Opportunism and Quietism Are the Watchwords

There is the strange assumption that Russians would be hotly and much more numerously discussing the war on social media and in public were it not for censorship, surveillance, and the draconian new laws on “discrediting” the Russian armed forces, etc. But this assumption, when it is made by outsiders, is based on the belief that the Russian public’s engagement with important political matters and social issues was palpably greater before the war.

It wasn’t that much greater, in fact, as evidenced, among other things, by the fact that what political ferment there was on Russophone social media in recent times often as not had to do with hot-button events in “the west,” such as George Floyd/Black Lives Matter and Trump’s failed coup. And even then these discussions revealed a broad ignorance (and hatred) of politics in non-authoritarian countries and the extreme rightwing sympathies of the Russian “liberal” intelligentsia.

It is not repression and “fascism” that are the real or the only obstacles to democratic, anti-authoritarian grassroots political movements in Russia, but quietism (to use the polite term) and opportunism, which will ultimately nullify all attempts, I’m afraid, to create meaningful anti-war movements, “united fronts,” and so forth at home and abroad.

In that sense, there’s almost no reason for outsiders to get excited by any of the various “projects,” “movements,” zingy new websites, etc., that the opposition in exile, aided by much braver but usually anonymous comrades at home, have been throwing up rapidly and carelessly since February. Most of them will have vanished just as quickly (quietly, without a trace) by year’s end, if not sooner.

Much less should outsiders pay too much mind to the attempts by the newly minted diaspora to get their pretty mugs and their sentiments broadcast to the world via such respectable outlets as the New Yorker and the New York Times, thus making themselves the heroes and heroines of the story instead of Ukrainians. They just cashing in their more considerable reserves of media, cultural and intellectual capital to right their momentarily capsized boats and advance their own fortunes, not pausing for a second to think how this naked opportunism looks to their former Ukrainian “sisters” and “brothers,” who for various reasons have much less of this capital. ||| TRR


Elza’s Ocean

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the leader of Okean Elzy [Elza’s Ocean], one of the most famous Ukrainian rock bands, has recorded a video message to the Russians in Russian, in which he condemned them for their silence and thanked those who have publicly protested nevertheless.

A rock musician, and now also a soldier in the Territorial Defense Forces, Vakarchuk said that recently he had often been asked by [Russian] opposition media journalists to give his opinion of what was happening.

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk in 2016. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

“It is you, the Russian people, who raised and fed these scumbags, bastards, and beasts who are destroying our homes today, killing old people, women and children, raping and looting,” Vakarchuk said in a video message in Russian.

“You were silent when you should have spoken and acted; when Putin, whose middle name is now Antichrist, came to power, you were silent. When Russia invaded Georgia, you were also mostly silent. Then when Russia brazenly took Crimea from us—just like that, took it, stole it—many of you were even privately proud. Many of you were not only privately proud, and said that Crimea had returned to its native harbor.

“And then eight years later, when your country unleashed a terrible war in our Donbas, you did not have the courage to go out into the streets by the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions, and protest these terrible things. But you were able to do this earlier. In 1991, a million people came to a square in Moscow to overthrow the evil empire. But that was before, and now it’s just Facebook posts and sympathy over the phone. It won’t help.

“We don’t need sympathy on the phone or on Facebook, we need action. […] I want to express special thanks to those who dared to go out to protest or openly, publicly voiced their stance on the Russian army’s atrocities,” the musician said.

Source: Delfi.ru, 9 April 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

“Something Tells Me He’ll Never Want to Learn the Truth”

“Do you know who lives next door? Vigilance is the key to security.”

I admit that I sometimes try and get people talking to understand what’s going on in their heads. Today, however, I had no such plan. I only permitted myself to go outside for ten minutes to drink a cup of coffee and to look at the sun as seen from somewhere other than the window of my office. I went to my favorite coffee shop, a two-seater, without any ulterior motives. And without wanting to hobnob with anyone. I sometimes have a nice chat with the barista, because it was simply impossible to have an unpleasant chat with him before [the war]: he has no interest in politics whatsoever. He’s an exemplary sweet summer child, a vegan, the antipode of universal evil. But then he tried to get me talking, on the contrary, taking me by surprise. He suddenly started discussing Ukraine. For some reason I assumed that the hellishness going on there would disgust him, but far from it! When I said that civilians were being killed there, he was genuinely surprised. “Who’s killing them? What civilians?” In a nutshell, he has a girlfriend in Kharkiv. She stays at home, doesn’t go out, and hears gunshots, but she hasn’t mentioned anything to him about casualties. “There, in Kharkiv, you know, everything is fine, you just shouldn’t go outside.” Then he started complaining to me that, in Ukraine, they name streets in honor of [Stepan] Bandera. Tall and blond, the guy looks to be about twenty-five. Bandera is the bane of his existence, but otherwise everything is cool. Something tells me he’ll never want to learn the truth.

This feuilleton was posted friends-only on social media earlier today by an experienced and thoughtful Moscow-based journalist and activist. They have kindly permitted me to translate and publish it here. Photo by the author. (It was taken on another occasion several years ago, but seemed to fit this story.) Translated by the Russian Reader

“People Are to Blame”

Alexander Kynev: “A moment of patriotic joy. I don’t know if there is anything more bogus. Even the Young Pioneer line-ups of my childhood were more natural.”

The video Mr. Kynev has embedded on his Facebook page is entitled “Zapolarye Za Mir” — “The Arctic for Peace.” The activists identify themselves as “residents of the Murmansk Region” (and, indeed, are standing on a hill overlooking Murmansk itself.) In addition to the newfangled Russian “Z” swastika, the hoodies sported by the lead troika of “activists” are also emblazoned with the “We Don’t Abandon Our Own” slogan that featured heavily in Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and has been revived for the new invasion. ||| TRR

__________

 

A Perekrestok chain supermarket in Moscow. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

“People are to blame…”

I stopped by Perekrestok and was blown away. Bananas were 140 rubles a kilo, pre-washed carrots were 100 rubles a kilo.

The hypermarket itself is open until eleven p.m. nowadays, not around the clock.

“Prices have really gone up. Is this all because of the w*r?” I say to the middle-aged woman at the checkout.

“No, it’s not just because they’ve attacked the neighbors. It’s because of the people.”

“The people who unleashed it all? I hope they will be held responsible…”

“No, because of the people, all of us, who allowed this gang to take over Russia. And each of us will bear our share of responsibility for this. And bananas at 140 a kilo are still just icing on the cake… We are to blame for what happened. Everyone who let this happen. Everyone who ‘wasn’t interested in politics.'”

Source: Alexei Sergeyev, Facebook, 15 March 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Slugfest

I usually like what Kirill Martynov writes, but the screed, below, is overdoing it. DOXA are just four nice smart, brave kids, not the Red Army Faction. They shouldn’t have to bring down the Putin regime on their own. This is not to mention the fact that Russia has been an “ordinary dictatorship” since 2012, if not much earlier. || TRR

___________________

Kirill Martynov
Facebook
April 16, 2021

At work, I have to constantly write about the “socio-political situation.”

My thoughts are now as transparent as Patrushev’s tear: we have arrived at an ordinary dictatorship with a president for life, prisons and a ban on practicing their professions for dissenters, and the subsequent collapse of the state—after this patriotic feast ends with some pathetic and shameful event, as usually happens to dictatorships.

Accordingly, there is practically nothing to write, except for specific stories—for example, about when they try to block YouTube or how they will simulate elections under the new circumstances.

The DOXA case should be read in this light: this is not about random “siloviki going after a student magazine,” but about the dictatorship purging education and the media. It is impossible to win a trial against the dictatorship, so further bets will hinge on whether everyone remains free or not.

The advantage in this case is that “DOXA’s criminal video” says nothing except the that students also have the right to take a civic stance, and university administrations should not try to persecute them for this. It looks like the kind of case that should end in a suspended sentence, which, by Russian standards, is tantamount to an acquittal.

However, so far the state has imposed special pre-trial restraining measures on DOXA. All four editors can leave their homes for one minute a day, from 11:59 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. (so as to avoid putting them under house arrest for some reason).* All four of them have already been issued summonses for more than twenty interrogations, scheduled for every working day between now and late May.


In a better world, Summit Brewing Co.’s fabulous Slugfest IPA would be my new sponsor. Instead, it only dulls the pain I feel when contemplating the one-sided slugfest happening in the world’s biggest country. Image courtesy of Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, Minn.

Armen Aramyan wrote his honor’s thesis in epistemology with me as his academic advisor. I hope that the investigator will have time to talk with him about this interesting subject. (“Why so many books?” the police asked when they searched his apartment.)

So from an epistemological point of view, the situation looks something like this. The authorities are now able to kill DOXA’s entire support line in a matter of days: the state will simply devour a few lives and go on, thus maintaining “stability.” But the state’s weakness is that it has no idea what phenomenon it is facing.

It has no idea how these people think, what they want, and what to use to “break” them. When the Americans were at war with Japan, they commissioned anthropologists to study Japanese culture. Our state is waging a war on young people blindly, like a drunken gangster in a dark alley.

I have no idea at all what DOXA—a horizontal student editorial board that writes about modern philosophy and harassment—looks like to police investigators.

And while the state is trying to figure out this unknown quantity, to unravel how it can be bought off or destroyed, many more interesting things will happen.

* As reader Pavel Kudyukin pointed out to me, house arrest was not imposed in this case so that its duration could not later be subtracted (as “time served”) from a sentence of imprisonment or probation imposed after a trial and guilty verdict. This suggests, he argued, that the powers that be have already decided to convict the four DOXA editors and send them to prison. || TRR

April 16, 2021

Covid is raging in Russia: over the past twelve months, there have been about 500,000 unexplained excess deaths. Putin is killing Navalny in prison, right now, literally. And this is the scene today, Friday, at 11:15 p.m., on Pyatnitskaya Street in downtown Moscow. How is this possible?!

Translated by the Russian Reader

Kalinka Malinka

Authentic Russian with Katya 2RU
September 23, 2019

Калинка-малинка is a Russian song that the whole world is singing! Learning this hit if you study Russian language is a must! Watch this video to know HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE LYRICS of Kalinka-Malinka!

Калинка, калинка, калинка моя!
В саду ягода малинка, малинка моя!
Ах! Под сосною под зеленою
Спать положите вы меня;
Ай, люли, люли, ай, люли, люли,
Спать положите вы меня.

Калинка, калинка, калинка моя!
В саду ягода малинка, малинка моя!
Ах! Сосенушка ты зеленая,
Не шуми же надо мной!
Ай, люли, люли, ай, люли, люли,
Не шуми же надо мной!

Калинка, калинка, калинка моя!
В саду ягода малинка, малинка моя!
Ах! Красавица, душа-девица,
Полюби же ты меня!
Ай, люли, люли, ай, люли, люли,
Полюби же ты меня!

Калинка, калинка, калинка моя!
В саду ягода малинка, малинка моя!

Little snowberry, snowberry, snowberry of mine!
Little raspberry in the garden, my little raspberry!
Ah, under the pine, the green one,
Lay me down to sleep,
Rock-a-bye, baby, rock-a-bye, baby,
Lay me down to sleep.

Little snowberry, snowberry, snowberry of mine!
Little raspberry in the garden, my little raspberry!
Ah, little pine, little green one,
Don’t rustle above me,
Rock-a-bye, baby, rock-a-bye, baby,
Don’t rustle above me.

Little snowberry, snowberry, snowberry of mine!
Little raspberry in the garden, my little raspberry!
Ah, you beauty, pretty maiden,
Take a fancy to me,
Rock-a-bye, baby, rock-a-bye, baby,
Take a fancy to me.

Little snowberry, snowberry, snowberry of mine!
Little raspberry in the garden, my little raspberry!

Like her compatriots, Katya 2RU has plenty of time nowadays to look great and teach foreigners a lesson, but at least she teaches them Russian folk songs instead of lessons about democracy and free speech. Image courtesy of her YouTube channel

The Capitol Storming Gives Russians an Escape From Their Reality
The great majority of Russians have no say over the future of their cities or regions and so resort to events outside the country.
Ilya Klishin
Moscow Times
January 14, 2021

Anyone following U.S. and Russian social networks in recent days might have had the impression that Russians were more upset by the recent siege of the Capitol building and the decision by Twitter and Co. to block Donald Trump than even the Americans themselves were.

Although CNN and the New York Times only sounded the alarm, popular and little-known bloggers on this side of the Atlantic absolutely went into hysterics.

Of course, many of the issues concerning this incident deserve deep and thoughtful discussion, such as, at what point should IT companies become accountable to society?

And, is there a difference between today’s Twitter and the telegraph and newspapers of 100 years ago? Here, however, I would like to focus not on the substance of the psychosis, but on its nature and origin.

Why did so many Russians go into a frenzy over the events in the U.S.?

To begin with, consider a popular Russian meme called “Barnaul, Altai Region.” In all of its iterations, the cartoon shows a young Russian woman voicing anxieties to her psychologist.

One day she’s worried about SJW, the next, BLM, and most recently, the Capitol siege. But whatever the problem, the psychologist always responds with the same words, “What the f—k do you care?! You live in Barnaul!”

Then he grabs a megaphone and shouts it again for emphasis: “IN BARNAUL, THE ALTAI REGION!!!”

Now, you might not have heard of this Siberian city, but that’s the whole point. Barnaul is so far from the problems dominating Western headlines that it is absurd for someone living there to lose any sleep over them.

Rude as it is, the meme remains popular because it touches on a very real but unspoken, almost intuitive aspect of the Russian psyche.

The great majority of Russians have no say over the future of their cities or regions, much less the country as a whole. This is especially depressing for young people who have grown up during the 20 years of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, and who have never experienced anything else. After all, they are naturally overflowing with youthful energy. They would like to change the world around them and contribute to society in some small way.

But they can’t. Everything is off limits. They can either violate their own principles by going along with the abominable, soul-crushing system, or else buck that system and risk paying a very high price, up to and including prison time.

Of course, most young people avoid that extreme, teetering on the edge of open disobedience without crossing the line.

Once a young person realizes that the authorities block every path for positive change, they subconsciously switch to the path of least resistance.

Like water flowing around a rock in its way, young Russians who find that they cannot change the fundamental picture shift their focus to concerns of secondary importance.

If you can’t raise the standard of living for the elderly in your economically depressed region, stop the police from torturing people or prevent the authorities from “calling in” verdicts to the courts, you can at least become a vegan activist or radical feminist and oppose the use of animal fur.

Don’t get me wrong — these are all worthwhile causes.

But in today’s Russia, they represent a form of escapism. A “fur fighter” poses no threat to Putin’s regime and comes off as more comical than menacing. Kremlin leaders simply laugh at them, saying, “Let them have their fun.”

The same is true of Russia’s homegrown BLM activists and surprisingly numerous Trump supporters. In fact, the whole lot of them is even more harmless than the activists are because they do nothing but sit on their couches and argue with each other online.

It is a pastime along the lines of watching football, Game of Thrones and reality TV. It is fun and brings the occasional rush of adrenaline during particularly intense arguments.

And so, the days and weeks pass with everyone arguing. Some are on the left, others on the right. One is a feminist, another an anti-feminist. This one is a tree hugger while that one ridicules environmentalists. But outside their windows is the same old Russia, ruled by the same old Vladimir Putin.

Ilya Klishin is the former Digital Director of the New York-based Russian-language RTVI channel. He is the founder of KFConsulting.

They Have Nothing Better to Do

Dmitry Gudkov
Facebook
January 9, 2021

I understand that Russians there is no problem more important than Trump’s showdown with Twitter. The precedent of blocking a social network account is not a very good one, of course, but the folks in the US will cope without us. I would venture to throw out a different topic for discussion.

On Monday, January 11, the verdict in the case of Azat Miftakhov will be read out in the Golovinsky District Court in Moscow. Trump was banned on Twitter, but Azat, a graduate student in mathematics from Moscow State University, has been locked up in for allegedly breaking a window at United Russia party office. He has been in a pretrial detention center for two years, although there is no evidence of his guilt.

If you’re worried about freedom of speech, Azat’s case is also cause for worry. At the last court hearing in the case, people who came to support Azat were not only not allowed into the court building. They were simply locked up in the courtyard of the building. A paddy wagon was brought  in and shipped them out of there. The detainees included two journalists, with press cards, but that means nothing to our authorities.

If the Miftakhov case were given at least 1% of the attention that has been spent on Trump in Russia, the case would not have happened. And we’re not taking about a ban on Twitter here, but arrest, torture, and a [possible] imprisonment in a penal colony.

Today, someone spelled out the message “FREE AZAT” on Lake Kaban in Kazan. This was protest action in support of mathematician and anarchist Azat Miftakhov. On January 11, at 12:00 p.m., the Golovinsky District Court will announce the verdict. The prosecution has asked for six years in prison for the young academic. If you have the opportunity, be sure to come to the hearing!

Boris Vishnevsky
Facebook
January 9, 2021

In our country, Roskomnadzor can block any media outlet or website that tells truths that the authorities find unpleasant.

But this does not cause popular outrage.

In our country, people are put in jail for reposting things on the internet.

But this does not cause popular outrage.

In our country, hundreds of political prisoners are being held on falsified charges, starting with Yuri Dmitriev and ending with the defendants in the Ingush protest movement trial.

But this does not cause popular outrage, and rallies and pickets in support of these people attract almost no attention.

In our country, anyone who disagrees with the authorities can be declared a foreign agent.

But this does not cause popular outrage.

In our country, the president has been given lifelong immunity from prosecution for any and all crimes, and he does not even need to pardon himself in advance.

But this does not cause popular outrage.

But what an explosion of indignation there has been over the blocking of Trump’s Twitter account. It has been the main topic of discussion in Russia!

As long as this is the case, the Kremlin can rest easy.

__________________

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
January 9, 2021

It’s stunning. Russia has hundreds of political prisoners, political assassinations and political persecution, two ongoing wars involving tens of thousands of dead and the occupation of territory in several [foreign] countries, a personal dictatorship that has been de facto and legally established, and laws that permit total censorship in the mainstream media. And yet Russian intellectuals are hotly debating whether it is right or wrong to block the American president’s Twitter account two weeks before the end of his official term.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexei Tsvetcoff: The Myth of Moscow’s “Bourgeois Liberal” Protesters

vadim f. lurie-10 august-fuck off-2.jpg“Fuck Off, Putin!” Protesters at the August 10 fair elections rally in Moscow. Photo by Vadim F. Lurie

Alexei Tsvetcoff
Facebook
August 14, 2019

I have to say something about the extremely tenacious, contagious myth that bourgeois liberals are the only people protesting at present. They are strangers to regular folks, so the myth goes, and thus the cops, who come from the common people, take such pleasure in beating them black and blue.

The myth is not borne out by the facts. Among the most malicious “street extremists,” the people who have had criminal charges filed against them, there are an unemployed man, a construction foreman, and several students from a variety of colleges, some of which are not so posh.

There are, of course, also a couple of programmers and a manager in the group of people who have been arrested and charged, meaning it is a cross-section of the Moscow populace, with no class dominating one way or another. If you have been to the protest rallies you will have seen that members of nearly all social groups were in attendance except for oligarchs, officials of the current regime, and the cops, who are on the other side.

When you present this simple empirical evidence to proponents of the “elite protest” myth, they have one last argument, also fallacious, up their sleeves.

Okay, they say, maybe Muscovites of all stripes really have taken to the streets, but their leaders, the people who encouraged them to come out, who led them onto the streets, are definitely bourgeois liberals who are strangers to simple blokes.

There is no evidence of this, either. Among those who spoke at the rallies and somehow represent the protesters, there were people who espouse completely different political views and come from all walks of life. It would be hard to pigeonhole municipal district council member and independent candidate Sergei Tsukasov as a bourgeois and liberal, wouldn’t it? And what about Alexei Polikhovich?  I could go on but I would have to list nearly all the speakers.

To see “liberals” and “agents of the west” in this extremely diverse group of people, who share only one demand (the same rules for everyone: the universal right to nominate candidates for public office, vote for them, and run for public office themselves) you have to be willing to see the world the way the Putinist TV channels paint it.

As for the cops, they retire at a completely different age, earlier than ordinary folks. The current oligarchic regime provides them with apartments and tons of other perks. So, there is no way they could be classified as ordinary people.

They have such great fun waving their billy clubs at any and all dissenters because they have a very specific material interest. The thievish regime need only toss them scraps from its table for them to have an excuse to be really cruel to anyone who threatens the regime’s privileges.

Meaning, simply, that the cops are in on the take. They do a good job of guarding their master, who keeps them well fed. They could not care less who this master is. In this sense, it is completely pointless to reason with them, shame them, and appeal to their conscience.

Returning to the popularity of the myth that it is snobby liberals raising a ruckus on the streets nowadays, I should point that, first, although the myth is at odds with the obvious facts, it is so persistent because it is propped up by two crutches, not one. And, second, it relies on the regime’s ubiquitous propaganda. In this case, the oligarchic regime has no argument but that everyone who opposes it is an enemy of ordinary people.

So, the choir of Solovyovs, Kiselyovs, and hundreds of other agitprop yes men sing this song at a deafening volume, competing with each other in the process, because how loud they sing probably has something to do with how close they will get, in the end, to the feeding trough and, thus, with being able to be as far from the selfsame hoi polloi as they can. There is no way people like them want to get mixed up with the broad popular masses, to sink to their level. They want to keep on living the good life of propagandists with all the foreign real estate, offshore bank accounts, and other perks that working as professional fans of the Motherland entails.

But that was the second reason the myth of anti-populist liberals is so persistent. The first reason is completely different. It is the perfect excuse for the political passivity and political fear experienced by people in our atomized society with its extreme shortage of solidarity and self-respect.

The Russian man in the street says something like this to himself.

Of course, I see what has been going down. I see how the haves have divvied everything up among themselves and where things are going. Why don’t I go out and take my stand against them? Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a chicken?

But that hurts and I don’t want to think about it. I need another, more flattering argument . . . Right, that’s it.  I don’t go to protest rallies and avoid getting messed up in politics because all the people who do go out and protest are—

(He reaches for a lifesaver in the shape of his TV set’s remote control or a Kremlin-funded website.)

—all liberals and agents of the west. (Thanks for the prompt!) Employees of the US State Department and enemies of the common folk, they want to bring back the nineties. Elections are only a cover.

I am no fool. I would never go anywhere with these people and demand anything. I am smart and discerning, and now I have an alibi for when I look at myself in the mirror. And since I want to stay this way forever, I am going write the treasured mantra on the inside of my door: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Vadim F. Lurie. Translated by the Russian Reader

P.S. You are probably wondering why a pro-common people myth-buster such as Mr. Tsvetcoff would resort, in the end, to trotting out the sock puppet of the Russian “man in the street” (obyvatel’) who, allegedly, believes everything he sees on Kremlin-controlled Russian TV. This is because, whether liberal, leftist (like Mr. Tsvetcoff), nationalist or none of the above, almost no one in the country’s self-styled opposition has figured out that you oppose a terrifying, destructive, criminal regime like the Putin regime with superior political organization, not with a sense of your own moral and intellectual superiority.

Since the Russian opposition is inordinately fond of protest rallies and marches, you would think it would pull out all the stops to get as many people to them as possible and, thus, scare the hell out of the regime. But if there is anything the Russian opposition hates more than the Putin regime, it is grassroots political organizing, meaning knocking on doors, stopping strangers on the street, buttonholing friends, neighbors, and workmates, and persuading them to do something most of them will not want to do at first: protest publicly against the regime. As nearly no one does the dirty work of getting people to rallies, almost no one goes to them.

Rather than blame themselves for their unwillingness to mobilize people and thus organize a movement that could, eventually, be capable of confronting the regime and perhaps defeating it, the opposition is fond of blaming the unwashed masses and “men in the street” for their passivity and timidity. When opposition liberals play this blame game, they usually target public sector employees, the lumpenproletariat, and residents of Russia’s far-flung hinterlands, who, allegedly, constitute Putin’s electoral base.

I would have thought opposition leftists would know better than to make what amounts to the same argument, but I was wrong. // TRR

When We Were Ten

15220228-number-ten

Leonid Volkov
Facebook
August 10, 2019

I was ten years old but I remember August 1991 well. And I remember how many people asked, after that unique celebration of unity and freedom, what would have happened had the coup emerged victorious.

Russia 2019 is the answer to this question. It is a country in which the coup has emerged victorious, [a country ruled by] a dozen paranoid old men, their hands trembling in fear.

Yes, the new coup has lasted longer than three days, but not much longer. The first chords of Swan Lake have already sounded.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of 123RF

_______________________________________________

A friend of mine asked me the other day what I thought about the new fair elections protests in Moscow. First, I feel solidarity with the protesters. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to translate and edit eleven posts (so far) about the protests and their ugly aftermath.

But I don’t understand the point made by Alexei Navalny’s comrade Leonid Volkov, an otherwise sensible person, in the Facebook post, as quoted above.

I could very well be wrong, and, actually, I do hope I am wrong, but I see very little difference between the mostly lacksadaisical fair elections protests of 2011–2012 and the relatively fierce but tiny fair elections protests of 2019.

The numbers are, in fact, the main problem. Despite the strange argument made by a talking head from the Carnegie Center Moscow, as quoted in the Moscow Times, that fifty thousand is a number of protesters the Russian authorities cannot ignore, there is no question of their ignoring anything. The Putin regime did not ignore the protests of 2011–2012. It waited until Putin had secured a new term as president before cracking down hard on protesters and quickly adopting a whole raft of laws designed to make public protests and dissent much more dangerous.

In 2019, the crackdown has begun almost immediately, but there is no sign the regime will cave and force the Moscow City Elections Commission to reinstate the candidates it barred in July from running in the September elections to the Moscow City Duma, much less collapse altogether.

Since it is the world’s largest country, it seems funny to say it, but Russia is one of the most insular, isolated places on earth. International news is a genre that barely exists in the country’s mainstream or alternative press nor does it usually make much of an impression on the chatocrats who set the tone in Russia’s remarkably hysterical, dispiriting, troll-infested social media.

It also does not help that places mainly or completely populated by what many Russian liberals regard as subhumans almost never figure in the news in Russia at all. Otherwise, political and media activists like Volkov would think twice before seeing the demise of Putin’s twenty-year-old “putsch” in yet another series of relatively minuscule gatherings of righteous Muscovites brandishing clever placards and getting their pictures taken for Instagram.

If there were real international news in the Russian press, the Russian fair elections movement and its would-be leaders and strategists, like Volkov, would think about the recent, incomparably more numerous, and demonstrably more effective protests in Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, for example. When half a million people protest against the powers that be on an island populated by 3.5 million people, the authorities really cannot ignore them, just as Beijing could not pretend all was well in Hong Kong, a city of 7.3 million people, when two million people there took to the streets to protest the former enclave’s shrinking autonomy and the PRC’s attacks on its laws and democratic institutions.

Puerto Rican officials have already seen the writing on the wall and surrendered to the demands of the fierce, fearless, relentless protest movement there. The Hong Kong protest movement faces a much stronger enemy, of course, but I think there is a far greater chance we will witness democracy emerging all over China in our lifetimes than we will see the reemergence of democracy in Russia.

Despite the fact the Russian intelligentsia likes to hypnotize itself with dubious theories about history and regime change—namely, that great historical turnabouts have always been powered by tiny but energetic minorities—real democratic change in Russia will only happen when many more people join a movement that, in fact, exists only as a notion, not as a real grassroots movement.

A real grassroots movement, after all, would be capable of mobilizing considerably more than fifty thousand people in a city of twelve million people.

The second big problem with the Russian protest non-movement is that, like many of the Russians who make usually brief appearances in its ranks, it is wildly impatient. Liberal, educated Russians regard themselves as the most “European” and “western” people on the planet, hindered from realizing their true destiny as saviors and leading lights of the nonexistent west only by a thousand years of unrelenting, savage tyranny, an endless dark stormy night punctuated only here and there by occasional, short-lived bursts of sunlight.

Since they are essentially not practically “Europeans” and “westerners” (unlike most actual Europeans and westerners, who, in their view, have given up the west’s civilizing mission by letting their countries be overrun by Puerto Ricans, Chinese, and Muslims, among other miserables), many Russians think they deserve to live in a democratic country right now without doing most if any of the things other societies do to establish and fortify democracy and the rule of law at home.

The flip side of this blatantly anti-western “westernism” is that droves (or, at least, very large dribbles) of Russians have been leaving or semi-leaving Russia in recent years, knowing nothing can change for the better under Putin and despairing that the post-Putin era will not dawn anytime soon. Like most of the really important things going in Russia, this story has been underreported, although anyone who has hundreds of Russian acquaintances or who lives in one of the handful of cities on earth that liberal Russians consider civilized (Berlin, Paris, and New York, e.g.) will know what I mean.

In yet another “only in Russia” twist, many people in this new wave of émigrés and exiles are not battle-hardened veterans of the amorphous protest non-movement, but the most politically apathetic people you could ever hope to meet.

This is not to say there are not lots of good eggs among them. Likewise, this blog’s mission has been to reiterate constantly the well-missed point that there are other Russians besides Putin and other Russias besides “Putin’s Russia,” whatever that is. But since I am not a politician and, thus, a sophist, like Leonid Volkov and his friend Alexei Navalny (the first, a well-informed commentator whose reflections I have shared on several occasions with my reader; the second, a smart cookie who might also be nearly the only person in the ragtag Russian opposition who really understands politics and has an inkling of how to build grassroots political movements), I am under no obligation to paint a pretty picture of “democracy in Russia” when what is called for is a horrorshow.

Lastly, fifty thousand people protested in downtown Moscow for the right to vote for their own candidates to a Russian regional parliament in a country where all that parliaments, city councils, municipal district councils, and village councils ever do is rubber-stamp the executive branch’s decisions. At exactly the same time, Russian warplanes were trying hard to finish off the last stronghold of a genuinely popular revolution in what they hoped would be the final chapter in a four-year-long military intervention in a majority Muslim country. And yet Putin’s criminal entanglement of his country’s well-equipped armed forces in Syria has been so uninteresting to liberal Russians that they have never protested in numbers greater than three or four at a time, and you can count those times on one hand.

The irony of this non-coincidence will be lost on Leonid Volkov and his comrades in the Russian protest non-movement, a non-movement that imitates the civil disobedience of the Indian independence movement and the US civil rights movement, for example, while blithely ignoring their superior political, strategic, and organizational aspects. Like the overall ignorance among Russians about today’s protest movements and popular revolutions in Syria, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico, this might be because they were movements led and sustained by people of color. // TRR

Sergei Vilkov: Everything You Thought You Knew About the Russian Working Class Was Wrong

kalashnikov workersWorkers of the Kalashnikov plant in Izhevsk, Russia, on September, 20, 2016. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov (Getty Images). Courtesy of Fortune

The Heroes of the Day: What We Know about the Russian Working Class
How the Proletariat Stopped Fearing TV and Came to Dislike It
Sergei Vilkov
News.ru
April 30, 2019

It has been a tradition on the eve of May Day to recall the working class, which in Russia has seemingly been usurped by televised images of the “patriots” and regular blokes who work at the Uralvagonzavod plant in Nizhny Tagil.

Actually, Russia’s workers are a genuine black hole to sociologists. No one had seriously researched their circumstances, sentiments, and views for thirty years.

The first tentative attempts to research today’s Russian industrial laborers have produced a portrait that many had not expected. It transpires that today’s proletarians, at least, the most politically and civically dynamic among them, almost never watch television. They have a sober take on politics. They are immune to state propaganda. They have a relatively relaxed attitude toward migrant workers.

They regard themselves as outside observers in the debates between the regime and the opposition, not finding their own interests reflected in them. They are more likely to feel trampled upon by plant management than by a new law passed in the State Duma.

It is the factory where they fight their battles, which are usually invisible to official statisticians. Most important, according to researchers, they have more in common with early twentieth century social democrats than with current parties who try and speak on behalf of workers. However, the new research leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. News.ru took a look at it.

They Got What They Fought For
According to official data, 26 million people in Russia or over 36% of the able-boded population are employed in industry, transport, agriculture, fishing, and several similar sectors. These figures do not include, for example, the large numbers of people employed in commerce and services. Overall, however, sociologists estimate that workers make up 40% of Russia’s population. They identify them as the largest group in society.

These people dwell on the dark side of Russia’s moon, as it were. It would be hard to say when someone last tried to examine them through an academic lens. However, understanding the nature of Russian society and its largest segments is, perhaps, the most ambitious humanities research project in the country today.

In government reports, Russia’s workers are imagined as a passive, homogeneous milieu that positively exudes tranquility. In 2017, Rosstat, the state statistics service, recorded only one strike, while in the preceding years their official number oscillated between two and five strikes annually.

By comparison, in 2005, according to official data, there were 2,600 strikes in Russia. And yet the following year, Rosstat claimed the number of strikes had decreased by a factor of 325. Since then, according to official statistics, it has remained consistently scanty, despite the economic crises of 2008 and 2014.

However, the Center for Social and Labor Rights, which has monitored the situation on its own, claims there were an average of 240 labor protests between 2008 and 2014. In 2016, when the political opposition was quiet, there were twice as many labor protests, while in the first six months of 2018, the last period for which it has data, the center recorded 122 strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Nearly half of these incidents led to workers downing tools.

Since 2014, a year dominated by an apparent “patriotic” consensus in politics, the number of strikes has increased abruptly due to an upsurge of resistance in provincial cities, including district seats. The largest number of walkouts and protests occurred in industry, especially the machine building and metalworking sectors, which have accounted for 28% of the overall number of strikes. The transport sector has accounted for the same percentage of strikes and protests, despite the fact they have mainly been carried out by employees of private transport companies based in the cities. The construction industry has accounted for 19% of strikes and protests during the period.

The main cause of protests and strikes remains unpaid back wages, which accounted for 60% of incidents. Demands to raise pay were factors in 19–20% of incidents.

The Center for Social and Labor Rights noticed a curious thing. In 2018, the number of spontaneous, unorganized protests by workers rose abruptly by 22%. Trade unions were involved in a mere 17% of all strikes and protests. The experts claim this was partly due to the fact that the Russian hinterlands, where there have been no real trade unions for the last one hundred years, have taken the lead in labor activism, along with sectors dominated by precarious employment.

Shop Floor Intellectuals
Someone has been organizing these strikes and protests, however. It is evident there is a core of energetic progressive activists among Russia’s workers.

On April 22, Alexander Zhelenin gave a lecture at a round table held in the offices of Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Zhelenin is a well-known expert on workplace conflicts, and part of his talk dealt with a research study on the Russian proletariat. In July and September 2018, he and his fellow researchers did a small-scale qualitative sociological research study in Kaluga and Omsk that focused on the self-identification and sociopolitical views of workers.

A total of twenty-three people were interviewed. The small sample was offset by a thorough probing, through in-depth interviews, of the respondents’ attitudes and views, which are never revealed by run-of-the-mill public opinion polls. The workers interviewed by the sociologists were somehow connected to independent trade unions, which had, apparently, supported the research study. However, in the main, the interviewees were not politically engaged: only one of them was a member of a political organization.

We should also not forget it is usually the most energetic people who agree to be interviewed for ordinary official public opinion polls, which affects their outcomes.

In Kaluga, the respondents worked in the food industry and the new auto assembly plants, while in Omsk, they were employed at old Soviet military-industrial complex plants. They ranged in age from twenty to fifty, and included women and men. They were quite well-paid technicians who were proud of their contributions to society. On the other hand, they had a constant sense of their status as subordinates. They tended to strongly associate themselves with their workplaces. Family “labor dynasties” were a possible factor in their outlooks.

Most of the workers interviewed at the auto plants had been abroad one or more times, and this partly had to do with Volkswagen’s work exchange programs. One of the things they had learned on these trips was independent trade unions were ordinary, valuable organizations.

On the contrary, a foreign-travel passport was a rarity among the workers of the old defense plants, and yet both groups of workers tended to spend their holidays on the Black Sea coast. Some respondents in Omsk said they had never seen the sea or had seen it in early childhood.

Mortgages were the main financial obstacles to holidays away from home. Financially, the skilled workers felt they were members of the so-called middle class. In terms of standards of living in their regions, however, they noticed the gap between the more affluent segment of the populace and themselves. Thus, they had a keen sense of the difference in life chances for their children and the children of rich families, talking about it with great indignation.

Pavel Kudyukin, ex-minister of labor and employment and a lecturer in public administration at the Higher School of Economics, commented on the growing social segregation in Russia.

“It comes to the fore when talk turns to children’s futures. It is an aspect that will become more acute, because we are moving from segregation to social apartheid. I think it will facilitate [grassroots] civic activism,” he said.

The authors of the report did not hide their amazement at the fact that the respondents were quite well-educated, intelligent people. Nearly a third of them had a higher education or an uncompleted university degree. Many of them pointed out it was ordinary to find university-educated workers on the shop floor.

Tellingly, a man from Kaluga, identified as Anatoly, who did not finish his university degree, and whose outward appearance (a bespectacled intellectual), cultivated manner of speaking, and hobbies (music and organizing non-profit music festivals) gave the researchers the impression he was a local intellectual, although he said he had been employed as a skilled laborer for over eleven years. Like some other respondents, Anatoly noted he had become a laborer because life had worked out that way and he had to earn money. Industry was the only place where it was possible to earn a more or less decent wage, the study noted.

They Have Their Own Values
And yet 74% of of the respondents unambiguously identified themselves as workers, stressing their difference from other groups in society and their direct involvement in production. The remaining 26% preferred to call themselves “employees” and supported the notion of so-called social partnerships with management. However, despite their decent standard of life, it followed from the interviews that the workers believed they occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. This had to do with their palpably subordinate positions at work and the lack of prestige in their occupations. This circumstance was painfully apparent in the tension between blue-collar and white-collar workers at one plant, a tension exacerbated by the arrogance of the latter towards the former.

The workers were very annoyed by the fact that, as Sergei, a grinder who was involved in the Omsk focus group, said, “In terms of wages and education, the blue-collar workers often outperform the office workers, but the latter still treat them as inferiors.”

In Omsk, for example, the wages of workers fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 rubles a month, but workers at some defense plants could earn up to 70,000 or 80,000 rubles a month. However, according to the same interviewee, the well-paid jobs were “inherited.”

Besides, he said, to earn such a wage, one virtually had to live at the factory, working twelve hours a day and enjoying only one day off a week, something not all workers would do. Meanwhile, office workers at the same plant could earn only 20,000 rubles a month, but they treated the workers “as if they were above [them],” said Sergei.

“A really interesting thing is the split in self-identification as workers and members of the middle class,” said Kudyukin. “It clearly manifests the pressure exerted in society by hegemonic views. It is like what Marx wrote: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’ Since the notion of the middle class is constantly in the air, people give no thought to the fact that it’s a sociological fiction. People realize they are workers. They work on an assembly line or operate a machine. Yet in terms of income they identify themselves as middle class in the sense that they are neither rich nor poor. Maybe this has to do with the notion that the middle class is formally defined by income.”

“Russia is a quite highly stratified country, and it is constantly becoming more stratified,” explained Gregory Yudin, a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “It’s not a matter of income gaps, but of what these people say: the sense of symbolic superiority in cases where there is no income gap. When this sense takes root at a particular factory, what happens is quite predictable. In this sense, Marx was more or less right.”

Speaking about their place in production, the workers voiced the opinion their plants could run without managers, but without them the shop floors would grind to a halt. However, they sensed the arrogant attitude towards manual labor that had emerged in other parts of society. They realized that, from this perspective, their status was not considered prestigious at all. The factory laborers responded by opposing the values of their milieu to “other” values, saying that nowadays the chic thing to do was to steal and mooch, to make lots of money for doing nothing.

“I think this is an ordinary means of compensation, a psychological defense mechanism. We are considered impoverished in some way, whereas in fact we are the salt of the earth, and everything would grind to a halt without us. Their sentiments are quite justified. Despite the importance of managerial work, if you got rid of the management staff, the shop floor would function all the same. But if the workers suddenly disappeared, the plant would shut down,” said Kudyukin.

The research study showed the respondents perceived Russian politics as an established system that ignored their interests. This applied not only to the government but also to the opposition. Nearly half of the respondents consciously refrained from voting. By comparison, during the last presidential election, in March 2018, the Central Electoral Commission reported that 32.5% of registered voters did not vote.

Some of the respondents voted for the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), A Just Russia, and LDPR [Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party], although they noted these parties were entangled in establishment and supported workers’ interests more in words than in actual deeds. They were not a serious opposition.

What they had to say on the matter was telling.

“I have little trust in politicos and parties. I have more faith in the people here, the people with whom I work, the people I know. Here, at the local level, there are decent people among the members of different [political] movements. But the leadership is usually a bloody shambles,” said Sergei, 35, a grinder at the Aggregate Plant in Omsk.

“There are currently no parties that would defend workers’ interests. We need to create such a party,” said Sergei, who works at the Volkswagen plant in Kaluga.

Volodya, who also works at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was likewise certain such parties did not exist.

“All of them are against us [workers]. They represent business and big money, even the CPRF and A Just Russia. Those parties just use the ‘movements’ to score political points. They have great jobs. United Russia try and pass bad laws. They have the majority in the Duma, so [the three other parties represented there] can pretend to oppose them, since the bad laws will be passed all the same,” he said.

He quoted Mark Twain.

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”

The federal government was a source of considerable irritation to the workers, especially in connection with the pension reform.

Roman, a 45-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was the only respondent in either city who said he had always voted for Putin and United Russia, but since the pension reform had passed, he was severely disenchanted and was more inclined to vote for the CPRF.

Vladislav, a 28-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, had a confession to make despite the fact he had never voted.

“I was never opposed to Putin. But I did not believe to the last that he would say yes to this cannibalistic reform,” he said.

“Their statements jibe with what we see in other studies,” said Yudin. “People are depoliticized, yes. They distrust the system profoundly. This distrust grew even deeper last year. It’s a typical Russian scenario, and I am not entirely certain it has something specifically to do with workers. It typifies many segments of the populace. People who espouse this worldview serve as the base for different populist projects.”

Researchers describe their views as a contradictory mix of spontaneous anarchism and paternalistic expectations from the state. They would like to see the state solving society’s problems and intervening in the economy to raise wages, create jobs, and distribute incomes more fairly.

Igor, a worker from Omsk, had a typical view of the matter.

“The government should definitely solve these issues if workers have hired them to serve the people. When are they going to handle all of this if they work six and seven days a week? They just don’t have the time to deal with their own improvement [sic],” he said.

However, their political beliefs were more leftist and democratic than conservative and reactionary, even when it came to ethnic, religious and gender issues.

“The workers with whom we spoke, irrespective of whether they believed in God, wanted to lived in a secular state, while hoping the Russian Orthodox Church would be behave more modestly when it came to secular issues and would be less politicized. The views of workers on gender roles, the place of women in families, society, and the state were generally quite democratic. In terms of their worldviews, the workers had more in common with classic leftists than with a good number of current leftist parties and movements in Russia,” write the study’s authors.

Cool Heads
The researchers claim the workers they surveyed were clearly not victims of government propaganda. Their attitude towards Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria was generally very restrained, if not sharply negative. Many of them argued that Russia’s foreign policy, as defined by the country’s leadership, had nothing to with their interests and was even capable of harming them. They also had a skeptical attitude to the promotion of great-power patriotism, seeing it as a means of distracting working people from real problems. But while they openly voiced their attitudes to foreign policy, the workers were cautious about discussing it, emphasizing a lack of information on the subject.

Many of them said society was not told everything.

To the surprise of the sociologists, most of the interviewees (78%) identified the internet as their main source of information, despite the fact they were asked about this part of their lives in a way that mentioned television and newspapers first, while the internet was among the information sources listed last.

By comparison, in March 2018, Levada Center published a poll claiming 85% of Russians got most of their information by watching television; moreover, 72% of respondents preferred watching state-controlled Channel One. On the contrary, only five of the workers (22% of the focus group) watched news and political programs on television. They regarded what they saw on television quite skeptically, trying to detect the influence of certain third-party interests.

They had a rather low opinion of the state of the nation.

“Lately, I’ve been ashamed of my people,” said Roman, a worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga.

Another worker, Vladimir, countered Roman.

“To stop feeling ashamed of your nation, just don’t identify yourself with it. Russia, the people, and the nation are illusions that have been pounded into our heads. There is just the earth and the people who live on it. The people who lived before us dreamed up border: here is Russia, there is Ukraine, here is America. In fact, we are all people. If you look at things from this standpoint, everything falls into place. For example, I don’t acknowledge the existence of national Olympic squads. My world is the people I know. When they say, “Our guys are playing football,” I think of “our guys” as my neighbors, workmates, family members, and the clerks at the shop. I could not care less what is going on in Syria and Donbas,” said Vladimir.

The researchers got rather unexpected and ambivalent results when they asked the workers about their attitudes towards migrant workers. In July 2018, Levada Center reported that 67% of Russians regarded them negatively. It is such sentiments that currently fuel nationalism and xenophobia. Among the workers in the survey, however, the intensity of these sentiments was considerably lower.

The different focus groups were split in their opinions of migrant laborers.

“Why hide it? I have a positive attitude toward them, because they are former brothers [within the Soviet Union]. We have the same troubles as they do. They get paid under the table, and so do we. And sometimes they are not paid at all,” said Mikhail, a 55-year-old freight handler.

“I tend to believe we need to create jobs for our own people first, and only then can we create jobs for migrants. As a worker, I consider them competitors, but as a human being I have no problems with them. On the other hand, how do we employ Russians if no Russians want to work as janitors?” said Svyatoslav, a truck driver at the Volkswagen plant.

Ultimately, 45% of the respondents took anti-migrant worker stances. In Omsk, the breakdown between migrantophobes and internationalists was six to four. In Kaluga, on the other hand, where the focus groups and in-depth interviews were dominated by workers from modern, foreign-owned production facilities, there were seven internationalists, as opposed to three migrantophobes.

The study’s authors argue the discrepancies are due to the different types of industry in the two cities, contrasting the workers from the old Soviet defense plants with the employees of foreign companies. However, we would be remiss not to note the relatively low level of nationalism in all the groups surveyed.

“In our view, this is because the workers have closer and more frequent contacts with migrant workers, and thus have more personal experience with them, something that always shatters stereotypes. It is yet another testimony to the fact that the dominant media coverage in Russia has less impact on the views of workers,” argue the study’s authors.

As for attitudes towards religion, twelve of the twenty-three respondents identified themselves as believers, while eleven identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. Two of the respondents regarded themselves as deeply religious Russian Orthodox believers. However, all the respondents said they wanted to live in a secular country in which the Russian Orthodox Church should have a smaller role in secular issues and politics.

The views of the workers on gender relations and the place of women at home and in society were quite democratic. According to the researchers, nearly all the men agreed women had the right to pursue any career or calling. They would not stop their own wives from getting involving in public life and politics or pursuing a career.

However, they regarded female politicians in the State Duma quite skeptically, since they did not see them as politicians who hailed from the grassroots. The respondents named German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović as positive examples of women involved in politics.

At the same time, both of the experts we interviewed, Pavel Kudyukin and Gregory Yudin, agreed the research study had serious methodological flaws. Besides, it gave its readers no sense of the particular life experiences that had prompted the workers to embrace particular outlooks.

Thanks to Alexander Zamyatin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader