Syria Is Only Three Syllables

It is pointless to say anything more about the near-total non-reaction of Russians to their government’s ruthless, quasi-genocidal bombing campaign against civilians in Syria, but I will say one last thing before giving up the subject entirely on this blog. It is important for eyewitnesses to important historical events to write down what they saw, heard, and read. Otherwise, decades from now, posterity might be reading about a nonexistent “Russian anti-war movement” during the Putin era.

Anything is possible in our fallen world.

Like Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Central Asians, Syrians are viewed as civilizational subhumans by Russians, as “natural-born terrorists” who deserve to be destroyed, as they would put it in the blunt lingo of Russian TV propagandists.

Educated Russians feel solidarity only towards a very limited segment of other Russians and northern Europeans, and even then only under extraordinarily limited circumstances, as witnessed by the self-love and virtue-flagging festival currently underway on the Runet.

The whole point of it is not to save the life of an investigative journalist framed by the police on drugs charges but to show to themselves (and the world) they can “fight back” against their corrupt government, that they are not as bad as they imagine themselves to be and, in fact, really are.

Indeed, Russians can fight back, as has been proven hundreds of times during the last twenty years. But this has been proven not by today’s virtue-flaggers, but by other Russians, Russians who have been fighting for their lives, livelihoods, natural and urban environments, workplaces, you name it. They live in the twenty-first century, too, and so they also have made use of the internet as needed for their campaigns, but their campaigns have had real objectives, and the militants in these campaigns have often been less bashful in their methods.

Look up, for example, anything you can find about the grassroots movement against plans to mine copper and nickel in Voronezh Region, which reached a crescendo four or five years ago. One of the leaders of that protest was an “ordinary” woman who worked at the local produce market. She virtually commanded battalions of other locals, including local Cossacks, in a knock-down, drag-out fight against mining companies and police.

Not surprisingly, these skirmishes have generally garnered much less attention in Russian society at large, the Russian press, and the international press.

It has been easier for all those groups to imagine the Russian provinces as “Putin’s base,” as a wasteland filled with aggressive vatniki, as they are derogatorily called. (The reference is to the humble gray quilted jacket favored, allegedly, by regime-loving proles in Russia’s regions.)

I have spent at least a third of my time on this blog and its predecessor trying to show this is not the case. It is a thankless and nearly pointless business, however, because it is not trendy to care about hicks in the sticks anymore anywhere, so almost no one reads these dispatches.

Putin’s real power bases are and always have Moscow and Petersburg, but you would never know that from the cool spin residents of the “capitals” put on every gesture in the direction of protest they make, even when they are not really protesting anything at all. If anyone has benefited from Putin’s promises of stability and prosperity, it is them, not the hicks in the sticks. But none of this has led to a “bourgeois revolution,” as some were expecting. Quite the opposite has happened.

Of course, there are activists and grassroots politicians in the capitals who are every bit as smart, fierce, and savvy as their counterparts in the provinces, but they do not outnumber them, despite what certain large-scale, protests in the recent past might have suggested.

So, what is up now? Sooner or later, every ambitious Russian with a social media profile and any sights on the west realizes it is not great to look like too much of a conformist. It is okay for Putin to kill Syrian babies by the truckload. Or, rather, it is not okay, but you are only asking for trouble if you protest something a) no one else is protesting, and b) that looks to be really important to the powers that be, so important they would squash you like you a fly if you made a peep about it.

The grassroots “Free Golunov!” campaign is perfect for anyone who wants to pad out their protest resume because a) everyone is protesting it, and b) the real powers that be probably do not care so much about prosecuting Golunov to the full extent of their lawlessness.

At his next public appearance, Putin could well be asked about the case by reporters. If he is asked, I would not be surprised if he said it was a bloody mess that shows how much work needs to be done before Russian law enforcement has been thoroughly purged of corruption.

Heads would then roll, and Golunov would be released as a gesture to the Russian moral one percent’s “yearning for justice.”

People with shaky protest resumes—meaning nearly every member of the intelligentsia in the capitals and major cities—want to jump on a bandwagon that has half a chance of making it to its destination, not light out for the territory with no chance of winning.

On the other hand, the Kremlin could neutralize these virtue-flaggers for good by throwing the book at Golunov, despite the overwhelming evidence he is innocent, and sending him down for fifteen years.

In reality, this sort of thing happens all the time. It happens routinely to “politicals” and ordinary blokes, to businessmen and Central Asian migrant workers, etc. But no one bothers to go ballistic when these people are framed by the wildly unscrupulous Russian police and security services because a) everyone leads really busy lives, and b) these victims of Russian legal nihilism do not have reporters and editors going to bat for them and publishing their names in big letters on the front pages of their newspapers.

What will “rank-and-file” protesters do if, despite their extraordinary efforts, Golunov is sent to prison for a crime he did not do? What will become of their “movement”? Will they up their game? Will they embrace more radical methods to free their beloved here.

Their movement will evaporate in seconds. We will never hear or see any political statements from most of these people ever again because if they can live peaceably with everything done by the Putin regime at home and abroad in their name over the last twenty years except this one thing, they can go on swallowing or, really, ignoring a double and even triple portion of the more of the same until Putin finally keels over thirty or so years from now.

Or they will leave the country. It is not as if they actually give a flying fuck about it. If they did, I would have written a very different outburst than this one. I would have written it a long time ago, in fact. || THE RUSSIAN READER

idlibThe bombing of Idlib is stirring memories of Guernica, as portrayed by Picasso. Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz. Courtesy of AFP, Getty Images, and the Sunday Times

Syria: Russians refine slaughter in Idlib
Observers say Moscow is using the Syrian province as a kind of Guernica, while casting innocent victims as terrorists
Louise Callaghan
The Sunday Times
June 9, 2019

The fighter jet screamed over the town at about 8.30am, while the family was still asleep in the cool morning air. Mahmoud Ali Alsheikh, his wife and their three children were shaken awake by the first bomb.

Ahmad, the youngest, was 10 months old. His father held him as the second bomb exploded further down their street. His mother, Fatma, 29, held her hands over his ears. Nour and Salah, 8 and 7, crouched next to them.

The next bomb hit the house. Shrapnel ripped into Ahmad’s stomach, killing him. “I was trying to protect him,” said his father, a sweet-maker.

Ahmad was just one victim of Russia’s bombing campaign in Idlib, a rural province in northern Syria where a renewed assault by pro-regime forces has killed at least 347 civilians since the end of April, according to local doctors with the aid group Uossm. Twenty-five medical facilities have been bombed, many of them far from the front lines.

It is a horrifying escalation in a conflict in which Moscow and Damascus have an overwhelming military advantage as the eight-year-old civil war winds down. Analysts suspect that Russia, which has bragged about testing more than 200 new weapons in Syria, is cynically using Idlib to refine the bombing techniques it has developed during the conflict.

“Idlib for the Russians now could be what Guernica was for the Germans ahead of the Second World War. It’s a conflict in which they tested all of their techniques, rolled out their new doctrine,” said James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer who founded the organization that trains and supports the White Helmets rescue group.

The Nazis’ use of the Spanish town of Guernica for bombing practice in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War allowed them to break new ground in the mass killing of civilians from the air and refine techniques that would later become invaluable to their war machine. The aftermath of the bombing was immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso.

For Russia, disinformation techniques have become as vital as military tactics. Moscow and the Syrian regime portray Idlib as a terrorist haven under the control of hardline groups — justifying the bombing campaign on the grounds that they are fighting jihadists.

Russia has put great effort into an online campaign portraying Idlib as a vipers’ nest of terrorists. The truth is more complicated. While groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda offshoot, control large swathes of the province, some key towns are held by more moderate rebels.

A rebel counter-attack last week took back several villages from pro-regime forces. But the rebels have no air power.

Mixed in among them — and vulnerable to Russia’s supremacy in the air — are tens of thousands of terrified civilians: both locals and others from across the country who were bused to Idlib when their homes were retaken by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After ousting rebel forces in much of the country, the regime is now renewing the attack on Idlib, which it has pledged to claw back at all costs.

A ceasefire, negotiated last year in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort, is in tatters after an assault by pro-regime forces targeted civilian and rebel targets alike with cluster bombs and barrel bombs. Videos appear to show incendiary weapons being used.

Diplomats say that, for the moment, an all-out military assault on Idlib is unlikely. The aim of the bombing campaign is to wear away at the ceasefire, grind down the rebels and force Turkey — which maintains military observation points in Idlib and backs some opposition groups — to agree to a handover of the province to the regime.

“A full-on assault is not imminent. But I do think the option will be kept on the table so that people can use that as a way of increasing influence,” said a senior western diplomat working on Syria.

Turkey, which is one of the guarantors of the ceasefire, has been outwardly maintaining a balanced relationship with Moscow, even as it reportedly funnels weapons to opposition groups in Idlib.

The Turkish border with Idlib is closed to the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to it in search of safety. Last week residents told The Sunday Times that entire villages in Idlib’s interior were deserted, and displaced people were camping out in olive groves near the border without food or water.

Among them were the surviving members of Ahmad’s family.

“I don’t know what will happen but I hope the regime won’t advance because they will kill and arrest everyone,” said his father, who was badly injured in the airstrike that killed the baby. “The Assad regime is targeting our town all the time.”

He said his home town, Kafranbel — which used to be famous for its figs and is about 30 miles from the Turkish border — is not controlled by jihadists but by remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

Other locals and analysts confirmed this. But for Russia and the Syrian regime, rebels, jihadists and civilians alike are regarded as terrorists.

“Since the beginning, the Russians, Iran, Assad regime and Hezbollah are saying that,” he said. “Because their military policy is burning and killing everyone who lives in the opposition areas.”

Using Russian state-funded broadcasters and websites, Moscow has muddied the waters of the Syrian conflict by attempting to push the narrative that anyone who is against Assad is a terrorist, and that no news from opposition-held areas can be trusted.

Its disinformation campaign particularly targets the White Helmets, portraying its members as jihadists who stage their work. Slick video content, purporting to show the White Helmets faking chemical attacks by the regime, is often presented as impartial news and shared across the world.

Last month a Syrian government television channel took this technique a step further in a “fake news” comedy sketch that lampooned the White Helmets. A glamorous actress portrayed a crying woman as “White Helmets” staged a fake rescue mission. She later apologized for causing offense but made clear she still believed that attacks and rescues were often faked by the White Helmets.

Impartial observers, who credit the White Helmets with saving many lives and drawing attention to the regime’s atrocities, say there has been no proof that they have faked anything.

Additional reporting: Mahmoud al-Basha

Thanks to Pete Klosterman and the Facebook public group Free Syria for the heads-up. {TRR}

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Putin’s Heartlands Are in Your Heads

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A snapshot of Putin’s real heartlands. Zagorodny Prospect, central Petersburg, September 10, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

During Russia’s oil-fueled boom, Rashid Tamayev saw steady pay raises at his auto factory job, helping keep his family in relative comfort—and making him a loyal supporter of President Vladimir Putin. But since a plunge in oil prices three years ago, Tamayev has lost faith in the president. Last spring he and dozens of others at the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant lodged an appeal with the Kremlin when they were fired after pointing out safety problems. They got no answer. “Putin has forgotten about ordinary people,” Tamayev says as he watches workers from the factory leave after their shifts. “We used to live well.”
Henry Meyer, “There’s Trouble Brewing in Putin’s Heartland,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 13, 2017

I don’t know who concocted the myth of Putin’s base of support among the working class in Russia’s heartlands, but it’s a convenient way of not reporting facts staring you right in the face but that you chose not to think over.

The myth is based on the big-city/intellectual worker prejudice that the working class, i.e., people who, allegedly, work with their hands, not their heads, especially members of the working class who live in little towns and the smaller cities (as described in the article, cited above) are congenitally less intelligent and more easily gulled than their big-city slicker cousins.

But where do you have to go in Russia to find the people, whole classes and stratas, who have benefited the most, materially and otherwise, from the eighteen years of Putin’s rule? (It’s eighteeen years, not seventeen, as Bloomberg Businessweek mistakenly writes in the article.) Moscow and Petersburg. That is where you shall find Putin’s real base of support and his real heartland.

Because the unfortunate worker described in Henry Meyer’s article made a slightly better living during the years the oil price was high was not due to anything clever Putin and his successive governments did. Whether the unfortunate worker and his comrades nominally voted for Putin and United Russia or not during those years does not matter a whit, because the fix has been in at the voting stations and outside them all these eighteen years. If you do not believe me, look at what has happened to real opposition candidates who have managed to slip through the Kremlin’s obstacle course and win the occasional election.

Have you ever heard of Galina Shirshina, a young woman from the liberal Yabloko party who, in 2013, was elected mayor of Petrozavodsk, a city of approximately 260,000 people in northwest Russia, by popular vote? Do you know how long she lasted in office? Do you know how she got booted out of office in 2015 and who was behind her dismissal?

What do you do with the half-baked base/heartland argument in cases like this? And this is just one instance. I could give dozens of other examples off the top of my head, and even more if I did a little research.

Opinion polls, the beloved crutch of so-called Russia experts and reporters who write about Russian politics, are also unreliable, for many of the same reasons. One of those reasons is that respondents want to give pollsters the right answer, meaning, the answer they think the regime wants them to give, because they identify pollsters (correctly!) with a schizophrenic, brutal regime that alternately faux-coddles them and then whacks them over the head in different ways, alternately claims it has improved their living standards and then engages in so much mega-corruption that any sustainable, broad-based improvement of the country’s quality of life will always be impossible as long as the regime is in power. Poll respondents thus do not identify pollsters with unbiased academic research, with “sociology,” or some such nonsense, and do not tell them what they really think. In turn, the pollsters want to ask only questions that produce right answers, not find out what people really think.

Besides, all these eighteen years, the instability generator has been turned up to eleven, despite the regime’s loud claims urbi et orbi it has been establishing stability the likes of which the world has never seen.

A side effect of this turbulent instability has been that sometimes people actually do not know what they think or think things that are blatantly contradictory. Hence, there probably really are some number of Russians who have reapplied the old good tsar/bad boyars myth to the supposed confrontation between the well-meaning Putin and his hapless or hopelessly corrupt underlings. This myth has been reinforced by endless dressing-downs at cabinet meetings, pointedly rebroadcast on all the main evening news programs, and the occasional arrest and prosecution of a high government official for bribery or something of the sort.

Incidentally, the other thing that struck me about this article is how much time Bloomberg has been spending lately mansplaining Russia to its readers in a terribly charitable way recently, especially via the often dubiously argued op-ed columns of Leonid Bershidsky, supposedly a Russian dissident journalist in exile somewhere in Europe. I have no explanation for this overly friendly approach to a regime that has done nothing to deserve it.

In any case, Putin has no base in the nonexistent Russian heartlands. He does, however, have a considerable base in his hometown of Petersburg and the capital, Moscow. In Russia’s two largest cities, huge numbers of officials, big businessmen, and certain strata of the intelligentsia have benefited considerably from Putin’s rule, and have in turn supported it with their loyalty, although their support may be souring a bit as the regime has turned more oppressive with each passing month since Putin’s 2012 re-election.

(I write “oppressive” rather than “conservative,” which is another term that has no place in debates about the different sham ideologies Putinism has apparently embraced or flirted with over the years. These ideologies, from neoliberalism to Eurasianism to conservatism to Russian Orthodoxy, are only mummers, meant to alternately distract the public and observers from what has been really going on, and, when they are not distracted, to intimidate them into shutting up, often by creating the false impression that they are what the masses, the heartlands, the working classes or ordinary people really want, even though the latter are all fictions fashioned from whole cloth or, when they are not, the actual working masses and regular joes really do not want anything of the sort.)

Finally, there is very little evidence that trouble is brewing in Putin’s nonexistent non-heartland or anywhere else in Russia, if only because the numbers of flagrant trouble-brewers are clearly much smaller compared to the much larger numbers of Russians who, at best, are undecided as to whether they want to save their country or let Putin install himself as tsar next year and, I fear, plunge the country into a self-destructive nightmare from which it will never recover.

Putin is going to have to turn the instability generator up to twelve or even thirteen, because he will somehow have to justify his presence on the throne for what will surely be the rest of his life. This means another wave of more crackdowns on renegade individuals (that is, individuals made to look like renegades or “extremists”) and more wholesale legislative assaults on civic and personal liberties.

Tyrants usually do not justify their endless, stultifying reigns by abdicating the throne and re-instituting grassroots social democracy. They only do that if they are pushed, but right now almost no one in Russia is pushing. TRR

Tractor Pull: Police Block Farmers’ Protest Convoy to Moscow

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Police stop protesting Krasnodar farmers near Rostov-on-Don. Photo courtesy of BBC Russian Service

Krasnodar Farmers Say Convoy to Moscow Blocked
Grigory Naberezhnov and Dmitry Nosonov
RBC
August 22, 2016

The Farmers told RBC that over a hundred police had blocked the tractor convoy from Kuban to Moscow near Rostov-on-Don. The farmers had complained of “large agricultural holdings taking away land from farmers.”

Police have halted a tractor convoy of Krasnodar farmers headed for Moscow, according to rally organizer Alexei Volchenko.

According to Volchenko, the farmers “were blocked every which way,” and “probably half the Rostov police force had been sent out.”

A total of seventeen tractors, two heavy truckers, and a number of passenger vehicles have been trapped in the road block. According to Volchenko, twenty patrol cars and 150 police officers were involved in the road block.

“The officers did not inform us of the reason for the stop,” Volchenko added. “I tried to figure out why a tractor cannot travel freely through the Russian Federation. They couldn’t give us an explanation.”

Ekaterina Vasiltsova, duty officer at the press service of the Interior Ministry’s Rostov office, told RBC they were “verifying information” about the incident.

The tractor drivers had been stopped in the village of Dorozhny near Rostov-on-Don, Volchenko told the BBC.

The farmers now plan “to travel to Krasnodar and have a chat with our governor,” he told RBC.

According to Volchenko, the president’s envoy to the region had promised them that if authorities were unable to reach an agreement with the farmers, “the road to Moscow would be open to them.”

If the road is not opened, “then I will publicly declare him a liar,” said Volchenko.

On the morning of August 22, Volchenko told RBC that the farmers had been facing constant checks by police.

“In Krasnodar Territory alone, they stopped us seven or eight times for long stretches of between forty and fifty minutes. They would sometimes take two hours to check our papers and write up tickets,” he said.

The farmers from Krasnodar Territory had set out on their tractor convoy to Moscow the day before, on August 21.  Prior to their departure, they held a rally in the village of Kazanskaya in Krasnodar Territory’s Kavkazsky District.

Volchenko has told the Peasant Gazette (Krestyanski Vedomosti) that a “vicious practice” had taken root in Krasnodar Territory in recent years.

“Local authorities have refused to allocate their legal [land] shares to land owners, illegally leased them to third parties, usually large agricultural holding companies or they have violated their property rights altogether,” he told the paper.

“The large agricultural holding companies take land away from farmers and shareholders, and basically bring [the rural areas] to their knees, because the villages live on the money farmers spend, while the agricultural holdings are all registered as offshore companies in Cyprus and so on,” Volchenko told RBC in an interview.

The principal demand of the protesters was to “restore order through the courts.”

In March 2016, the Kuban farmers had planned to organized tractor convoy to Moscow. Around a hundred farmers were slated to take part in the protest.  They planned to deliver a petition to President Vladimir Putin. The farmers then met with Natalya Kostenko, deputy head of the executive commite of the Russian People’s Front (ONF).

“She persuaded us to abandon the protest,” Volchenko told the Peasant Gazette. “[She] promised to speak with regional leaders about restoring order in land relations. [However,] six months have gone by, and basically nothing has changed.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

More proof, as if more proof were needed, that President Putin could care less about his wholly fictitious “base” in the wholly fictitious “Russian heartlands.” These tropes have been used by journalists and “experts” too willfully blind (?) to see the Putin regime was in fact an authoritarian smash-and-grab police state junta that was quickly switching to autopilot. It had no need then of real popular support, and it has much less need now. It does, however, generate the illusion of popular support through sham elections, self-fulfilling opinions polls, wars, and relentless mainstream and social media propaganda. But my experience in talking to lots of different people and my intuition tell me it is actually deeply unpopular among the folk who are supposedly its biggest supporters, like these farmers from the Kuban region. The regime’s real support comes from the officials and businessmen who have made out like bandits these past 17 years. They are its real base. TRR

Raivo Shtulberg: I Am the Pug Who Barked at Voldemort

“I am the pug who barked at Voldemort”: High school teacher in Ryazan Region forced to resign after refusing to campaign for United Russia
Darina Shevchenko
October 30, 2015
Yod

Reivo Shtulberg
Raivo Shtulberg

Raivo Shtulberg, thirty-six, taught physics, computer science, and German for thirteen years at the only secondary school in the village of Olkha, in Ryazan Region’s Ukholovo District. Before elections to the Ryazan Regional Duma, in September of this year, the school administration demanded that teachers persuade at least six villagers to vote for the ruling United Russia party. Instead, Shtulberg shot a video in which he explained how teachers were being forced to campaign and posted it on the web. Shtulberg was forced to resign, and can now longer find employment as a teacher. Yod learned the details of the story.

The teachers were given questionnaires and asked to return them filled out with the names and signatures of the people they had successfully canvassed. Shtulberg was outraged by this request.

“At first, we filled in the names of distant relatives so they would leave us alone, but we were told it had to be fellow villagers. I got angry then. We were doing repairs at home, but I had to canvas the village for signatures. Other teachers also resented this. In particular, one of them said something about ‘Russian idiocy,’ but they dutifully went out canvassing.”

Shtulberg recorded a video in which he related how teachers had been forced to campaign for United Russia and posted it on YouTube.

“I acted spontaneously. You might say it was the revolt of the underdog. I am like the pug who barked at Voldemort. Village teachers are paid tiny salaries. I wore the same blazer to work for eight years or so, until two years ago it was completely tattered and I had to buy a new one. The principals have bigger salaries, and they can be ordered to campaign, but a full belly does not understand an empty one. I am not against any party or politician: I cannot reconcile myself with the low quality of life of teachers. If tomorrow, United Russia provided good roads and decent wages, I would vote for them or anyone else [who does these things]. Ultimately, it is my legal right to choose whom I vote for,” says Shtulberg.

The video garnered around 15,000 views on YouTube. It was seen by Yuri Bogomolov, co-chair of the regional branch of the opposition Solidarity and RPR-PARNAS parties in Ryazan. On the basis of what he heard, Bogomolov filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office asking that United Russia be barred from the elections. It was after this, according to Shtulberg, that a crackdown against him was launched at school.

The school’s principal called a faculty meeting, which was attended by Shtulberg’s mother, who also taught at the school. Shtulberg did not attend the meeting himself. He says that the principal made it clear to his mother they both had better resign, otherwise they would be quietly “removed.”

“You can always find fault with a teacher. For example, by doing a full review of all the subjects he teaches and visiting his classes every day, then giving a series of quizzes and removing him for incompetency, and by carefully studying his record keeping,” says Shtulberg.

Yuri Bogomolov urged the disgraced teacher not to resign voluntarily and offered him legal assistance.

“I have no doubt that the campaign questionnaires were handed out at the school where Shtulberg taught. We know that employees at other schools, factories, and hospitals in Ryazan Region were forced to persuade people to vote for United Russia. In my recollection, Shtulberg is the only public sector employee who has openly and personally alleged violations,” says Bogomolov.

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Photocopy of the campaign canvassing questionnaire that Raivo Shtulberg and his fellow teachers were required to ask people in their village to fill out. “Why I will be voting in elections for the Ryazan Regional Duma on September 13, 2015. 1. Because I live in the land of Ryazan. 2. Because I am concerned about the future of my family, my region, [and] my country. 3. Because it is my civic duty. 4. Because it is our common cause. 5. Because I am certain that TOGETHER WE ARE A UNITED RUSSIA. Surname Name Patronymic __________________________ My mobile phone number: __________________________________ My email address: ____________________________.” United Russia received 62% of the votes in the election. Their nearest rivals, the Communists, received a mere 13%. Opposition party Yabloko failed to overcome the five-percent barrier.

Shtulberg turned down the politician’s assistance and voluntarily resigned. His mother also resigned.

“To be honest, I was scared. I was not ready for such an abrupt turn of events,” he says.

Shtulberg’s colleagues responded neutrally to his dismissal.

“Village teacher are mostly good people. They perform their duties conscientiously, but they try and not speak out on political topics, because [they think] it isn’t worth the effort.

“Sit tight, go along with things, do what they ask you to do, get your salary, and don’t dare oppose not only the authorities but even the principal. My colleagues told me reproachfully, ‘United Russia pays our wages. Why can’t [you] live peacefully like other people? We have to vote for whomever the boss tells us to vote,” says Shtulberg.

His fellows villagers were also indifferent to the teacher’s firing. Only the children whom Shtulberg had taught wrote him messages of support on a social network.

Shtulberg says he really loved his job.

“I tried every lesson to give [my pupils] something insightful. In German, I would often offer them extra texts of my own. I would try and make sure the computer games were more interesting, show them lots of videos, and do presentations. I would not say I was pals with my pupils. I kept my distance, but I treated them respectfully.”

After he was fired, Shtulberg tried to find a work at a school. At first, he was offered a job teaching computer science in a neighboring village, but then he was turned down for the job with no explanation.

“I cannot confirm it, but probably they called my previous place of employment and were told what sort of person I was,” says Shtulberg.

He tried to find a job at a school in Ryazan, but realized he would not be able to move to the city. A teacher’s salary would only cover the rent.

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His former bosses claim that the athletic Shtulberg is a binge drinker and alcoholic.

Shtulberg says that he now works as a copywriter and earns enough to get by.

His only regret is that his mother lost her job at the school because of him.

“Mom worked forty-five years at that school. She was an excellent public educator. Mom really misses the school and her pupils. She is in bad psychological shape now. I am very scared for my brother. He also works as a teacher, in a nearby village, and I am afraid he also might suffer because of me,” says Shtulberg.

At the Olkha Village School, Yod was told that Raivo Shtulberg had never worked there. In turn, the Ukholovo District Department of Education and Youth Policy told us that Raivo Shtulberg had taught at the village school in Olkha.

“The school’s principal had to cover for him all the time, because he drank and skipped classes. Because of his alcoholism, he recorded a video, posted it on the web, and dragged all of us through the mud,” our source told us.

Shtulberg is not surprised by these comments.

“I did not abuse alcohol and did not skip classes. But a response like this from bureaucrats does not surprise me. For the authorities, public sector employees do not exist as it were. We are these also-rans pottering about somewhere. We behave peacefully, do not ask for a lot of money, and that is fine. Public sector employees are viewed as a silent constituency that can be used at [the regime’s] discretion.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

_________

Our Swimmer
Our Swimmer

I guess I am a sucker for these stories of underdogs from the Russian hinterlands and margins of Russian society fighting the powers that be practically on their lonesome. There sure do seem to be a fair number of them in the press lately, which is encouraging.

They tell us two things. First, that it is a lie that Putin’s “base of support” is found in places like the village of Olkha in Ryazan Region, where the indomitable Raivo Shtulberg worked as a high school teacher until he was summarily fired for refusing to canvass for the ruling United Russia party in the run-up to regional parliamentary elections there this past September.

If people in places like Olkha “support” Putin and UR, it is not because these mighty rulers have improved their lives in any substantial way. It is because these people are passively afraid of losing what they already have and actively afraid of political authorities in general. History has taught them this lesson.

More importantly, in many cases, they are simply intimidated, upon pain of firing, into “throwing their support” behind the ruling party during elections.

So, among such “losers” like Raivo Shtulberg, Putin is not “popular.” On the contrary, he has been “popularized” among such “simple” and “disempowered” folk through a whole armory of tactics including relentless media propaganda, outright intimidation, and vote rigging.

When push comes to shove, as I hope and think it might someday, folks like Raivo Shtulberg’s fellow villagers will remember his “foolish” deed from several months ago or a few years back, and that will be all she wrote for Putin and UR.

All the pundits, analysts, and journalists who had been excitedly citing polls and 600% approval ratings for Putin in the interim will suddenly do an about-face and pretend they were on the side of the “ordinary people” all along.

Second, Putin’s real base of support is among those who have made out like bandits, either on a major or minor scale, over the past fifteen years. Some of these people might also, technically, be classified as “public sector employees,” like Raivo Shtulberg, but they do not work as village schoolteachers, and their pay grade is way higher. And the kickbacks and perks they enjoy are astronomically better.

And these real-live Putin supporters do not live, for the most part, in villages like Olkha, but in cities like Moscow, Petersburg, and even London.

It is a story too long and convoluted to tell in this slapdash afterword, but to some extent (although certainly not entirely), the Fair Elections movement of 2011-2012 was an attempt by a segment of this pro-Putinist class to save face in its own eyes and the eyes of the “civilized” world by opposing itself feebly to Putin’s “electoral dictatorship.”

Be that as it may, when you are tempted to imagine or encouraged by a lazy journalist or “analyst” to think that Russia’s anti-democratic woes are caused by Putin’s “popularity” among the simple toilers and rural yokels in the “heartlands,” think about what Raivo Shtulberg did and what happened to him, and think again. Russia is where it is today because well-educated people from Moscow and Petersburg with tons of connections to start with wanted it to happen that way.

Base?

pensions
Russia’s old-age pensioners: menace to Russian liberal democracy?

Slava Rabinovich
October 2, 2015
Facebook
#‎ConcreteWall‬

Inflation: 14-17% in rubles.

Consumer basket inflation: 25-70% in rubles (depending on the specific consumer basket).

Currency devaluation:  50%. The value of foreign currency has risen 100%.

The government has decided to index pensions for inflation only by 4% in 2016.

Pensioners vote for Putin.

Putin has stoked and burnt their money in Crimea, Donbass, and Syria, and on an insane military and security services budget, and has stolen trillions right from the same budget.

Pensioners vote for Putin.

Putin has lucked out with pensioners.

________

And yet a little over ten years ago, it was the old-age pensioners (rather than portfolio investors like Mr. Rabinovich or the “rising middle class”) who mounted the first serious, massive grassroots challenge to Putin’s policies and his rule. 

Maybe the old-age pensioners have gone silent now and no longer want to mount such challenges to Putin’s rule. But it is quite amazing to observe so many able-bodied and mentally competent folks in the prime of their life engaged in casting around for whole (mostly imaginary, mostly disempowered, mostly lower) classes of people to blame for Russia’s slide into totalitarianism lite. What sense does it make to say that any whole class of people “votes” for Putin and constitutes his “base,” when we know that elections in Russia are rigged six  ways to Sunday? 

This is not say that Russia’s old-age pensioners shouldn’t be distressed by their deteriorating economic fortunes, as reflected in the distressing and real figures cited by Mr. Rabinovich, above, but the search for the “rubes” who have buttressed Putin’s rise to minor godhood should start with the classes of Russians who have really benefited from his rule. It has most signally not been the mass of old-age pensioners who have made out like bandits, although they may be more vulnerable, in some instances, to Putin’s propaganda machine and, at the local level, to the blandishments offered by the United Russia electoral machine.

If anything, my own (albeit limited) experience of grassroots protest campaigns in Petrograd has shown me that, more often than not, retirees and oldsters do more than their fair share of shouting, tussling, and scrapping with the powers that be.

But it must be nice for Russia’s worldly and well-heeled urban hipsters, thirty- and fortysomethings, and go-getters (whose brains, again in my limited experience, are no less addled by the popular prejudices of the Putin era, and whose bodies are no less averse to putting themselves in harm’s way) to imagine that Putin’s “base” is made up of old-age pensioners, the chronically poor, blue-collar workers, and residents of the Russian hinterlands.

__________

Putin Reforms Greeted by Street Protests
Steven Lee Meyers
January 16, 2005
New York Times

KHIMKI, Russia, Jan. 15 – Mikhail I. Yermakov, a retired engineer, has never before taken to the streets to protest — not when the Soviet Union collapsed, the wars in Chechnya began, the ruble plummeted in 1998 or President Vladimir V. Putin last year ended his right to choose his governor.

On Saturday, however, he joined hundreds of others in the central square of this gritty industrial city on the edge of Moscow in the latest of a weeklong wave of protests across Russia against a new law abolishing a wide range of social benefits for the country’s 32 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities.

Demonstrations were held in at least three other cities in the Moscow region, in the capital of Tatarstan and, for the fourth straight day, in Samara in central Russia. In St. Petersburg, several thousand demonstrators blocked the city’s main boulevard, with some calling for Mr. Putin’s resignation.

Taken together, the protests are the largest and most passionate since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000. They appear to have tapped into latent discontent with Mr. Putin’s government and the party that dominates Parliament, United Russia.

“It is spontaneous, and this is the most dangerous thing for the authorities,” said Mr. Yermakov, 67, as speakers denounced the government from a step beneath a hulking bust of Lenin. “It is a tsunami, and United Russia does not understand that it is going to hit them.”

The law, which took effect on Jan. 1, replaced benefits like free public transportation and subsidies for housing, prescriptions, telephones and other basic services with monthly cash payments starting at a little more than $7.

In a sign of bureaucratic inefficiency, some of those eligible have yet to receive any payments.

Mr. Putin and United Russia’s leaders have defended the law as an important reform ending a vestige of the old Soviet Communist system, but they clearly failed to anticipate the depth of opposition from those who relied most on the subsidies: millions of Russians living on pensions of less than $100 a month.

The protesters have denounced the payments as insufficient to cover the cost of the benefits and as miserly for a country that recently reported a budget surplus of nearly $25 billion.

As the protests unfolded in city after city across Russia, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Aleksei II, who typically allies himself with what is known here as “the party of power,” questioned the law and the government’s handling of it.

“What counts is that this policy should be fair and effective,” he said in a statement on Thursday. “It should be met with understanding by the people. The latest events show that these principles are not observed in full.”

Aleksei P. Kondaurov, a Communist member of the lower house of Parliament, said the law and the protests underscored the shortcomings of the political system that had evolved under Mr. Putin, one dominated by United Russia, which has refused to debate with opposition parties, let alone compromise with them.

“It was clear that it was not carefully calculated,” Mr. Kondaurov said of the new law in an interview.

Mr. Kondaurov predicted the protests would grow and spread to other pressing social issues, which he said Mr. Putin’s government and United Russia were ignoring.

At a minimum, the protests have raised doubts about Mr. Putin’s other proposed reforms, including those in banking, housing and electricity, which were supposed to be the centerpieces of his second term.

“It’s not going to be like Ukraine,” Mr. Kondaurov said, drawing a parallel, as some have here, to the far larger demonstrations that overturned the election there for president in November. “But it is clear to me that a political and economic crisis is taking shape in Russia.”

After first brushing off the protests, United Russia’s leaders have begun scrambling to respond. They have accused the Communists and other parties of inflaming tensions and have tried to deflect blame to regional governments, which they say are responsible for implementing the benefit changes.

Some local governments, most prominently the Moscow city administration, have vowed to reinstate the benefits stripped at the federal level, but few other regions are wealthy enough to afford to do so.

On Friday, the chairman of Parliament’s social and labor committee, Andrei N. Isayev, said that next week, lawmakers would consider raising pensions by 15 percent in February, rather than 5 percent in April, as now planned.

Others in United Russia have also tried to distance themselves from Mr. Putin’s new government, which has been in place for only 10 months. The deputy speaker of Parliament, Lyubov K. Sliska, said Friday that she did not rule out the dismissal of Prime Minister Mikhail Y. Fradkov and his cabinet.

But the protests have continued to grow. They began quietly, with a rally organized by the Communist Party in Solnechnogorsk, near Moscow, on Jan. 9, the 100th anniversary of the 1905 uprising.

A day later, here in Khimki, several hundred people briefly blocked the main highway to St. Petersburg in what several of those involved called a spontaneous uprising. After a scuffle with the police, 12 elderly protesters were arrested, but initial threats to prosecute them were quickly dropped.

Since then the protests have erupted in at least a dozen other cities, drawing thousands. In Tula, 110 miles south of Moscow, aging protesters clashed with bus conductors who refused to allow them to board city transport without paying, prompting the city to post police officers on the buses.

In Novosibirsk, in Siberia, a dozen pensioners mailed their cash payments for transit — the equivalent of a little more than $3 — to Boris V. Gryzlov, the leader of United Russia and parliamentary speaker, according to the Regnum news agency.

The protesters here in Khimki’s central square on Saturday represented those who have fared the worst in Russia’s post-Soviet transition.

Mr. Yermakov’s monthly pension equals roughly $85 a month. As a resident of the Moscow region, a separate administration from that of the city government, he qualified for a supplement of $7 to replace the subsidies lost under the new law. The bus fare for three trips to the small tract of land he is allowed for planting a vegetable garden, four miles away, will take nearly half that amount.

Vladilena T. Berova, whose given name is an homage to Vladimir Lenin, served at the end of World War II as a corporal in Soviet intelligence and went on to work as a psychotherapist for five decades in Moscow. Now 78 and widowed, she survives on 2,000 rubles a month, about $71.

“The fascists took my youth,” she said, referring to the war. “And now these people are taking away my old age.”

The protests have included something still rare in today’s Russia: personal criticism of Mr. Putin, who has remained popular by projecting an image of stability, one carefully protected by officials and state television.

“Instead of listening to us, he is listening to an organ,” Mr. Yermakov said, referring bitingly to Mr. Putin’s participation in the unveiling of a newly restored organ in St. Petersburg on Friday with Germany’s president, Horst Köhler.

The benefits law has already been credited, at least in part, with a slip in Mr. Putin’s ratings, as well as a general decline in the public’s mood.

A poll by the Levada Center, released on Saturday, said that only 39 percent of Russians considered Mr. Putin the most trusted politician. That is still higher than anyone else, but a drop from 58 percent a year ago.

Sergei Y. Glazyev, a member of Parliament who challenged Mr. Putin during the election for president last year, said in an interview that “the people’s struggle for social rights” should be decided in a national referendum, rather than imposed by the Kremlin and its governing party. Voters, he said, had been fooled.

“A majority of those who voted for Putin,” he said, “had a quiet different expectation of what they would get.”

Mr. Rabinovich’s Facebook post translated by the Russian Reader. Image, above, courtesy of the Moscow Times