Ivan Davydov: The Russian Protest Federation

614352f5bad27acc282af798084aa5e3Protest rally in Abakan against plans to raise the retirement age. Photo by Alexander Kryazhev. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Republic

The Russian Protest Federation: How Moscow Has Stopped Shaping the Political Agenda. Will Ordinary Russians Realize Pension Reform and Geopolitical Triumphs Are Linked?
Ivan Davydov
Republic
September 27, 2018

The people who took to the streets long ago on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue deserve the credit for the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections in Russia. It was a time that would be unimaginable now. There was no war with Ukraine. Crimea had not been annexed. No one had given Syria a second thought. It still makes you wonder why the Kremlin took fright then, albeit briefly. Instead of guessing, we should note it was the capital that led the national protest movement then, confirming yet again the centripetal nature of life in Russia. Over a 100,000 people attended the first two protest rallies in Moscow, on December 10, 2011, and February 4, 2012. Petersburg took second place, sending 25,000 people onto the streets for its February 2012 rally, but no one other city was even close. Protests took place in dozens of cities, including all the major ones, but the best the regions achieved was something on the order of 5,000 people in attendance. In most places, the average crowd numbered around a thousand people.

The opposition failed just like the regime. It transpired the national agenda and the agenda of Muscovites were the same thing. The farther you went from Moscow, the less people were worried about the issues exercising newspaper reporters. Least of all were they worried about their own real problems, about local issues, and thus there was no chance of changing things in Russia.

But the credit for transforming gubernatorial elections into something really resembling elections, albeit quite remotely, must go to the regions. The takeaway message is that the regime’s electoral fiasco in the regions on September 9 is a nationally significant event. The rank-and-file voters there, who cast their ballots for sham candidates from parties other than United Russia as a way of registering their disgust with the local political bosses, have turned circumstances inside out. The regions are now dictating their agenda to Moscow, as governors who seemed invulnerable only recently look shaky, and even Putin himself has been forced to break a sweat.

Airbag
As befits a myth, the Moscow myth that, putting it as succinctly as possible, Moscow is not the real Russia, is not true at all. But, like any good myth with life in it, it is based on real things. As I write this column, water is gurgling in the radiators of the standard Moscow high-rise where I live, because the heating season has kicked off. It is ten degrees Celsius outside, and Moscow’s tender inhabitants would freeze otherwise. Meanwhile, all the news agencies are reporting as their top news item that a place in the queue to buy the new iPhone at Moscow stores will set you back 130,000 rubles [approx. 1,700 euros]. That is expensive, of course, but you would let yourself be seen as an outdated loser at your own peril.

Muscovites protest often, although in fewer numbers than during the fair elections movement. To outsiders, however, protesting Muscovites almost always look like whimsical people who are too well off for their own good. Everyone knows Moscow has wide pavements, new subway stations, the Moscow Central Ring, and perpetual jam festivals and nonstop carnivals on Nikolskaya Street. People who live in places where even today anti-tank trenches pass for roads, and the mayor nicked the benches from the only pedestrian street (urbanism is ubiquitous nowadays, no longer a Moscow specialty) and hauled them to his summer cottage, find it really hard to take seriously people who are up in arms over a new parks whose birches were imported from Germany, and holiday lighting whose cost is roughly the same as the annual budget of an entire provice somewhere outside the Black Earth Region. The residents of “construction trailer accretions” (you will remember that during one of President Putin’s Direct Lines, the residents of a “construction trailer accretion” in Nyagan came on the air to complain) find it hard to understood people protesting so-called renovation, as in Moscow, that is, people who protest the demolition of their old residential buildings and being resettled in new buildings. For that is how it appears when geographical distance obscures the particulars.

