Muddle

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“Our President” desktop calendar. Photo by the Russian Reader

Andrey Kalikh
Facebook
November 21, 2017

The mishmash in people’s heads also comes in a number of flavors. Sometimes, you come across thermonuclear mixtures.

In October, we took a former police investigator who had worked on Petersburg’s major case squad to a round table of European prosecutors in Sofia. The man knows everything about Putin, all the nitty-gritty, all the cases from the early 1990s, the ties with organized crime, the origins of the Ozero Dacha Co-op, and how nearly its entire membership later migrated to the board of Rossiya Bank.

The cop ran the investigation of the Twentieth Trust Corporation, unofficially dubbed the Putin case, until September 2000, meaning when the dude was already president. Subsequently, of course, the case was shut down, and the investigator was put out to pasture.

I can confidently say the former investigator still has the most complete and systematized knowledge of Putin’s background.

In Sofia, however, this same man suddenly went completely off topic and publicly babbled something to the effect Ukraine should have been punished long ago, we will show them all, Russian liberals take orders from the US State Department, and other splendid nonsense.

After the event, I asked him what he had been going on about. He knew perfectly well what a criminal Putin was, but he had apologized for his other crimes.

His response was that in terms of domestics politics Putin was a criminal, but he supported him to the hilt when it came to foreign policy. It was a good thing, he said, Putin was president, and not the investigator himself. Otherwise, something disastrous would have happened to the world long ago, whereas Putin had preserved the peace.

Now that, if I am not mistaken, is a total muddle.

You tell me about a cab driver you once met who watched pro-Putin TV presenters Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselyov, but whose favorite politician was Vladimir Ryzhkov, a well-known member of the liberal opposition and former MP.

That is mere child’s play.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Conservative

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It is almost as funny to read that Putin and his fellow gangsters in the Ozero Dacha Co-op and its subsidiaries are “conservative” as it is to read that Putin is utterly powerless (“impotent”!) to reign in his underlings or do much of anything else.

Even in the frightening, undignified mess in which Russia now finds itself, people want to make more of the mess than saying that, when push comes to shove, it is a vast criminal conspiracy that can only be laid low by an equally vast popular resistance, if only because that might commit them to do something about it.

It sounds much more dignified to say the county’s elites, including two “former KGB officers,” President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, who were trained to lie through their teeth, gull the gullible every chance they got, and pretend to be “communists” and “internationalists” and “democrats” and “conservatives” and “Russian Orthodox” and “nationalists” as the situation demanded, have taken a “conservative turn,” than to say the country has been taken over by a band of greedy, unprincipled liars who will not balk at any trick or power play to increase their dominion and grab more money, land, oil companies, yachts, real estate, and other goodies.

It is the same thing with my favorite bugbear, Russia’s completely nonexistent “senate.” Russia’s upper house of parliament is called the Federation Council, and its members are sinecured rubber stampers, not “senators,” but that was what they took to calling themselves (or a spin doctor like Vladislav Surkov told them they should call themselves) a few years ago, and so nowadays almost everyone, including the entire domestic and foreign press corps, part of the leftist commentariat, and even some perfectly sensible, educated people call them that, too.

But they are not senators, if only because there is no senate in Russia. More to the point, Russia’s unsenators are well-connected, highly paid sock puppets who could no more act independently than I could fly to the moon under my own power.

Likewise, a perpetual, self-replicating mafia dictatorship has about as much to do with real conservatism as my dog has to do with the Shining Path. And that is the thing. Given its sovereign wastefulness, major league legal anarchy, hypercorruption, and sheer absurdity, the Putin regime is an exercise, mostly improvised, in a new kind of radical governance by “former KGB officers” and their gangster friends, not in conservatism.

The “conservatism” is a put-on, just as Putin’s public support of democracy was a put-on when he worked as Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s deputy in the early 1990s. Then he was the Smolny’s bag man. Nowadays, he has moved up in the world considerably, but he has basically not changed his profession. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Keep It Like a Secret

Delovoi Peterburg, a business daily, has just published its ranking of Petersburg’s alleged ruble billionaires.

It is no surprise that Putin’s cronies Gennady Timchenko (I thought he was a Finnish national?) and Arkady Rotenberg topped the list of 304 capitalists, with alleged net worths of 801.5 billion rubles and 294 billion rubles, respectively. (That is approximately 11.8 billion euros and 4.3 billion euros, respectively.)

Screenshot, from Delovoi Peterburg, showing Putin cronies Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg in the number one and two slots of the business daily’s 2017 ranking of Petersburg’s ruble billionaires

There are lots of other pals of Putin and Medvedev in the top fifty, but I was disappointed to see the personal fortunes of my own favorite Russian super villain, former head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, had faded a bit in the past year. He has dropped to the number twenty-six spot in the ranking, claiming a net worth of a mere 37.07 billion rubles, which means that in Old Europe, where Yakunin is now dispensing Russian softpowerish wisdom to decision-makers and academics via his newly opened Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, in Berlin, he would be a regular old euro millionaire, with a measly net worth of 548 million euros.

But we should recall the exposés of Yakunin, his family, and their weath, carried out by the only person in Russian unfit to run for president, Alexei Navalny, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation. In short, Herr Doktor Yakunin, who once had himself declared among the twenty-two “foremost thinkers in the world,” is very nimble when it comes to parceling out his assets to family members for safekeeping, so to speak, and then hiring “cleaners” to make his deservedly bad reputation go away. So who knows how much he is really worth.

Screenshot, from Delovoi Peterburg’s website, showing Yakunin’s number 26 spot in its list of Petersburg’s ruble billionaires.

Another thing that struck me when I surveyed the list was the signal lack of women among the city’s ruble billionaires. Women appear on the list only towards the very bottom, which means they are not really billionaires, but dollar or euro millionaires, at most, and maybe not even that. And there are no more than ten such women in a list of 304 names.

So, the Delovoi Peterburg ranking is not only more evidence of Russia’s extreme wealth inequality—which is a matter of elite practice, if not of explicit government policy—but of the fact that this extreme wealth inequality has an even more extreme gender bias.

Even if Putin crony and Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin had named his newish Berlin think tank the “Vladimir Putin Institute for Peace and Freedom,” this would have had no effect, I am afraid, on all the decision-makers and academics who are prepared to rush into Yakunin’s embrace at the drop of a hat, forgiven, as it were, by the squirrelier name he has has chosen, Dialogue of Civilizations.

Yesterday and today, DOC Berlin has been holding a bang-up conference, dealing, like all conferences these days, with the centenary of the October Revolution.

The conference is entitled “Inequalities, economic models and Russia’s October 1917 revolution in historical perspective” and features some speakers whose names you might recognize, people you would never have suspected of wanting to shill for the Putinist soft power machine.

Speakers:

Georgy [sic] Derluguian, Professor of Social Research and Public Policy, New York University Abu Dhabi

Michael Ellman, Professor Emeritus, Amsterdam University

Domenico Nuti, Professor of Comparative Economic Systems, University of Rome “La Sapienza”

Vladimir Popov, Professor, DOC RI Research Director and a Principal Researcher in Central Economics and Mathematics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Beverly J. Silver, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Director of the Arrighi Center for Global Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA

Andres Solimano, International Center for Globalization and Development

Vladislav Zubok, ProfessorDepartment of International History, London School of Economics, UK

Kevan Harris, Assistant Professor,  Department of Sociology, University of California-Los Angeles, USA

But they are there, holding forth on “revolution” on the Putinist dime, while Yakunin, who clearly loves these powwows (there are tons of videos from past DOC gatherings on YouTube and elsewhere in which this is appearent), and is eager to show he is running the show, laughs his silent “former KGB officer” laugh.

While you are at it, check out this rogues’ gallery of useful idiots. Even if you have only a few toes in the world of academia, as I do, you will immediately recognize several of the people serving Yakunin on his think thank’s “supervisory board” and “programme council.”

Screenshot from the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute website
Screenshot from the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute website

But what about the quality of the research supposedly underway at this so-called research institute? Here is a little sample, the abstract of a paper, downloadable for free, entitled “Church and politics: Russian prospects,” written by someone named Boris Filippov.

The paper is an attempt to make a brief overview of the Russian Orthodox Church’s state in the Post-Soviet Russia. Author notes, that the Church’s role in building civil society in Russia is potentially very considerable, since the Orthodox community’s ability to self-organize is rare for the post-Soviet Russia. He provides abundant empiric material illustrating Christian Orthodox community’s high capacities to contribute to building a prosperous society, for, as he shows, believers have gone much further on the way of consolidation than Russian society as a whole.

Is everyone who is speaking at today’s conference in Berlin and everyone who serves on Yakunin’s supervisory board and programme council kosher with obscurantist Russian Orthodox nationalism masquerading as scholarship? Do all of them know that “Russian Orthodoxy” (as interpreted by Patriarch Kirill and his intemperate followers) is now being used in Russia as an ideological battering ram to quash dissent and difference and reinforce Putin’s seemingly endless administration, as “Marxism-Leninism” was similarly used in the Soviet Union?

Do they know that their generous benefactor Vladimir Yakunin, in one of his other guises, wholeheartedly supports just this variety of aggressive Russian Orthodox nationalism?

The merging of political, diplomatic and religious interests has been on vivid display in Nice, where the Orthodox cathedral, St. Nicholas, came under the control of the Moscow Partriarchate in 2013.

To mark the completion of Moscow-funded renovation work in January, Russia’s ambassador in Paris, Aleksandr Orlov, joined the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, for a ceremony at the cathedral and hailed the refurbishment as “a message for the whole world: Russia is sacred and eternal!”

Then, in a festival of French-Russian amity at odds with France’s official policy since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the ambassador, Orthodox priests, officials from Moscow and French dignitaries gathered in June for a gala dinner in a luxury Nice hotel to celebrate the cathedral’s return to the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Speaking at the dinner, Vladimir Yakunin, a longtime ally of Mr. Putin who is subject to United States, but not European, sanctions imposed after Russia seized Crimea, declared the cathedral a “corner of the Russian world,” a concept that Moscow used to justify its military intervention on behalf of Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine. Church property from the czarist era, Mr. Yakunin added, belongs to Russia “simply because this is our history.”

—Andrew Higgins, “In Expanding Influence, Faith Combines with Firepower,” New York Times, September 13, 2016

This entry has the title it does, not because I wanted an excuse to insert a recording by a beloved band of my salad days, which I did anway, but because when I draft editorials like this on Facebook, as I often do, I usually endure stony silence from my so-called friends and readers after I post them. It is not that they are usually so garrulous anyway, but I do know they read what I write, because they are capable of responding enthusiastically to other subjects.

Writ large, this stony silence is what has helped Vladimir Yakunin operate his Dialogue of Civilizations hootenanies (usually held annually in Rhodes until the recent upgrade and move to Berlin) under the radar for nearly fifteen years with almost no scrutiny from the western and Russian press and, apparently, no due diligence on the part of the hundreds and maybe thousands of non-Russian academics, politicians, experts, and other A-league movers and shakers who have attended and spoken at these events.

So can we assume, for example, that Georgi Derluguian, Anatol Lieven, Walter Mignolo, and Richard Sakwa (I am only picking out the names of scholars with whose work I am familiar) condone the Kremlin’s occupation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin’s downing of Flight MH17, the Kremlin’s repeat invasion and wholesale destruction of Chechnya, during the early day of Putin’s reign, and the Kremlin’s extreme crackdown on Russian dissenters of all shapes and sizes, from ordinary people who reposted the “wrong” things on social networks to well-known opposition politicians, journalists, and activsts shot down in cold blood for their vocal dissent, including Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, and Stanislav Markelov, a crackdown that has been intensifying with every passing year Putin has remained in power?

A resounding “yes!” would be refreshing to hear, but we will never get any response from the members of Vladimir Yakunin’s semi-clandestine fan club. It is their dirty little open secret, and only someone who is uncouth, someone unfamiliar with the ways of the world’s power brokers and their handmaidens and spear carriers, would even think about asking them to reveal it. TRR

 

Return of the Wreckers

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When they work on construction sites, migrant workers from Central Asia often live in shantytowns like this one in Petersburg. Photo by TRR

FSB director Alexander Bortnikov has claimed that migrant workers from the former Soviet Union constitute the bulk of terrorist groups operating in Russia. He called on businessmen who employ migrant labor and officials who insure compliance with immigration laws to act more responsibly.

This comes from an organization whose direct legal predecessor, the NKVD, arrested and shot fifty-four people on the street where I live during 1937–1938. All these people were found guilty on spurious, trumped-up charges, and all of them were “rehabilitated” in the later, more “vegetarian” times after Stalin’s death, as Anna Akhmatova called them. Meaning the Soviet state admitted then, at least to the families of the victims, that their loved ones had been arrested and shot for no reason at all.

And yet, when the Great Terror was in full gear, the country’s leaders and its henchmen in the NKVD (now known as the FSB) were convinced or feigned that the Soviet Union was chockablock with wreckers, saboteurs, provocateurs, and foreign spies.

Now, in the absence of a public investigation and any trials of the accused (or any accused, for that matter), the agency’s current director wants us to believe that migrant workers from Central Asia are rife with “terrorist groups.”

The street I live on is quite small. It consists of two short blocks and exactly twenty houses. I can imagine the sudden arrests and executions of fifty-four of their neighbors made quite an impression on the street’s more fortunate inhabitants in 1937–1938.

As far as I know, the FSB has never really renounced its direct line of descent from the Cheka, the OGPU, the NKVD, the MGB, and the KGB. On the contrary, if statements made by its more prominent veterans such as Vladimir Putin are to be believed, its past and current officers are extraordinarily proud of this legacy, although they may admit on occasion that the Great Terror was a bit excessive.

So, in the interests of the state (which are nowadays equated with the interests of the members of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative and the so-called Laundromat, not with the interests of the “international proletarian revolution”), the FSB is still capable, I would guess, of lying through its teeth and scapegoating entire groups of completely innocent people, i.e., in this case, migrant workers from Central Asia. According to one expert on Central Asia, whom I trust, there are currently around three million such migrant workers in Russia.

How do you think they are going to feel after hearing Bortnikov’s announcement? Would you like to live and work in a country where you are regarded as a de facto terrorist? TRR

The Standard Narrative

Is this the “real” Russia?

“I watched as the people of Chelyabinsk began to search for an identity—a Russian identity that would give them pride. Vladimir Putin’s unexpected ascent to power in 2000 was, for many, a godsend.”

How does the beloved Anne Garrels, formerly foreign correspondent of the dismal, faux-liberal but also mysteriously beloved NPR, know all this?

She claims she knows because she made repeated visits to Chelyabinsk, in Putin’s nonexistent “heartland,” over twenty years.

I gather she’s now even published a book about this fairy kingdom to great acclaim.

The problem is the story she pretends to have dug up has been the standard narrative for western journalists and academics pretending to cover or study the “real Russia” for a long while now.

The problem with the standard narrative is that it is not true, although it was partly spun from a combination of half-truths, outright but persuasive sounding lies, and thoroughly unexamined “facts.” It was cooked up, back in the day, by masterful Kremlin spin doctors like Gleb Pavlovsky and Vladislav Surkov and a whole team of other spin doctors.

Over the last eighteen years, it has been drilled into the heads of “ordinary Russians” and the legions of pollsters, academics, and journalists who have feigned to be studying what “ordinary Russians are thinking.” All of the above-named parties, including some “ordinary Russians,” have then gone on to vigorously scrubbing each other brains with the narrative in a completely closed feedback loop.

Or is this the “real” Russia?

However, the Putinist standard narrative was never true even when easy oil money made it seem partly true, and it’s even less true now when that money has dried up, and the Russian economy has been driven into the dirt by crisis, mismanagement, cosmic-scale corruption, and sanctions.

Yet the less true the standard narrative becomes, the more determined the western media and the west’s dubious posse of “Russia hands” (who don’t live in Chelyabinsk but always know what is best for the people of Chelyabinsk: twenty more years of Putin’s “heartlandism,” apparently) have been to pound the narrative into our ignorant little readerly, viewerly, and listenerly heads.

It’s no wonder the odious phrase “the Russians”—as in “the Russians think this” and “the Russians do that”—has come into vogue again. As if 144 million people all think and do the same thing, as if the eighteen years of Putin’s faux “heartlandism” hasn’t, in fact, been one long “cold civil war,” as a friend of mine aptly put it many years ago.

That is a really complicated story to report. Most western reporters are not up to the job for various reasons, so they have just rung the changes on the standard narrative, “heartlandism,” and Putin’s amazing “popularity” (measured by pollsters whose methods should not be trusted, and whose results should not be taken at face value in circumstances where polling cannot by definition produce objective feedback, if it ever could), and have called it a day.

Since editors and newscast producers are usually none the wiser and have lots of other stories to shepherd, they have let the journalists and their sources in the world of Russia hands spread the Putinist standard narrative up and down and round the west, so that schoolkids and soccer mums in Melbourne, Grimsby, and Cuyahoga County, if pressed, could regurgitate it almost as convincingly as Garrels does, in the “Comment Is Free” piece for the “liberal” Guardian readership, as quoted above.

If there is anything worth preserving about political and social liberalism, it is the desire to reject canned truths and dogmas and find out what has really been going down somewhere.

“Real Russians” are upset “the west’ has swallowed the standard narrative hook, line and sinker.

Instead, nearly the entire western press corps and a good portion of its academic experts on Russia have bought the whole bill of goods, freeing the Russian elite from any responsibility for its cynical, destructive, dysfunctional, and dangerous governance of the world’s largest country.

Amidst the fake moral panic over “hysterical Russophobia” this has always been the real story: how western political, media, and academic elites have mostly been letting the heartlandist-in-chief get away with it, in effect, aiding and abetting him and his old friends in the Ozero Dacha Co-op, serving as cashiers to him and the Laundromat, helping him amass his supplies of real and symbolic capital.

This shell game will all come to a screeching halt one day, however, and all the back stocks of bestsellers like Garrels’s will have to be pulped because they won’t be worth the paper they were printed on. TRR

All photos by the Russian Reader

Between the Ages of 17 and 25

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Since Putin couldn’t smash Aleppo with his pal Bashar Assad, he is now going to provoke all-out war with Ukraine. Or he is going to play at provoking all-out war. Either way, he is going to have some fun.

In 1939, the Finns likewise “provoked” Stalin into invading Finland. Meaning that Stalin pretended to be provoked, and then went in guns blazing, getting three hundred thousand Soviet soldiers killed or wounded in the process.

There are oodles of serious problems with the Russian economy, which Putin shows no interest in solving, because really solving them would involve the self-liquidation of the  current elites. Although pumping up defense spending and, hence, the military-industrial complex, which is what he has been doing in the past few years, has been a temporary patch on some of those problems, of course.

It is funny and sad that Russians themselves don’t get tired of this merry-go-round, but they seem to be sinking ever deeper into various species of emigration, internal or actual, or what they themselves call a “second childhood.”

It is even funnier that Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the US Green Party, could believe she was doing the work of peace or “anti-imperialism” or whatever she thought she was doing when she dined with Putin in Moscow or that she could imagine the “crisis” in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine was caused by anything other than domestic Russian politics or, rather, the snowballing contradictions spinning off the tiny, eccentric orbit inhabited by the country’s president-for-life in all but name and his retinue of oligarchs and FSB veterans.

Anyone who thinks the Kremlin’s policies are a rational or predictable response to the “international situation” or the bad deal Russia allegedly got when the Soviet Union broke up is a complete fool or a bought-and-paid useful idiot. You can be traumatized by the “bad things” your parents did to you (unless they really were bad things) for only so long.

When, however, you have reached the ripe enough age of twenty-five, as the new Russia has this year, it is time to stop telling stories about your bad upbringing or how you grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.

In other words, this is all about the dead end Putin and his pals from the FSB and the Ozero Dacha Co-op drove the country into when they decided they would run Russia like Tony Soprano and his crew ran whatever they were pretending to be running in the fictional TV New Jersey.

Putin has flagrantly and criminally misruled Russia for seventeen years as of August 9. That is one year less than Brezhnev reigned as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. But Putin, to all appearances, is fit as a cello, unlike Brezhnev was in 1981, the year before he died.

Ugh. Happy new year.

Thanks to Comrade MT for the felicitous line about the cello. Photo by the Russian Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further reading (in Russian):

 

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