Civilization Won’t Be Destroyed by Extraterrestrials: On the Possible Merger of Russia’s Two Largest Libraries

Tatyana Shumilova. Photo courtesy of Rosbalt

Civilization Won’t Be Destroyed by Extraterrestrials
The consequences of merging Russia’s two largest libraries would be disastrous, argues the Russian National Library’s Tatyana Shumilova
Alexander Kalinin
Rosbalt
February 1, 2017

The idea of merging Russia’s two biggest libraries was proposed to culture minister Vladimir Medinsky by their directors, Vladimir Gnezdilov (the Russian State Library in Moscow, aka the Leninka) and Alexander Visly (the Russian National Library in Petersburg, aka the Publichka). The proposal has hardly garnered universal approval. The country’s leading authorities on librarianship have sent a letter to President Putin asking him to stop the merger from going ahead. They have been supported by Russian philologists and historians.

Tatyana Shumilova, chief bibliographer in the Russian National Library’s information and bibliography department, spoke to Rosbalt about how staff there have related to the possible merger with the Russian State Library, and whether the issue has been broached with them.

What are the possible consequences of merging the country’s two biggest libraries?

Our library would simply cease to exist in its current shape. Many people have made much of the fact that the RNL’s executive director Alexander Visly has said the changes would not give rise to a new legal entity. Of course, they wouldn’t. One legal entity would remain: the RSL. So everyone realizes it’s not a merger that is at issue, but a takeover.

So we could equate the words “merger” and “destruction” in this case?

Yes, definitely. A merger would be tantamount to the death of our library here in Petersburg. After the RNL became a branch or appendage of the RSL, our work with readers would cease to be funded. We would not be able to provide them with the full scope of services. Plus, we would have to switch to the RSL’s system, and that would be undesirable. We are told the catalogues in both libraries are structured on the same principle. That is not true. There is a big difference between them. It would be quite complicated to restructure the system. The different approaches to librarianship should be preserved.

Moscow has the administrative resources. The government is located in the capital, as is the Culture Ministry. Moscow and Moscow Region are the home of the RSL, the Russian Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (VINITI), the Russian National Public Library for Science and Technology, the State Historic Public Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature (aka the Inostranka). And, until recently, the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences (INION RAN) was running at full steam. But the Northwest Federal Region has only two major libraries, the RNL and the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences (aka the BAN). After a merger, there would be one.

I understand that, after the merger, publishers would not have to send an obligatory copy of their books to the RNL. Only Moscow would get new books?

That is one of the cost-saving measures. Allegedly, money would not have to be spent on two sets of obligatory copies. It would be enough to have one hard copy and a digital copy. But the outcome would be that Petersburg would simply stop receiving most new books. It’s a rather cynical cost-cutting measure that would affect only our library, not the RSL, which was founded much later than the RNL. And all because it’s located in Moscow. No one says it outright, but it’s clear anyway.

But the RNL would still get a digital copy.

I really don’t understand the idea of sending a digital copy instead of a hard copy. We have a huge number of readers who for medical reasons cannot and should not use a computer. Why should we deprive them of hard copies? It’s simply indecent. Besides, we know what natural disasters electronic resources are prone to. A blackout, a power surge in the network, a server failure, and everything is lost. A library should not be dependent only on one type of resource.

People who take far-reaching, momentous decisions like to base them by alluding to the know-how of other libraries and even other countries. But nowhere do national libraries receive only digital copies of printed matter. You can probably merge libraries in Denmark, but the Russian Federation is a different country, a much larger country with a much larger population. Although the name would stay the same, the RNL would in fact cease being a national library. We already have municipal and neighborhood libraries in Petersburg. People come to us as a last resort, when there is nowhere else to go.

Nor is anyone probably really aware that digital copies relate not only to books but to magazines and newspapers as well.

Apparently, the shots are being called by people who don’t read and don’t go to libraries. Just how did the culture minister write his dissertations and books? By using the Internet? Or did someone else do it for him?

Where did the idea to merge the libraries come from?

Rumors about the merger have been circulating for a long time. They are all we have to go on, for no one has said anything officially. It’s still too early to draw any conclusions from the available facts. Now no one denies that merger talks are underway. Earlier, apparently, they were too busy to reveal this, or maybe they were ashamed or embarrassed. But now they’re not ashamed anymore.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Vladimir Zaitsev, the then-director of the Publichka, was worried about the library’s potential plight. That was when the name Russian National Library was coined. Lots of people didn’t like it, but Zaitsev thought it would give us stability and protect us from attacks. As we see now, it didn’t work for long. The opportunity to save millions of rubles has now been identified as grounds for merging the libraries. Indeed, you could probably calculate the worth of the books and the real estate by eye. But how do you evaluate the intangible assets? How many people have been educated here? How many people, from university students to scholars, have grown up here? They wrote their dissertations and books here. If you write a research paper based on more than two sources, you are going to need a library. This is serious work.

It is believed the RNL’s current director Alexander Visly was sent to Petersburg on a “temporary assignment” in order to merge the two libraries. Do you agree?

Officials rarely condescend to explaining the reasons for their actions directly. They believe they should not be accountable to the taxpaypers. No one has announced anything to us officially. But talk of a possible merger started after Anton Likhomanov left the director’s post at the RNL in early 2016. Visly wasn’t the only person tipped for the vacancy, after all. The director of the Lermontov Interdistrict Centralized Library System, in Petersburg, and the director of the National Library of the Republic of Karelia were identified as possible candidates.

Several months passed between Likhomanov’s departure and Visly’s arrival. We don’t know what was discussed during that time. Apparently, there was some kind of horse trading underway. According to the rumors in Moscow, Visly really didn’t want to move to Petersburg, but he was nevertheless talked into going in order to perform certain functions. The fact that an executive director has not yet been appointed at the RSL, and they only have an acting director, causes one to reflect grimly on the subject.

Indeed, Visly has not taken an interest in day-to-day affairs in Petersburg. He is busy with construction, renovating the Lenin Reading Room, and he has visited the cataloguing and acquisition departments. By the way, officials have been saying the functions of these departments overlap at the RNL and RSL. So he hasn’t been dealing with the library as a whole, although he is the executive director and should be responsible for everything that happens in the RNL. Apparently, this circumstance has been agreed upon with someone. No one would reproach him for it.

Has the issue of the possible merger been discussed with RNL staff?

There have been no meetings on the topic with the workforce, and none are planned. No one keeps us in the loop. There are no general staff meetings.  There is the practice of informational meetings, to which the heads of the departments and units are invited. My comrades once expressed a desire to take part in one such meeting, but they were simply booted out. Staff members only talk about the merger amongst themselves.

What do they say?

Very little that is positive. Everyone fears for his or her future. But what can rank-and-file library staffers do? Some signed the letter supporting the library, while others didn’t. Some have signed a petition. What else can we do?  We need large-scale outside support, but how do we get it? People know very little about the merger of the libraries, after all. Even if they wanted  to  find out about the consequences of the mergers, where would they look? Yandex News. And what would they find there? News about fires, missing schoolchildren, pedestrians run over by cars, and people falling from tall buildings. There is almost no news about culture.

And how do we explain to university lecturers, university students, and schoolchildren what could happen to the library? How do we convince them that the problem concerns them, too? Even university students come to us for textbooks, because the university libraries are shortchanged when it comes to new acquisitions of books. But our customers, people to whom provide information, include the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, the Investigative Committee, the FSB, the Interior Ministry, and other organizations. So it turns out they could not care less, either. Or they naively believe nothing will change. Maybe they don’t understand the consequences?

Have you thought about organizing a protest rally?

Few library staffers would attend such a rally. Everyone is scared redundancies will kick off, and his or her department will be eliminated. There is the chance of winding up on the streets. There are people working here who went through the hungry 1990s on miserly wages. At least they were paid regularly. Director Vladimir Zaitsev, who constantly traveled to Moscow and literally sat in the minister’s waiting room, deserves the credit for that.

So a lot of people would not attend a rally. No one wants to lose their job. Take a look, for example, at how many people came out to defend St. Isaac’s Cathedral. A lot fewer than could have come out.

People today are surrounded by informational noise. They hear about Crimea, Ukraine, and America. Old ladies at bus stops don’t discuss cultural issues, but US Presidents Obama and Trump. Everyone in Russia is totally confused.

What consequences would the merger have for readers? For example, one of the plusses that has been mentioned is that people with RNL cards would be able to use the RSL in Moscow.

Initially, readers would have no sense of any change. They just wouldn’t understand anything. After all, we would continue to acquire some new books. Qualitative negative changes build up unnoticed. They’re not visible immediately. In Germany in 1933, not everyone realized immediately what exactly was happening, either.

Aside from the issue of conservation and security, replacing hard copies with digital copies would cause yet another exodus of readers, especially elderly people, who often don’t like or cannot read e-books. Indeed, many young readers, when you suggest they use a digital source, reply, “I don’t need your Internet. I came here to read books.” Reducing the numbers of live readers to a minimum would probably lead to the next step: closing the library altogether. “Why keep you open?” officials would say, “Nobody visits your library.”

As for a single library card for the two libraries, there wouldn’t be much advantage to it. RNL readers can easily get a card for the Leninka, and Leninka readers can easily get a card for the RNL. It’s a snap: you just need your internal passport. You don’t even have to bring a photograph to the registration desk anymore.

So is there any way out of the situation, or is the RNL’s takoever inevitable?

I don’t want to accept the fact it could happen. But RNL staff are hardly in a position to do anything. They have almost no influence on the situation. Respected people, prominent scholars and cultural figures, have to speak out, people with whom the authorities have to reckon. As it is, only Arkady Sokolov and Valery Leonov, out of the entire Petersburg library community, have spoken out on the topic. None of the museums or universities have openly supported us. It is sad.

I don’t think the city could solve the problem by talking the library under its wing. That would only delay its death. The city could not fund the RNL properly. I don’t know what other options we have for saving the library. We have let the moment passs when we could have looked for sponsors to support us financially.

What do RSL employees think of the merger?

They are silent because the merger wouldn’t affect them. They would continue to function as before and do the same things they did earlier, such as acquiring the obligatory copies, hard copies and digital copies, of everything published in Russia. The negative consequences would only affect us, meaning the Russian National Library.

The most concise definition of culture is this: culture is the transmission of tradition. Breakdowns in the production, concentration, and reclamation of the national heritage (a process in which libraries are an inalienable and quite important component) have led to the collapse of civilizations throughout history. Then people go looking for the extraterrestrials who flew in and destroyed everything. The perpetrators are actually much closer.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up

UPDATE. Sadly but predictably, the Russian National Library has now decided to dismiss Tatyana Shumilova from her job there for granting this frank interview to Rosbalt, although ostensibly, as follows from the letter below, dated 3 February 2017 and signed by E.V. Tikhonova, acting director of the RNL, she is threatened with dismissal for, allegedly, being absent from work for four hours and thirteen minutes on 30 January 2017. Thanks to Comrade VA for this information and the scan of the letter. TRR

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UPDATE 2. Today, February 7, there have been corroborated reports that Tatyana Shumilova has been summarily dismissed from her job at the Russian National Library in Petersburg. TRR

Turn off the News

"Maximus Paintball Club. Pirate Village Facility: Children's Parties, Birthdays, Office Parties," Petrovsky Island, Petersburg, 26 April 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
“Maximus Paintball Club. Pirate Village Facility: Children’s Parties, Birthdays, Office Parties,” Petrovsky Island, Petersburg, 26 April 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Here is a snapshot of Rosbalt news agency’s Petersburg regional news wire for yesterday, 28 December 2016. TRR

Source: Rosbalt

Thanks to Lola Preobrazhenskaya for the heads-up. Headlines translated by the Russian Reader

MP Oleg Shein: Astrakhan Region Headed for Social Catastrophe

Russian MP Oleg Shein. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Russian MP Oleg Shein in 2009. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

MP: Astrakhan Region Headed for Deep Social Catastrophe
Rosbalt
November 18, 2016

Astrakhan is among the regions undergoing a social catastrophe, argues MP Oleg Shein, who sits on the State Duma’s Committee for Labor, Social Policy, and Veterans Affairs. As the MP told our correspondent, both federal and regional authorities are to blame for the situation.

“Astrakhan Region is currently undergoing a fiscal disaster due to the fact the regional budget has collapsed. This year, it has been slashed by 15%, from 38 to 33 billion rubles. Next year, the regional authorities have proposed cutting the budget by another eight billion rubles. Accordingly, the budget will have shrunk by about 40% in two years. Already this year, financial aid to the poor has been completely eliminated, and subsidies for parents paying fees to kindergartens have been canceled, causing kindergarten fees to increase by one and half times. The upper grades have been eliminated in a number of schools. Schools have gone from eleven grades to nine grades, and this has caused overcrowded classes in the remaining schools. Payroll has been reduced by 7% for public sector employees: doctors, teachers, and cultural workers. Actually, 7% is the average figure; large numbers of people have had their salaries cut much more considerably. So the region really is headed downhill, and the regional government sees no ways of heading off the disaster,” said Shein.

 […]

“The regional authorities—and there is some truth to this—explain what is happening by referring to the loss of tax revenues from the oil industry. Several years ago, the State Duma—or rather, the United Russia party—freed Lukoil from paying taxes on its oil rigs in the Caspian Sea. This year as well, United Russia has voted to transfer the profits from oil production in the Caspian, the income tax revenue, from the regional budget to the federal budget. The regional authorities were really counting on the money, but they have ended up with nothing.  But there is a second reason: their completely devil-may-care approach to drafting the regional budget and the loss of the local tax base. Sometimes, the regional government has literally abetted hostile takeovers of local companies, as, for example, happened to the local company Bassol, which supplies 60% of the salt to the Russian market and now pays taxes outside of Astrakhan Region. Paradoxically, the regional government welcomed this,” said Shein.

The MP said that despite its socio-economic difficulties, Astrakhan Region was also marked by high levels of corruption and the waste of money on mega projects like a musical theater and so on.

According to a rating compiled by the sociology department at the Russian Federation Government Financial University, Astrakhan was among the Russian cities with populations of 500,000 or more where the lowest indices for quality of life had been recorded. According to Astrakhanstat, during the period from January 2016 to August 2016, the real disposable income of Astrakhan Region residents was 89.4% of what it had been during the same period last year.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Valentin Urusov for the heads-up

Ministry of Funny Walks

motyl-lightsoutforputin_hockey
Russian President Vladimir Putin skates during a training session of participants of the Night Ice Hockey League in Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi, Russia, January 6, 2016. Photo: Aleksey Nikolskiy/Reuters

Disabled Man Not Admitted to Ice Hockey World Championship Match Because He “Walked Funny”
Rosbalt
May 17, 2016

Roman Mironov, a Category I disabled man, was unable to attend a Ice Hockey World Championship match, despite the fact he had a complimentary ticket. He told his story to Rosbalt.

“I was given a complimentary ticket, because I am a volunteer and help people with disabilities. I decided to go to a hockey match at Yubileiny Arena [in Petersburg], but the police turned me away, saying I ‘walked funny.’ I asked them to substantiate their actions, but they refused to give me an explanation. I showed them my ticket, but they did not even want to look at it.”

According to Mironov, this was not the first time he had not been admitted to public events.

“There have been cases when I have not been admitted to public celebrations and football matches,” he said.

Mironov has childhood cerebral palsy, because of which, he admits, he has been the target of discrimination on more than one occasion.

The Russian Federal Interior Ministry officially announced that police do not exercise checkpoint and admission functions at sporting events.

“It should be noted the police’s job at sporting events, including the hockey championships, is solely to ensure public order,” the Interior Ministry said.

The Ice Hockey World Championship kicked off in Petersburg on May 6 and winds up on May 22.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Mediazona for the heads-up. Photo, above, courtesy of Foreign Affairs

Dmitry Vorobyovsky Freed by Voronezh Court!

Dmitry Vorobyovsky
Dmitry Vorobyovsky

Court in Voronezh Rejects Forced Psychiatric Hospitalization of Opposition Activist
Rosbalt
May 12, 2016

A Voronezh court has refused to involuntarily hospitalize opposition activist Dmitry Vorobyovsky in a mental hospital. As Voronezh political activist Alexander Boldyrev has informed Rosbalt, the opposition activist has been released from the hospital.

“I did not even expect this outcome, since even the hearing was declared open. But the prosecutor’s office did not support the motion to involuntarily hospitalize Vorobyovsky,” said Boldyrev.

Commenting on Vorobyovsky’s release, lawyer Olga Gnezdilova suggested that appeals by human rights organizations played a role by forcing law enforcement officials to pay attention to the letter of the law.

On Friday, May 6, Vorobyovsky was forcibly taken to the clinic from his home. People who said they were employees of the city gas company called at the door of his apartment. When Vorobyovsky opened the door, he was restrained and dragged off to an ambulance. The administration of the Voronezh Regional Psycho-Neurological Clinic filed a petition with the court to have the man forcibly hospitalized. Doctors called the hunger strike Vorobyovsky announced after his abduction “symptoms of his illness.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the good news. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International

Decriminalizing Domestic Violence in Russia?

Women in Petersburg Celebrated February 23 by Paving the Way to a Church with “Dead” Bodies 
Rosbalt
February 24, 2016

Photo courtesy of protest organizers

A protest action against discrimination and the [proposed decriminalization of] battery and homicide threats took place outside St. Nicholas Maritime Cathedral in Petersburg. Feminists thus marked Fatherland Defenders Day.

During the performance, two men laid out young women, who depicted the fatal victims of beatings, on the steps leading to the church. At the end of the protest action, the protesters raised placards bearing slogans such as “My man made threats, my man killed me,” “Who will defend us from the defenders of the fatherlands?” “I said no: he broke my arm,” “97% of abuse cases never make it to court,” and “Thank you, legislators, for our happy deaths.”

Фото предоставлено организаторами акции
Photo courtesy of protest organizers
Фото предоставлено организаторами акции
“My man threatened me, my man killed me.” Photo courtesy of protest organizers

The organizers told Rosbalt they were protesting against the [proposed] removal of battery and homicide threats from the Russian Criminal Code.

“The decision as to whether women can find protection from law enforcement agencies or not is being made by legislators and priests who do not suffer from beatings by their partners. How is this possible? Do the lives and health of the country’s citizens not interest the government? Every fourth woman in Russia faces domestic violence,” the organizers noted.

According to them, it is extremely difficult for women to file battery complaints. And most often the perpetrator is not duly published: the charges are limited to a misdemeanor.

Whereas “women put up with violence their whole lives and often die at the hands of their partners.”

“We believe such a law is a crime,” noted the organizers.

Фото предоставлено организаторами акции
Photo courtesy of protest organizer

The Way to the Church

Russian women marked February 23 by paving the way to a church with dead bodies. 

The women were thus protesting the [proposed] exclusion of battery and homicide threats from the Criminal Code, a measure actively lobbied by the Russian Orthodox Church. 

The chairman of the Patriarchal Commission on the Family and the Defense of Motherhood and Childhood has opposed ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic violence. (From the commission’s website, February 26, 2015)

[President Putin] urged [lawmakers] not to delay passage of the law, which would decriminalize such articles of the Criminal Code as battery, homicide threats, and willful failure to pay alimony. (Kommersant, February 16, 2016)

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade SJ and the Nihilist for the heads-up

__________

Russian Supreme Court proposes to decriminalize minor offences
RAPSI
July 31, 2015

MOSCOW, July 31 (RAPSI) – Russia’s Supreme Court suggested decriminalizing minor offenses such as battery, the threat of homicide, failure to pay alimony or child support, RAPSI learnt in the court on Friday.

In a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev proposed that minor crimes such as battery and petty theft be decriminalized and classified as administrative offenses [misdemeanors]. He said this would reduce the number of cases sent to court by 300,000 annually.

A bill, which the Supreme Court has drafted, would decriminalize petty crimes such as battery, the use of forged documents, the threat of homicide and failure to pay alimony or child support. Penalties for these offenses would only include fines, correctional labor or community service.

Justice Vladimir Davydov said at the plenary meeting that this would free up half of all investigators to deal with serious crimes and would help over 300,000 people avoid criminal penalties and negative consequences for employment, education and the issuance of passports or loans.

A deputy prosecutor general said he supported the idea, adding that approval would allow investigators, who claim to be too busy with petty crimes, to investigate more serious crimes.

Petty crimes accounted for 46 percent of all cases sent to court last year.

__________

Putin suggests decriminalization of Russian Penal Code
TASS
December 3, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked Russian lawmakers to support a proposal to decriminalize a number of articles of the Russian Penal Code.

“I am asking the Russian State Duma to support the proposal of the Russian Supreme Court to decriminalize some articles of the Russian Penal Code and transfer some of the crimes that pose no great threat to the public or society to the category of administrative offenses but with one major reservation: the offense will be classified as a crime if it is committed for a second time,” Putin said in the annual state of the nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly (parliament) on Thursday.

The head of state clarified that practically every second criminal case, which is taken to court today, is linked to minor and inconsiderable offenses while people, including youth, are sent to prison.

“The confinement and the fact of criminal conviction affect their future fate and often encourage them to commit further crimes,” the president concluded.

Russian penitentiaries have around 660,000 inmates. According to the Federal Penitentiary Service, 55% of them are recidivists. Approximately 25% of the offenders serve prison sentences for minor offenses and crimes of medium gravity; 1,800 people have been convicted for terrorism and extremism.

Excessive acts of law enforcement agencies destroy business climate in Russia

Putin said excessive acts of law enforcement agencies destroy the business climate in Russia.

“That is a direct destruction of the business climate. I am asking the investigation and prosecution authorities to pay a special attention to it,” he said.

The President said that in 2014 nearly 200,000 criminal cases on economic crimes were initiated in Russia. Of this number 46,000 reached the court and 15,000 cases “collapsed” in courts.

“It turns out that only 15% of cases ended with verdicts,” Putin said.

He added that most of the defendants in these cases – about 83% – fully or partially lost their businesses.

“That means that there were bullied, robbed and released,” the head of state said.

He called on prosecutors to make a wider use of their authorities to monitor the quality of the investigation.

The president also recalled the discussions on additional powers of prosecutors.

Today, a supervisory authority has the authority to cancel decisions on initiation of criminal proceedings, to dismiss indictments or not to uphold the charges in court.

“We need to use what we have more intensively. After that we will be able to analyze what is happening in practice,” he said.

According to Putin, detention at the stage of investigation of economic crimes should be used as a last resort and preference should be given to such methods as pledge, subscription on parole and house arrest.

[…]

Striking Petersburg Truckers: “If the Politicians Think We Are Disorganized Louts, They Are Wrong”

Striking Petesburg truckers Oleg Krutskhikh and Alexei Zhatko
Striking Petesburg truckers Oleg Krutskhikh and Alexei Zhatko

“Soon the whole country will work for the Rotenbergs”
Antonida Pashinina
November 25, 2015
Rosbalt

Long-haul truckers have continued their protests against the Plato system in Russia. Truckers are outraged by new tolls on federal highways and are determined to have them abolished. In the Northern Capital, drivers got all the way to the Smolny [Petersburg city hall], but a dialogue with the authorities did not take place there. Private entrepreneurs and veteran truckers Oleg Krutskikh and Alexei Zhatko told Rosbalt about why they are willing to fight to the last, what they will do in the event of failure, and what their families think about their protest.

How did you start working as truckers?

Oleg: I began driving when I got out of the army, in 1998 or 1999. My dad was a driver, and I followed in his footsteps. You know how it is: army brats are drawn to the army. Well, sons of truckers are drawn to trucking. First, I drove a KamAZ, then a MAZ. I am from the Voronezh Region. In the 2000s, my family and I moved to Petersburg. I spent ten years behind the wheel of cargo trucks, then I became an entrepreneur, although I have kept driving myself.

Alexei: I am originally from the Stavropol Territory. I moved to Petersburg in 1999. I moved my father here. He is a trucker. At first, I worked as a dispatcher in a container company. Then I took a truck from this company to break in. I put Dad behind the wheel, and he went to work. Then I started to drive myself and I bought several trucks.

It was profitable to work in freight haulage then, right?

Oleg: Yes, in the no-holds-barred nineties and noughties, you got paid in cash in dollars. A round trip within the city cost $100, to Moscow, $850–950. Then we were forced to legalize, which was the right thing to do. We started paying taxes. We became self-employed entrepreneurs or turned our operations into limited liability companies. Until 2008, we did more or less all right. We made enough to pay for fuel and pay our drivers. The oil flowed abroad, and the government had enough money both for itself and for people, to throw them some bones. Then the dollar rose, the price of spare parts soared, and there was less work. Depreciation amounts to a lot of money in Russia, and you are left with peanuts. Basically, we cannot afford to replace our vehicle fleets.

Alexei: From 2002 to 2008, when the tax system was semi-gray and payments were made in cash, I bought trucks. I had eight of them. Subsequently, every year I would cut one truck to be able to repair the rest. Now I have one heavy transport truck left. I used to have these issues. I would drive to the service center and they would replace all the bad parts. You won’t believe me, but now I know which city and which demo yard has the cheapest spare parts. What is a demo yard? A place that sells used parts. That means we are not running 100% safe on the road anymore. Even if a part has 20% wear and tear, your safety is lower.

Oleg: The point is that incomes have fallen almost to zero. Basically, [the authorities] want to take the shirt off our backs, but we are refusing to budge. We are not earning anything nowadays. We have ground to a halt and are idling.

Have you been involved in the protests for long?

Oleg: Since November 11.

Alexei: I was out of town for two months. I left in August, and when I got back these new developments had emerged. I was forced to leave the truck in Krasnodar and fly here. It was cheaper. I have not worked since November 15.

The stance of the authorities is clear. Long-haul truckers must pay the damages the big rigs cause to federal highways.

Alexei:  I really do not understand this. If the permissible weight is forty tons, how can I cause damage to roads? I pay motor vehicle tax and excise duties. I cannot cause more damage than is stipulated by the State Standards. But I am told that I cause more damage than I should anyway.

Nobody knows how the motor vehicle tax is spent. Take a look at our roads. The M10 from Petersburg to Moscow is more or less okay. The M7, to Tatarstan, is good, and the M4 is not bad. There are no other [decent] roads [in Russia]. Take, for example, the M5. The section from Syzran to Penza is a disaster. From Samara almost to Ufa there are two hundred-odd kilometers that we travel at a snail’s pace. And then they say they are closing the highway because it has drifted. In fact, they just do not plow the road, and traffic moves slowly. You cannot climb hills or get up to speed. So the authorities decide to close the whole thing. It is easier for them.

Oleg: Or take a look at how much the toll roads cost. They have now opened a road near Vishny Volochyok to Moscow. It is 920 rubles one-way, meaning nearly 2,000 rubles round trip [approx. 28 euros]. The toll on the M11 is 1,200 rubles. So a round trip has gone up by 4,000 rubles. And I have not figured in the tolls on the Western High-Speed Diameter. Plus, the Plato system costs around 2,000 rubles until March, then it will cost 5,000 rubles. The rise in expenses due to toll roads will come to around 9,000 rubles. That is a 25% increase.

Look, a 25% rise in freight haulage costs means that all the prices in the shops will go up. Old ladies and pensioners will bear the brunt. I think the authorities are keen to put tolls on absolutely all roads. For example, Leningrad Region Governor Drozdenko said that regional roads should be toll roads, too. They have gone after the truckers first, because we could be accused of damaging the roads. If they imposed this law on all drivers at once, it would not be just us who were out protesting. Others would come have out as well.

Do you think the authorities were afraid of mass protests?

Oleg: I think they wanted to get us to this point stage by stage. At first, they will work out the bugs on us, and then gradually incorporate everyone else.

It will come to the point where drivers of passenger cars will pay the duty as well. If we do not squash it and stop it, the entire country will work for the Rotenbergs. The burden will fall on everyone’s shoulder. We will be like slaves. They will legally be able to use us.

Alexei: Try and understand the trucker’s mindset. I like my job because I am as free as the wind. If I want to go Novosibirsk, I go there. Tomorrow, I might want to go to Krasnodar. It is a kind of freedom. But now they are trying to put a noose around my neck, and they can always tighten it. I find myself in Novosibirsk, for example. They tighten the noose, and I cannot make it back home. My only choice would be to abandon everything, sell the truck, and get home on some other form of transport. So I don’t want this noose. But long-haul truckers are a kind of caste who are no strangers to hardship. Our lifestyle differs little from that of a dog. We live in our rigs like a dog in a kennel. Just like a dog pisses on the wheel, so do we. So if truckers do end up moving on Moscow [in protest] that will not be a problem. Living in our rigs for a month near Moscow would be easier than pie.

You have not even tried to register on the Plato system?

Alexei: Why should I? I don’t recognize it and I am not planning to recognize it.

It would be easier for me to run my rig downtown sometime, drive it up to the Smolny ignoring all the traffic warning signs, and set fire to it.

What is the point of working under such a system? I am ashamed for the government. I used to idolize Medvedev. I used to respect him. Three or four years ago, he said that we would add a tax of seven rubles to the price of fuel and abolish the motor vehicle tax. I was really happy about this. I thought, let it be that way. I did not quite get it, but it would be simpler for me than running to the state savings bank all the time to pay the taxes and fees. But how has it all turned out?

Now they are promising to reduce the fines, but there is not a single regulatory document backing this promise up. You phone Rosavtodor (the Russian Federal Road Agency), and [they tell you] the rates on the Plato website are still in effect. How is that? My idol Dmitry Medvedev says one thing, but something else happens. This has political implications. But still, it is painful, what can I say.

I understand that you don’t want to associate your protests with politics?

Oleg: This is our life. We are fighting for it, for the lives of our families and their families.

Alexei: We don’t need revolutions and upheavals, because there are problems after all upheavals, and the economy will have to recover. There won’t be any work, and the country will suffer from poverty. We don’t want that.

And what is the difference? One group of people is now in power, then people just like them will take over. The only thing I do not understand is why a barrel of oil cost eight dollars in the 1990s, and now it costs over forty dollars, but we still do not have enough money. And why in the 1990s, if someone in the government admitted his mistakes, he offered his resignation, but nowadays an official who has goofed up big time says, “Well, that didn’t work out. Sorry, but I am going to keep working.”

Oleg: And what happened with [former Russian defense minister] Serdyukov? How could you, guys? They spit in the country’s face. If they spit in the Investigative Committee’s face, who are we truckers? I won’t be surprised if [the powers that be] do not react to us at all, if they just have the riot police crush us.

You think they could start cracking down on the protests using the riot police?

Oleg: For now we are being treated more or less decently. Time will tell.

What is the news from the field? Do you know anything about how the events have affected businesses in Russia?

Alexei: The first [city] to sound the alarm has been Tyumen. They produce their own bread and milk, but everything else is shipped in. The produce will not last long. In Volgograd, a glass factory has temporarily shut down. But here I am thinking: many factories are certainly owned by politicians, by MPs. Ordinary people would not own them. And this is a blow to the owners. So while we are not driving, there should be some movement on the part of our rulers.

According to my information, there are four ferries at a standstill in Novorossiysk, and New Year’s is around the corner. In Derbent, there are many train cars loaded with persimmons, tangerines, and pomegranates that are not going anywhere. They simply have nowhere to offload the produce there. The persimmons arrive there in ordinary heated freight cars and cannot be stored for long. I think if we continue the stoppage, then it will not just be a protest—

But a strike, rather.

Alexei: It is a strike. We cannot go back on the roads. We have been cornered. If things go on like this, it will be worse.

Approximately how much do you pay in taxes per year?

Oleg: I did the calculations for seven trucks. We burn through about 30 tons of diesel a month. Multiply that by 7 rubles, and it comes to 210,000 rubles a month, or two and half million rubles a year. Plus there is the motor vehicle tax and the taxes for individual entrepreneurships and limited liability companies. All in all, it comes to around three and a half million rubles [approx. 50,000 euros]. Meaning that if Plato goes online, we will probably bite the dust, and the treasury will come up three and a half million rubles short. If you do the math, that amounts to good pensions for twenty-eight old ladies or tiny pensions for fifty old ladies. So all those old ladies will lose their pensions. The people who work for me will end up at the unemployment office, and the state will have to cut them unemployment checks.

The truckers have shown all Russians a great example of solidarity. Basically, people from different parts of the country have united to fight for their rights.

Alexei: Despite the fact that the media have been blacking us out, all of us—our groups of drivers and our dispatchers—have been getting the message out. I have lots of dispatchers who have been explaining to customers that they are not going hand over loads to anyone, because we are all in solidarity, because each of us has his trucks out there. When I was driving from Novorossiysk to Krasnodar to store my truck in the lot there, a traffic cop stopped me. He asked where I was going. I explained I was going to a lot, then flying to Petersburg.

That was a traffic cop who asked me. What does this tell us? That the traffic police, too, probably have their own trucks out there or friends and acquaintances. They support the truckers, but they have their orders. I myself am a former military man. Everyone understands everything perfectly.

As far as I know, the police have so far not been actively hindering the protests. In Petersburg, for example, the protesters got off with small fines.

Alexei: No, their objective is to break up the convoys of trucks.

Are you not afraid of provocations?

Oleg: We got together to figure out how we would run our protests, and there was immediately news on the web that Oleg Krutskikh was an accomplice of Navalny and all. Someone started writing to truckers that there would be no protest, that it had been called off. A specific agency is working against us.

Alexei: People get SMS alerts that a protest will not take place. That so-and-so works for Navalny and is trying to start a commotion.

What do you think about United Russia MP Yevgeny Fyodorov’s statement? He said you were protesting “at the behest of the United States.”

Alexei: That is insane. Perhaps the man has some problems. Maybe he reads too much about America. There is no trace of commonsense audible or visible in what he said.

Oleg: I would like to appeal to you as a member of the media. 80% of the news is about Egypt and Syria. Guys, we have so many problems in our own country that at least 95% of the population could care less what is happening abroad. Only the 5% who have business abroad care. I have a huge request for you all: tell us, the 95%, about Russia. When things have been put to right in Russia, maybe you can tell us about life in other countries.

Alexei: I guess then it will be difficult for someone to raising his popularity rating. Showmen dominate politics in our country. More than anything they want good ratings, not to solve the major problems within the country.

I really am unconcerned about what is going down in Donetsk when I have nothing to eat at home. I have to feed my own people. I have two children, after all. I have been shut down for two weeks, and I realize that my wallet is empty.

Will your reserves last long enough to keep off the road like this?

Alexei: It doesn’t matter. We will go take out a loan then. Clearly, we won’t be able to pay it back. But we do not have much of a choice. We have to live.

So you are going hold out to the last, then?

Alexei and Oleg: We will hold out to the last. We have nothing to lose. We cannot go back out on the road: we will be fined.

How have your families reacted to your involvement in the truckers’ protests?

Alexei: My family has never been involved in politics. My spouse, although I do not share information with her, sees and understands everything perfectly well. She is a speech therapist and a teacher, who gets paid no more than fifteen thousand rubles a month [approx. 215 euros]. Yet she tells me I should quit this business. But I cannot quit my job. This is a lifestyle.

Oleg: It would be hard now to retrain to do some other job. As for the protests, my involvement has been spontaneous. They say I am an activist. I am no activist. I am just someone who generally likes the truth.

Everyone now involved in the protests are activists.

Alexei: Yeah, take any trucker. Any of us can be slapped with the charge of organizing a protest. Because all of us are on the telephone communicating.

We exchange telephone numbers at our encampments, and that has united us even more. But we have no leaders. All of us are organizers. We agree to meet by calling each other. One person passes the information on to the next person. The radio is our mass medium. All of us could be locked up as organizers.

In Dagestan, for example, it is not just Dagestanis who are attending the protests, but people from different regions. The guys at our encampment in Novorossiysk snapped and took off for Dagestan, because they knew it would be the hottest spot. That is how fast information spreads among our lot. And if the politicians think we are disorganized louts, they are wrong, although that is what many of them are saying.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Rosbalt