The regime has skillfully manipulated this gap. Remember the role played by the “real guys” from the Uralvagonzavod factory during the fair elections movement, or the out-of-towners bussed into the capital for pro-Putin rallies on Poklonnaya Hill and Luzhniki Stadium. But the gap functions as yet another airbag for the Kremlin even when it makes no special effort to manipulate it. Moscow is part of Russia when we are talking about national issues and the fact those issues are debated in Moscow as well, but since any sane non-resident of Moscow believes Moscow is no part of Russia, the big issues end up being issues that exercise Muscovites, but do not interest people beyond Moscow.

The Main Political Issue
Alexei Navalny has bridged the gap slightly. His attempt to set up regional presidential campaign offices seemed absurd since everyone, including Navalny, realized he would not be allowed on the ballot and there would be no reason to campaign. He ran a campaign anyway, and his campaign offices turned into local pockets of resistance, into needles that hit a nerve with the regime while simulatneously stitching Russia together and removing Moscow’s monopoly on national politics. His campaign offices are manned by bold young people willing to take risks and good at organizing protest rallies. Of course, even now more people in Moscow attend Navalny’s protest rallies than in other cities, but people have still been taking to the streets in dozens of cities for the first time since the fair elections protests of 2011–2012. Navalny’s campaign offices splice issues that the locals get with national issues, thus producing the fabric of real politics. When I discussed the subject of this column with the editors of Republic, one of them joked Navalny was a “franchise.” The joke has a point, but the point is not offensive.

It was Vladimir Putin, however, who really turned the tide or, rather, the federal authorities, of which Putin is the living embodiment. The pension reform has made it abundantly clear the Russian authoritarian state no longer intends to be paternalist. The state has suddenly discovered what people actually liked about it was the paternalism. Or they put up with the paternalism. It is hard to say what word would be more precise. But they did not put up with it due to its victories on the geopolitical front.

The pension reform has erased the line between the big issues, debated by well-fed people in Moscow, and the real issues that constitute the lives of real people. This is quite natural, since being able to claim Russia’s miserly pensions a bit earlier in life is more important in places where life is harder. Moscow is definitely not the worse place in Russia to live. Despite the myth, Moscow is no heaven on earth, either, but the central heating has already been turned on, for example.

So, even a dull, boring, well-rehearsed formality like gubernatorial elections has become an effective tool of protest. The regime made a single mistake, a mistake to which no one would have paid attention to a year ago. (Since when has vote rigging seriously outraged people in Russia? Since days of yore? Since 2011?) The mistake set off a chain reaction. The new single nationwide election day had been a boon to the Kremlin, its young technocrats, and its not-so-young handpicked “businesslike” governors. If the elections had not taken place simultaneously everywhere, and the fiasco in the Maritime Territory had occurred at the outset of the elections season, it is not clear how powerful a victory the no-name candidates from the loyal opposition would have scored.

Maybe Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky would have had to disband their parties for fear of reprisals from the regime, since, the way they have long seen things, there is nothing more terrifying than success, and nothing more dangerous than real politics.

A Moscow municipal district council member from the opposition can easily make a coherent, meaningful speech about how the war in Syria has impacted the clumsiness of Mayor Sobyanin’s hired hands, relaying the tile in some unhappy, quiet alley for the third time in a single year. The council member’s speech would elicit laughter, and the laughter would be appropriate. But amidst the customary laughter we need to be able to discern the main question of a reemergent Russian politics.

The issue is this. Will ordinary Russians understand—and, if so, how quickly—that the pension reform (the first but not the last gift to the common folk from their beloved leaders) is part and parcel of the mighty Putin’s geopolitical triumphs, their inevitable consequence, rather than a betrayal and a rupture of the social compact, as certain confused patriotic columnists have been writing lately?

Ultimately, it is a matter of survival for Russia and for Putin. One of the two must survive. As in the films about the immortal Highlander, only one will be left standing at the end of the day.

Ivan Davydov is a liberal columnist. Translated by the Russian Reader

God Is Merciless, or, Mary Dejevsky

DSCN1761

Since childhood I have had the habit of going to sleep listening to the radio. It would be a queer but innocent habit were it not for the fact that I had Lutheranism mainlined into my brain during childhood as well. I am thus perpetually a sinner in the hands of an angry god, and that god is frequently quite displeased with me. Or so it seems.

From time to time, Jehovah punishes me by putting the British journalist and Putin fan Mary Dejevsky on the radio as I am going to sleep.

Last night, she was on ABC Radio National’s Between the Lines, and she was in fine fettle.

Asked about the political crisis sparked by the pension reform in Russia, Dejevsky said she rather admired Vladimir Putin for spending some of his tremendous reserves of political capital and popularity by biting the bullet and trying to solve an objective problem so his “successor” would not have to solve it.

It is actually a good problem to have, this business of needing to raise the retirement age precipitously, Dejevsky argued, because it is premised on the supposedly happy alleged fact that Russians are, on average, living much longer than before, and that, we were meant to imagine, was due to Putin’s wise policies.

When the hapless Australian interviewer, Tom Switzer, asked her about the nationwide protests sparked by the proposed reform and the numerous arrests at those protests, Dejevsky dismissed them out of hand, claiming she had been to “provincial Russia” just last week, and things there were “peaceful.”

I won’t even go into Dejevsky’s sparkling defense of Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea, which prefaced her lies about Putin’s popularity, the pension reform, and the supposedly sleepy provinces.

In case you are not a Lutheran occasionally punished by the Lord God Jehovah by having to listen to Mary Dejevsky in the middle or night or read the latest pro-Putinist tripe she has written, I would remind you she has long been gainfully employed by the Independent and the Guardian as a columnist, and she is a frequent guest on thoroughly respectable news outlets such as ABC Radio National, BBC Radio 4, etc.

It seemingly has not occurred to the smart, cynical folk working at these bastions of tough-minded journalism that Mary Dejevsky is a less than objective observer of the Russian scene.

The Lutheran god is a merciless god. {TRR}

Photo by the Russian Reader. This blog was slightly edited after I received legal threats from an electronic entity claiming to be Mary Dejevsky.

Cupcakes

DSCN1728“Cupcakes. Considerably cheaper when you take away. 45% off.”

This post is dedicated to the armchair fascist who recently asked on the readers’ forum of the anti-Semitic, pro-Putin website The Saker whether George Soros financed the Russian Reader.

I will answer the fascist’s oh-so-pertinent question by quoting from the weekly news wrap-up emailed to readers and supporters on Fridays by the folks at OVD Info. I would gather OVD Info is not financed by Soros, either. In fact, I know they are financed by donations from not very well off people like me, people who work for a living and are not financed by anyone but the sweat of their brows.

More than 600 people were detained in Petersburg on September 9. A week later, another unauthorized protest against the pension reform took place in the city. This time, however, only three people were detained during the protest itself. But the police went on a real manhunt for local activist Shakhnaz Shitik. After she photographed a police officer at the protest, the police tried to detain her. They maimed her and sprayed tear gas in her face. Afterwards, Shitik was taken to hospital, but police tried to detain her there as well. Ultimately, her husband was taken to a police precinct, but offiers remained on duty in her hospital ward. Subsequently, Shitik was taken back and forth from the hospital to the precinct several times until she was finally left to spend the night at the precinct. A court ordered her jailed for twenty days, ostensibly for her involvement in a theatrical performance that depicted Putin being chased away by pensioners. In addition, the police made Shitik provide them with a written statement on suspicion she had violated the law against insulting the authorities. A female Center “E” officer who had passed herself off as a reporter at the hospital had taken offense at something Shitik said.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader. The Russian Reader is a website that covers grassroots politics, social movements, the economy, and independent culture in Russia. It is not financed by anyone nor has it ever solicited donations. All work on the website is done for free, nor do I pay fees for the Russian-language articles I translate into English and publish. Everything that appears on the Russian Reader can be reposted and republished as long as the Russian Reader is indicated clearly as the source and a link back to my original post has been included.

#MONSTERS

monsters-nonretirement“I could have failed to live until retirement.”

MONSTERS
Facebook
September 18, 2018

A powerful anti-anti-abortion protest took place today in Petersburg, but you will not hear about it in any of the mass media.

monsters-wagner“I could have worked for the Wagner Group.”

Until we fail to put a halt to abortions, which, fortunately, annually do away with enough people to populate the city the size of Petersburg, there is no point in discussing or contemplating anything serious.

monsters-repost“I could have been sent to prison for reposting.”

Russia is not only the land of the dead, which has been said more than once, but it is also the land of the unborn.

monsters-election rigger“I could have rigged elections.”

The Russian Federation not only has a past that never was. It also has a future that will never be.

monsters-kitchen boxer“I could have engaged in domestic violence.”

Russia is a failed state. Russia is a fake state.

monsters-sexually harassed“I could have been an object of sexual harassment.”

All Russians, men and women, are in some respect dead men and dead women, but they are also embryos.

monsters-omon“I could have been a riot cop and assaulted people at protest rallies.”

No wonder the stage of (para)political theater has recently been occupied by such figures: aborted embryos telling us they could have been soldiers, for example, and dead women and men, who worked to the grave, but did not live to see a single kopeck of their pensions.

monsters-channel one“I could have worked for Channel One and hoodwinked people every day.”

Bringing together the dead and the unborn was long overdue. This is just what we have done in our protest. We are MONSTERS, a new group of militants in the field of political art in Petersburg.

monsters-torturer“I could have tortured people in prison with a taser.”

We staged our protest in response to the latest move by the pro-lifers, who played heavy on people’s heart strings.

monsters-15000 a month“I could have earned 15,000 rubles a month my whole life.”

We profess and practice monstrous political art. We thus decided to do something even more sentimental.

monsters-syria“I could have gone to Syria to fight.”

You thus see before you dead embryos. They might not have lived until retirement, but in any case they did not survive until retirement.

monsters-died in orphanage“I could have died in an orphanage.”

#MONSTERS

monsters-installation viewA view of the silent protest on Pioneer Square in Petersburg’s Central District

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yulia Botukh: Petersburg’s Kangaroo Courts

yulia and varyaYulia Botukh and Varya Mikhaylova, May 7, 2018. Photo by Ms. Mikhaylova. Courtesy of her Facebook page

Yulia Botukh
VK
September 11, 2018

Twelve hours of court hearings.

Today, the heroic, fearless Varya [Mikhaylova] and I defended the interests of people detained yesterday [at the anti-pension reform rally in Petersburg] in the Primorsky District Court.

I need to get it off my chest.

The judges are such masters of their craft they can hear four cases simultaneously without even feigning that they are observing procedural niceties. They are capable of saying straight to your face that the fewer appeals you file, the better things will go for you.

Is this a way of teaching us to silently put up with every perversion of justice in general and human rights in particular? They could at least put it indirectly, not head on, when they sentence people represented by a social defender to seven days in jail, while sending people with no legal representation to jail for three days. One judge sentences everyone to pay fines, another judge sentences everyone to X number of days in jail, while a third judge divides up the fines and jail time according to gender.

Then there are the police officers who escort the detainees. There are ones who behave properly and humanely. Then there are ones who can say things like, “I decide when they go to the toilet!” or “Why do you have to go one by one? Put a group together!” or “Why the mob? Do you have hold each other’s wee-wees?” or “No, I’m not taking you now. I just arrived. Let me rest. I’m stressed out!” or “Are you fucking kidding?”

I realize all these means of humiliation are meant to compensate for the individual’s inability to manage these aspects of his life on his or her own and that, maybe, it has become so ingrained these things are said automatically, but it doesn’t make it any smoother. You have to argue with certain police officers over taking detainees to the bathroom.

There was the charming female officer who refused to give me her name. It was like at school. She concealed her personal information from me, as recorded in a receipt, by covering it with a piece of paper.

And you have already read the media reports of officers taking food meant for the detainees and eating it themselves.

The detainees are all super cool girls, women, guys, and men. They thank me and hug me, although I realize that, basically, there is little I can do to help them. I can do my best, but the outcome is totally unpredictable. Probably, it helps more emotionally that you are not alone, that someone can explain to you what happens next and tell what things are like in the temporary detention facility on Zakharyevskaya Street. I was glad that no one lost their optimism, sense of humor or ability to make fun of what was happening. It matters.

Some of the detainees said they now had a different perspective on the justice system and protest rallies. Many of them told mew that at the police precincts they were asked how much they had been paid for going to the protest rally. A thousand rubles? Three thousand?

What planet do cops come from?

My defendants were fined ten thousand rubles [approx. 125 euros] or jailed for as many as seven days.

If you like surprise, attend the court hearings held after protest rallies. You won’t be disappointed.

Thanks to the ferocious Varya Mihaylova for Ms. Botuk’s text, as reposted on her own VK page, and the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Varya Mikhaylova: After the Protest Rally

varyaVarya Mikhaylova and her defendants. Photo courtesy of Ms. Mikhaylova’s Facebook page

Varya Mikhaylova
Facebook
September 10, 2018

Yesterday, after the protest rally, for several hours I made the rounds of different police precincts where detainees had been taken: Lenin Square, Prospekt Bolshevikov, Rybatskoye, and General Khrulov Street. It was night when I got home.

Today, I defended people who were involved in the rally and people who weren’t involved in the rally at the Primorsky District Court. I have just left the court building.

Total legal nihilism prevailed in the court. People were tried not individually, but in bunches. The judge said outright to the defendants that if they refrained from making any appeals she would go easier on them. Many defendants were not allowed to go to the bathroom all day. A police officer ate the food intended for the detainees from the 25th Police Precinct. Most of my defendants were convicted and sent off to jail for four to seven days.

But there were a number of important victories.

  1. I managed to get one defendant’s charge changed from Article 20.2 Part 8 of the Administrative Offenses Code (“repeated violation”) to Article 20.2 Part 6.1 (“involvement in an unauthorized assembly, rally, demonstration,  march or picket”). We were able to convinced the judge there were was nothing in the case file proving the repeated violation charge. Instead of fifteen to thirty days in jail or a fine of 150,000 to 300,000 rubles, he was sentenced to five days in jail.
  2. The case of another defendant was completely dismissed. However, since I was removed from the hearing, it was hardly my doing. But the defendant thinks it was crucial I told him to tell the judge about his chronic illness.
  3. The judge wrote in the sentence she handed down to ten guys that the length of their jail terms took effect today, not yesterday, when they were detained, but I convinced her to correct this mistake, and consequently they got back one day of freedom lawfully owed to them.

It went something like that. I wish all of you would go to the court hearings the day after a big protest rally at least once. Your world would never be the same again.

And the detainees are all amazing.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Grateful Dead

stropov-1Max Stropov on his way to September 9, 2018, anti-pension reform demonstration in Petersburg. His placard reads, “Life is hard, but happily it’s short.” Photo courtesy of his Facebook page

Max Stropov
Facebook
September 10, 2018

Today [September 9], I was detained at a protest rally for the first time. I had lucked out at previous demos. The protest rally was against the pension reform, and it took place at Lenin Square [in Petersburg]. The event had been authorized by the authorities, but by a happy coincidence, a pipe near the square had burst a couple of days before the rally. Who knows whether it burst under its own power in such a timely fashion or not.

Whatever the case, it would have been a waste not take advantage of it, and so the entire square was cordoned off. The rally on the square was thus still authorized, but it was now impossible to hold it on the square. Antinomy is the modus operandi of the current Russian regime. What is permitted is impossible, and vice versa.

As I rode the escalator up from the subway, I met a colleague from my previous, academic life, Georgy Chernavin. We stood for a while and had a nice chat.

I was one of the first protesters detained, since I was made up like a dead man and holding a placard that read, “Life is hard, but happily it’s short.” That is a title of a song by the band Communism, by the way, but the title is also a quotation, attributed to Varlam Shalamov and Yuri Nikolayev. Basically, the quotation is communist. It belongs to everyone.

Communism, “Life Is Hard, but Happily It’s Short”

I did not see the rest of the rally. There were a total of seventeen people in the first group of detainees, including one dead man (ho-ho-ho). We were put on a large articulated bus. It was spacious inside.

In the paddy wagon, a forgettable looking Center “E” or NKVD officer was in our faces the whole time filming us with a video camera. It was hard to say what secret service he was from. The police could not tell us who he was, and the forgettable looking guy pretended he was not there. When we spoke to him directly, he kept on filming us.

There was also a rather burly major, who never did tell us his name. We later learned from our administrative offense reports that his surname was Golodnyi [“Hungry”].

We cruised around town for a long time. Finally, we were delivered to Dybenko Street. First, the women and children who had been detained were left at one police precinct, and then six of us were taken to another precinct. The rest of the detainees were taken somewhere else, but I don’t know anything about them.

Our group included three young men from the Navalny Team, an older dude carrying a “Putin, resign!” placard, and an elderly man who had lost his telephone and glasses at the rally.

At the police precinct, we hung out in the hallway the whole time. The police told us that we had not been arrested, as it were, but at the same time they would not let us go.

Antinomy is the modus operandi of the current Russian regime.

Varya Mikhaylova came to the precinct bearing care packages for vegans. At first, the police did not want to take any of the things she had brought for us, arguing we were not locked up in cells. She chewed them out, and they threatened to charge her with disobeying police officers, but finally and suddenly they took all the packages she had brought.

It was a really joyous moment. Everyone wanted to join the Party of the Dead. The old dude drank Agusha fruit puree, saying it was “Agusha from the next life.”

stropov-2Max Stropov and his fellow detainees. The young man on the right holds a placard that reads, “Putin, resign!” Photo courtesy of Max Stropov’s Facebook page

We had hung out in the hallway for around three hours when the police set about writing us up for our alleged offenses. Everyone’s arrest report was worded exactly the same. It was apparently a boilerplate arrest report issued by police brass. In particular, there was a bit claiming the crowd had yelled, “Putin, skis, Magadan,” as if the boilerplate report had been drafted back in 2012.

The police threatened to keep me at the precinct until my court hearing, because I would not sign a paper obliging me to appear in court at ten in morning, but then I signed it, noting in writing I had done it “under threat of continued detention.” In fact, I had read the form is innocuous and does not oblige anyone to do anything.

The court hearing is tomorrow. The Nevsky District Court is located on Olga Bergholz Street.

Translated by the Russian Reader. According to Mediazona, more than five hundred protesters were detained by police at yesterday’s anti-pension reform rally in Petersburg. At the link, above, you will find a stunning photo reportage of the showdown between protesters and police, produced by my friend the photographer David Frenkel.

UPDATE. Petersburg news website Fontanka.ru, which can often believed when it comes to these things because it is published and edited by former cops, reports that 603 protesters were detained by police the during anti-pension reform protest rally in the vicinity of the Finland Station and Lenin Square in Petersburg yesterday afternoon. Today, many or all of these protesters will be tried in the city’s district courts for their alleged administrative offenses. The calls for help coming over social media from members of the Aid for Detainees Group suggest that many of these people will have no legal representation, neither lawyers nor so-called social defenders, so they will have to fend for themselves. In any case, whether they get the book thrown at them or not will most likely have already been decided elsewhere.