend of Trotskyism was something like the “black swan” of “actually existing socialism.”

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This, by the way, is its fundamental difference from the version of the Trotskyist conspiracy popular among some American conservatives. In America, it is merely one of many varieties of the “minority conspiracy,” a small group of people who have, allegedly, seized power and are implementing their anti-Christian, globalist ideas from the top down. The fact that the anti-Trotskyist conspiracy theory of the so-called paleoconservatives has become popular in recent years among Kremlin experts and political scientists only goes to show that the old Soviet “Trotskyist conspiracy” has suffered a deficit in terms of its reproduction.

When he confuses Bernstein and Bronstein, Vladimir Putin, however, is not unfaithful to the Soviet anti-Trotskyist legend. Yes, “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything.” The chaos generated by the movement is inevitable, as inevitable as time itself. It moves inexorably toward “permanent revolution,” which cannot be completed and with which one cannot negotiate.

In a recent interview, former Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky, while skillfully avoiding the issue of “Trotskyism,” nevertheless had this to say about Putin:

“He has frightened himself. Where should he go next? What next? This is a terrible problem in politics, the problem of the second step. He stepped beyond what he was ready for and got lost: where to go now?  […] The gap between [the annexation of] Crimea and subsequent actions is quite noticeable. It is obvious that everything afterwards was an improvisation or reaction to other people’s actions. People who are afraid of the future forbid themselves from thinking about which path to choose. When you have not set achievable goals, you begin to oscillate between two poles: either you do nothing or you get sucked into a colossal conflict.”

The worst thing is that the specter of Trotskyism, as has happened with many other specters in history, is quite capable of materializing. The post-Soviet system has entered a period of crisis, in which the ruling elite has fewer and fewer chances to manage processes “manually.” For the Trotskyist nightmare of the elites to become a reality, there is no need for live Trotskyists. The need for them arises only when hitherto silent and long-suffering forces come to their senses and raise the question of their own aims. But that is a different story.

Ilya Budraitskis is a historian, researcher, and writer.

Hanna Perekhoda: Freedom and Social Identity in the Donbas

Freedom and Social Identity
Hanna Perekhoda
August 11, 2014
OpenLeft.ru

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Donetsk. Photo from an album of the 1970s

The past is the locomotive that pulls the future. Sometimes it is someone else’s past to boot. You go backwards and see only what has already disappeared. And to get off the train you need a ticket. You hold it in your hands. But whom are you going to show it to?
—Victor Pelevin, The Yellow Arrow

I was born in Donetsk to a family in whose home there were two diplomas on the bookshelf: a factory furnace builder’s and an artist’s. The holders of these diplomas desperately tried to build their happiness on the ruins of a communism that might have been. But what seemed like temporary measures turned into permanent professions, and now my father is a taxi driver with years of experience, and my mom has been selling flowers for fifteen years. Earnings were laid away; I studied foreign languages, graduated from a lyceum, got into university in Kyiv, and then went to Europe to study. It is time, in my self-imposed exile, to reflect on where I come from and how to live with it.

The Donbas, where I lived for eighteen years and where my friends and family still live, has now borne the brunt of post-Soviet society’s collective hysteria. And so I feel all the consequences of the conflict that has broken out in my country and that rages in the hearts of many of my countrymen. Attempting to analyze what has happened is primarily a way of understanding myself, this flimsy construction of memories, desires, and ideas that threatens to crumble with each new surge of emotions.

In the most difficult moments of internal fragmentation and rethinking, I remember what French writer Amin Maalouf wrote on this subject in his essay “Deadly Identities”: “The identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.” However, I have trouble with my identity, and finding its advantages and positive aspects is a matter of survival and mental health.

Today, the line between absurdity and reality has seamlessly disappeared for a long time to come, obviously, and one spends all one’s mental energy only on understanding the causes of what has happened. For example, why did the separatist movement turn from a marginal idea in the east of the country into the cause of a political and military conflict that has riveted the world’s attention for several months? Why does the line of fire run along the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions? What exactly does this line separate? Russia and Ukraine? Asia and Europe? The Soviet Union and the capitalist West? The best minds (and not only the best minds) in different countries have been strenuously and almost fruitlessly reflecting on these questions day after day, especially in Ukraine, for which the situation proved indecently unexpected. I won’t hidе the fact it was a surprise for me as well, and for all the people in Donetsk I know.

Donetsk is a city that had always lived comfortably without any ethnic identity. It is a city of immigrants, ex-prisoners, and a totally impoverished proletariat that owns nothing but the strength of its own hands. Its center was never a church or town hall, and for a long time no public square was provided in the city plan for assemblies or celebrations. The heart of Donetsk was the factory, something terrible, dangerous, and unpredictable, and at the same time necessary, generous, and paternal. The factory and the mine played the role of idols and taboos: they gave life and had the right to take it away.

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Donetsk. Coal ’75 Expo

Self-definition was based primarily on the principle of “private property,” which clearly divided the proletarianized city and the kulak villages long before these concepts were adopted by the Bolsheviks. The total opposites of the townspeople psychologically, culturally, and economically, the villagers spoke Ukrainian to boot. Few people nowadays know (and usually just deny the fact) that people who spoke Ukrainian had also inhabited the region. The reasons for this memory lapse largely lie in the policy of collectivization, “dizziness with success,” and the famine of 1932–1933. My great-grandmother, a resident of the village of Chicherino in the Donetsk region, was one of three survivors in a family of eleven children. The first time she talked about what she had been through was at the age of ninety, when she was finally convinced the hammer and sickle had been removed from the village council building for good and the yellow-and-blue flag had been hanging there for several years. It was already her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to whom she told her story. She talked about executions and cannibalism, finishing her story with the phrase, “If only Stalin had known.”

According to those whose children and parents had died of hunger, none of it would have happened if Stalin had known. It is quite scary to realize it is the regions that were most affected by the man-made famine that deny this crime most furiously. I am not willing to support Ukrainian politicians who claim it was a genocide of the Ukrainian people. The people who spoke Ukrainian back then did not always think of themselves as a nation, but they did feel the land belonged to them and they held onto it until the bitter end. My great-grandmother’s family suffered not because they spoke Ukrainian, but because they did not want to give up their patch of black earth and their cow. It was easier to nurture the new “Soviet” man on this scorched earth, and it was not hard to convince my grandfather to speak Russian and be ashamed of his uneducated mother, babbling in a dialect alien to the mighty country.

I was born to a Russian-speaking family, but I went to a Ukrainian-language school (then one of fifteen in a city of a million people) only because it was close to home. I never cease thanking the heavens that my teachers were people with “double” identities who gave us the ability to think critically and try on different “folk costumes.” Thanks to our history lessons, Bandera is not a dirty word to me, but nor is he a guiding light. I was never faced with the question of choosing heroes and ideals, because I felt my future should not and would not depend on my country’s past. And the issue of countries never came up. I always loved the Russia “we had lost,” while contemporary Russia mostly inspired pity and disgust, increasingly causing me to try on the Ukrainian embroidered blouse known as “it’s not much of a democracy, but it’s a democracy all the same,” because it obviously fit better.

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Donetsk. Photo from an album of the 1970s

While I was wearing embroidered blouses, speaking Russian in Lviv, studying French in Kyiv, and insisting on my proletarian background in the company of European students, life went on its own way in the Donbas. When revolution began in Ukraine, I once again actively reconstructed my identity, organizing fellow citizens to demonstrate outside a UN building in Geneva, giving fiery speeches about my love for Ukraine, feeling I was needed, and also feeling guilty towards those who were risking their lives for our country.

Then one day some Donetsk friends sent me a video. A column of several hundred people with foreign flags and shouting the name of a foreign country march down Ilyich Avenue, where I was born and where I went through more than one stage of socialization. A woman at a bus stop ostentatiously displays her Ukrainian passport, which the marchers snatch from the woman, violently insulting her in the process. I can use bare facts, surveys, and other data to analyze why this happened, but I cannot get my head around the fact that it happened on my street.

As a native of Donetsk, what has surprised me about this situation is the demand of the regions to grant them greater economic and cultural powers. Over many years, not counting the Kravchuk and Yushchenko administrations, the Donbas received unprecedented subsidies, since the Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk clans were in power. But the local bosses, who tirelessly chanted the mantra that Donbas money was going to feed the idlers in Lviv and Kyiv, pocketed the money. The region’s economy was totally controlled by the local authorities. What greater powers could there be to give? And to whom could they be given? To the same local bosses who all these twenty-three years, working like dogs, “raised the Donbas from its knees”?

They say each region should decide what language to speak and what heroes to honor. But in order to decentralize one fine day, it would be first necessary to centralize the country around a common cultural concept. Complaints about excessive Ukrainization of the region not only do not correspond to reality, but contradict it. Ukrainian was more exotic sounding than Arabic in Donetsk: I never heard anyone speaking Ukrainian on the streets there. No newspapers were published in the language, and the local TV stations did not broadcast in Ukrainian. To find the books I needed on Ukrainian literature, I had to order them from Kyiv. The last step to de-Ukrainization was removing the Ukrainian flags from government buildings, which were the few signs of Ukraine’s presence in its eastern lands. And the popular masses took this step to de-Ukrainization.

The Ukrainian project failed because it did not succeed in making the Donbas part of Ukraine over these twenty-three years. No unifying idea based on a vision of a common future, rather than on the historical legacy, on ethnic and linguistic identity, was found. So Ukraine lived for its heroic and tragic history of the struggle for freedom, while the Donbas was left to dream about returning to the Soviet Union.

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Taras Shevchenko Cinema, Donetsk. Photo from an album of the 1970s

The project of creating a “Soviet people” was a success in the Donbas, and now the hour has come to reap its fruits. The fact that the “Kyiv junta” is being warded off there with two iconic images simultaneously—those of Stalin and Christ—should not be taken seriously. They are merely symbols, shells, talismans, and amulets. People in the Donbas are motivated by the honest desire, which no one makes any bones about, to obey someone who can embody the image of the “father” (or batya, in the common parlance).

Whence this desire for a strong hand? Increasingly, journalists provide a simple explanation: it is all because mentally, physiologically, and almost genetically they are slaves, sovoks (homo Sovieticus), irrational, and uneducated besides. I find explanations like this unacceptable. They render this gap almost biologically insurmountable, and doom attempts to find common ground to failure before they start.

First of all, it is worth remembering this society had no experience of building horizontal social ties. This chance was first given in 1991, but the criminal clans quickly took advantage of it. They grabbed the “strong hand” baton, leaving behind, in terms of social welfare, the working people, who were totally out of their depth and utterly discouraged.

A government that controls nothing, but instead shifts responsibility to its citizens, is a weak government. For example, many people in Donetsk consider democracy a weak form of government. Why are the local housing authorities dysfunctional? Why are there no light bulbs in the stairwells of residential buildings? Because all that has multiplied like rabbits is democracy and freedom, they think. Freedom turned out to be something no one needed, because it was confused with the liberty to do what you want and survive as you can.

Thanks to the experience of living in a European country, I became aware of the inconsistencies in this understanding of freedom. I once had to explain to a Western classmate the perennial dilemma of our society: the question of whether order or freedom was more important. He saw such reflections as something out of the Middle Ages, because for many Europeans it is evident that the freedom of each citizen is the sole guarantee of order. Freedom of choice and democracy are, in fact, the mechanisms that enable society to control those it elects to leadership positions.

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Donetsk. Photo from an album of the 1970s

It seems the Donbas lived until 1991, and after that it only survived and was more like a terminally ill patient. It was not only high salaries that disappeared along with prosperity but also the meaning of life, which had been based on a belief in slogans about the invaluable contribution of miners and workers to building the bright communist future. And then it was gone: the privileges, the confidence in the future, and the pride in one’s work. Poverty is easy to manipulate, and the people who stated at every opportunity that “the Donbas feeds Ukraine” and that it “could not be brought to its knees” have secured a comfortable future for themselves at the expense of the region’s population, who live below the poverty line.

All these twenty-odd years, people of the Donbas who had been born in the Soviet Union recalled it with nostalgia, reviving only the good things in their memories. My mother often recalled how there was such delicious fatty milk every day in kindergarten, and how she had been paid a phenomenally high salary for frescoes depicting athletes and cosmonauts on the walls the Mariupol House of Young Pioneers. Even queues for dish sets and rugs, and then for sausage and bread, were recalled as something bright, as a symbol of the people’s unity amidst its misfortune. After all, almost everyone stood in queues for sausage, and those who did not stand in them avoided flaunting their wealth.

People are not looking for politicians who tell them uncomfortable truths. And the truth is that the coal industry has long been a loss-making dead end. The whole industrial structure of the Donbas has to be changed and the process of retraining the region begun: there are no other chances. It is not hard to guess that the population has preferred to be robbed, but consoled. In Orwell’s anti-utopia 1984, there is the following passage: “[Winston] knew in advance what O’Brien would say. That the Party […] sought power because men in the mass were frail, cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves. That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better.” Maybe those born in the Donbas can fully sense the meaning of these lines.

The Soviet-era rhetoric came back pretty quickly, while the standard of living increased very slowly: the population contented itself with the myth of the good life more than the real thing. My neighbors on the landing spoke with pride of what a pretty stadium Rinat Akhmetov (the oligarch and “boss” of the Donbas) had built, and how nice it was that the European football championship was being held in our city. They were genuinely happy, although they had no way of buying a ticket to any of the matches and had no idea who had footed the bill for building stadiums they could only look at from afar.

All reputable political forces in the Donbas persistently promised one thing: union with Russia. No one dared promise a return to the Soviet Union, but the descriptions of Russia were exact copies of a landscape from the lost Soviet paradise. In this fairytale Russia, everyone was equal, loved the motherland and the supreme leader, despised the rotten West, and belonged to the Moscow Patriarchy of the Orthodox Church (the real patriarchy). But most importantly, everything was stable in Russia: there was a normal life there without shocks and unnecessary hassles. Well yes, there were parasites there, too, who scoffed at the government and the church, demanding some kind of freedom, but they were quickly isolated from normal healthy society, thank God.

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Honest naïve citizens believed in this caricature of the Soviet Union. They took the flagrant mockery at face value and raised it on a pedestal as a national idea. This unimaginably grotesque amalgam of tsarism, Stalinism, National Bolshevism, Eurasianism, the cult of victory in World War Two, and Orthodoxy was crowned with the name of Putin, who subsequently betrayed the sincere faith of Donetsk’s people.

I am faced with a lot of questions. First, how will these deceived people go on living if the twenty year-old promises of the Russian world do not come true? Second, how will those who never believed in these fairytales live alongside them? How can I return to my hometown? After all, my age-mates, who once waited outside the entrance to my building to scare or insult me for the fun of it are now toting machine guns and having fun the adult way. Who knows when I will get answers to my questions, when I will be able to live at home and not travel in search of gracious hosts willing to shelter me. Who knows when my parents will again find work in desolated Donetsk, where no one takes a taxi nowadays, and flowers are bought only for funerals.

Identity comes at a high price to us. Thousands of people have been killed, and one of the reasons is so that more and more Russian-speaking people in the country can say with confidence, “We are Ukrainians,” not because we speak Ukrainian, but because we want to be free. People are not free if they do not want to know the truth and are comfortable living in ignorance. People who began to think become free. That is why I want Ukraine to become free in the search for truth, which often hurts the eyes, but cleanses the soul.

Hanna Perekhoda, a native of Donetsk, is a student at the University of Lausanne. Translated by the Russian Reader. Images courtesy of OpenLeft.ru.

 

Ilya Budraitskis: “Trial”

“Trial”
Ilya Budraitskis
July 24, 2014
OpenLeft.Ru

Udaltsov: four and a half years in prison. Razvozzhayev: four and a half years in prison.

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“You were paid to come here, right?” the girl in uniform at the entrance to Moscow City Court asked out of habit. Then came the long hours of standing with sympathizers, acquaintances, and strangers listening as the sentence in the trial of Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev was read out. The Bolotnaya Square case is only two years old, but it seems a whole lifetime has passed.

Slurring the words, Judge Alexander Zamashnyuk and his henchmen took turns reading out the full version of the idiotic detective story, a puzzle whose pieces have finally fallen into place: long-cherished dreams of violent revolution, the heady atmosphere of the Movement for Fair Elections, the connection with Georgian intelligence and clandestine seminars on how Maidan was organized (then it was still the previous Maidan), the columns of “anarchists and nationalists” on May 6, 2012, in Moscow, the “riots,” with all their participants and “hallmarks.”

The absurd picture of a conspiracy, which just recently provoked laughter, now finds support and understanding in the eyes of the frightened and brutalized “new Putin majority,” who seemingly think it is nice everything ended on May 6, 2012, and that the prison sentences and frame-ups are the price that must be paid for perpetual Russian stability.

Like the other Bolotnaya Square prisoners, Sergei Udaltsov is no longer a symbol of a movement that served its purpose but something much more than that. He is a reminder that resisting, dissenting, and undermining the false unity of the people and the state continue to be historical possibilities.

Free Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev!