Spikery, or, How to Give Aid and Comfort to Fascist War Criminals While Making Lots of Money

It’s funny the things you find in your email inbox in the morning. This morning, as usual, I found mailers from many of the Russian and English-language online newspapers I read, including Petersburg’s humble but always revealing business daily Delovoi Peterburg.

Today’s big news was that police had searched the head office of Bukvoyed, one of Russia’s largest bookstore chains.

Founded in 2000, Bukvoyed (“Bookworm”) has 140 stores around the country.

A source at Bukvoyed told Delovoi Peterburg the search had nothing to do with the company per se but with one of its business partners.

If you have been monitoring the fortunes of Russian business under the Putinist tyranny, a crony state-capitalist regime, run by “former” KGB officers as if it was the Soprano mob, only a million time nastier, you would know it has not been easy to do business of any kind in Russia during the last twenty years. The country’s current prime minister and ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev, once famously said the regime’s vast police and security apparatus, known collectively as the siloviki, needed to stop “nightmaring” (koshmarit) business.

He also famously said, when he was president, that his country was plagued by “legal nihilism.”

Although he was right on both counts, Medvedev did nothing about it. Since the brief, supposedly more “liberal” period when he was freer to speak his mind because, technically, he was the most powerful man in Russia, the nightmaring of business (and nearly everyone else who makes themselves a target by doing anything more ambitious than hiding their light in a bushel) has only got worse, and legal nihilism, along with anti-Americanism, homophobia, xenophobia, and neo-imperialism, has become even more entrenched as part of the Kremlin’s unwritten ideology and, thus, a guidepost for how Russia’s police, security agencies, prosecutors, and judges deal with “criminals.” 

As Denis Sokolov recently argued in Republic, the siloviki have established a system of “police feudalism” in Russia under which the FSB, the Russian Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, the Russian National Guard, the tax police, and other state security agencies have divided the country into fiefs, bits of “turf” where they are almost entirely free to shake down, rob, nightmare, and legally nihilize whomever and whatever they want under a set of unwritten rules outsiders can only guess at.

After reading about Bukvoyed’s legal-nihilistic woes, then, I was startled by the banner ad I found at the bottom of the page.

mooks“Synergy Global Forum, October 4–5, 2019, Gazprom Arena, Saint Petersburg. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Grant Cardone. Michael Porter. Randi Zuckerberg. Ichak Adize.” Ad courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg

Referred to, hilariously, as “spikery” (“speakers”) on the Russian version of the Synergy Global Forum’s website, these five greater and lesser lights of global capitalism have been, no doubt, promised or paid extraordinarily hefty fees to keynote this hootenanny in the belly of the crony state-capitalist beast.

Formerly known as the Zenit Arena (after the city’s Russian premier league football team, FC Zenit, owned by state-controlled Gazprom), even the venue itself, the Gazprom Arena, is a monument to the mammoth crookedness, thuggery, violence, and corruption replicated all over the world’s biggest country every day for the last twenty years by the Kremlin’s minions.

But you would never know that by reading the cheery boilerplate on the Synergy Global Forum’s website.

Gazprom Arena is the most visited indoor stadium in Eastern Europe, second only to the famous Wembley in London. The main feature of the project — a sliding roof, which allows you to carry out activities in a comfortable environment at any time of the year and in all weather conditions. Large capacity, modern technical equipment, and two-tier parking make Gazprom Arena one of the best venues for major festivals, exhibitions, and business conferences.

More important, however, is the ostensible point of all this spikery, other than making lots of money for everyone involved.

Synergy Global Forum has been held since 2015. The first Forum gathered 6,000 participants and became the largest business event in the country. Two years later, we broke this record and entered Guinness World Records — 25,000 entrepreneurs and top managers participated at SGF in Olympiyskiy in 2017. This year we set a new big goal — to gather 50,000 participants from all over the world at SGF 2019 in St. Petersburg. Synergy Global Forum not only gives you an applied knowledge, but also motivates and inspires to global achievements, gives the belief that any ambitious goal is achievable. What goals do you set for yourself?

Aside from being one big [sic], this sampling of spikery reveals that the apocryphal gospel of Dale Carnegie and other “good capitalist” snake oil salesmen is alive and well and making waves in a place like Russia, where it could not be more out of place.

I don’t mean that Russia and Russians are “culturally” or “civilizationally” incompatible with self-improvement, the power of positive thinking, and other tenets of American capitalist self-hypnosis. If you had spent most of your adult life in Russia, as I have, you would know the opposite is the case.

Unfortunately. Because what Russia needs more than anything right now is not more navel-gazing and better business practices, but regime change and the rule of law. Since I’m a democratic socialist, not a Marxist-Leninist, and, I hope, a realist, these things cannot come about other than through a revolution in which Russia’s aspiring middle classes, at whom snake-oil festivals like the Synergy Global Forum are targeted, join forces with the grassroots, who have been nightmared and legally nihilized in their own way under Putin.

One of the first things a new bourgeois-proletariat Russian coalition government would have to do, aside from prosecuting and imprisoning tens of thousands of siloviki and banning them from politics and the civil service for life, would be to disentangle the country from its current incredibly destructive armed and unarmed interventions in conflicts in other countries, starting with Ukraine and Syria.

What does the Synergy Global Forum and its sponsor, Synergy Business School have to do with such seemingly distant and terribly messy international politics? Well, this:

The school has branches in 26 Russian cities, as well as a unique campus in Dubai, which is home base for an international MBA program for students from the UAE, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

So, in fact, Synergy Business School is in the business of equipping people from some of the world’s most powerful and aggressive theocratic, monarchist, and crony state-capitalist tyrannies with MBAs while claiming its core values are “openness to newness, commitment to development, and intelligence.”

You can say I’m a dreamer but I am nearly sure SBS’s core values are completely at odds with the neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism, militarism, hostility to civil and human rights, and fascism of the current regimes in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

I write this not because I believe in building a “better” capitalism (I don’t), but because I am nearly sure one party to this mass chicanery, including the invited spikery, does believe it is possible to do just that and thus “peacefully” transform these countries into slightly quirky versions of Australia and Canada. (For the record, I don’t for a minute believe these supposedly democratic countries have no problems of their own with human rights, etc.)

That is not going to happen if only because, at another level, carefully hidden from the incurious eyes of the people who go to such events, either as  their real purpose is to whitewash these regimes, make them more attractive to foreign investors, and expand their international networks of shills and useful idiots.

I learned this valuable lesson about Putinist Russia by carefully following the amazing career of Vladimir Yakunin, another “former” KGB officer and fellow Ozero Dacha Co-op member who could write a textbook about how to co-opt distinguished foreign academics, decision-makers, and journalists into, mostly unwittingly, toeing the Putinist line.

It comes down to this. Why are Arnold Schwarznegger, Randi Zuckerberg, and their fellow 2019 Synergy Global Forum spikery so willing to help whitewash a gang of fascist war criminals who are also at war with their own people?

Since there is no good answer to this question, they should be arrested upon their return from the forum and charged with colluding with hostile foreign powers.

If you don’t understand what I mean by “fascist war criminals,” please read the article below. // TRR

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Russia and Assad are butchering Syrian civilians again. No one seems to mind
Terry Glavin
National Post
July 24, 2019

Maybe it’s because of the guilty anti-interventionist conscience of the world’s comfortable liberal democracies, or because it’s now an article of respectable faith in the NATO capitals that Syrian lives simply aren’t worth the bother. Maybe it’s just that we’ve all become so accustomed to reports of slaughter and barbarism in Syria that it barely warrants public attention at all.

Whatever the reason, or excuse, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is finally having his way in the Syrian governorate of Idlib, and the world barely notices.

It’s been nearly a year since Lavrov expressed his desire that the “abscess” of Syrian resistance in Idlib, a sprawling province that borders Turkey in Syria’s northwest, be “liquidated.” It’s been nearly a month since 11 humanitarian organizations came together with the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs to warn that “Idlib is on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare unlike anything we have seen this century.”

We’ve reached that brink now. Just this week, 66 civilians have been killed and more than 100 non-combatants wounded, the UN reports, in a series of bombing runs carried out across Idlib. The worst massacre was an airstrike Monday on a public market in the village of Maarat al-Numan. At least 39 people were killed, among them eight women and five children.

Since the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s barrel bombers and Russia’s fighter-bombers began their recent offensive in Idlib on April 29, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has tallied 2,641 casualties. The UN counts 400 civilian deaths, but there is no accurate count of the dead and injured in Syria anymore. The wounded lie dying in the rubble of bombed buildings. At least 25 hospitals and clinics in Idlib have been destroyed since April 29, bringing the number of health centers deliberately targeted since 2011 to about 570. More than 800 health workers have been killed.

Three years ago, when the UN and monitoring agencies stopped counting, the Syrian dead were numbered at 500,000. In the face of these most recent war crimes and atrocities, the UN’s humanitarian affairs office has been reduced to begging Assad and Lavrov to ease up to allow humanitarian aid into Idlib’s besieged districts, and pleading with Russia and Turkey to uphold the terms of a year-old memorandum of understanding that was supposed to demilitarize Idlib. Fat chance of that.

The Kremlin-Ankara pact arose from negotiations that began in the months following the 2016 fall of Aleppo, where thousands of Syrian civilians were slaughtered by Vladimir Putin’s air force in the course of the Kremlin’s commitment to Assad to help bomb the Syrian resistance into submission. Joining with Russia and Iran, Turkish strongman Recip Erdoğan entered into a series of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that eventually led to an agreement to establish Idlib as a jointly-patrolled “deconfliction zone.”

A series of these de-escalation agreements have each in their turn become death traps. In Homs, in Ghouta, in Quneitra, the pattern has repeated itself. Weakened by starvation sieges, and bloodied by Russian fighter jets, Assad’s barrel bombs, ground assaults by Iran’s Hezbollah units and multiple chemical attacks — sarin, chlorine, napalm — Syria’s various and fractious resistance outfits have surrendered several cities and towns on the promise of safe passage with their families to one or another de-escalation area. Convoys of buses carry them across the countryside. They settle in, and then they come under attack again.

Until April 29, Idlib was the last of these demilitarized zones, and by then the population had doubled to three million people. Among Idlib’s recent arrivals were civilians fleeing the Syrian carnage who had not been able to join the six million Syrians who have managed to escape the country altogether. But the newcomers also include members of various armed opposition groups, and the Assad regime has deftly manipulated its “de-escalation” and safe-passage arrangements to pit those groups against one another.

More than a dozen safe-passage agreements struck prior to the Kremlin-Ankara arrangement amount to what democratic opposition leaders have called ethnic cleansing and “compulsory deportation.” Most of the opposition groups that submitted to them have ended up in Idlib. Among them: Islamic State fighters from Yarmouk, and the jihadist fronts Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Fatah from districts around Aleppo and Damascus.

What this has meant for Idlib is that the mainline opposition in the Turkish-backed and formerly American-supported Syrian Interim Government has been losing its hold on the governorate, and its democratically elected local councils have come under increasing pressure from the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham jihadist coalition. And now that Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has been moving in from the south, and Russian and regime bombs are falling from the skies, tens of thousands of civilians are on the move again.

More than 300,000 people are on the roads, most of them headed towards Turkey, but Turkey has already taken in half of Syria’s six million refugees and the Turkish border is now closed to them. More than 1,000 Turkish troops are patrolling Idlib’s northern countryside as part of the Astana accord, and they won’t let the Syrian civilians pass. Humanitarian groups report that hundreds of Syrian refugees have been picked up in Istanbul in recent weeks and deported back to Syria.

“Yet again innocent civilians are paying the price for the political failure to stop the violence and do what is demanded under international law — to protect all civilians,” is the way UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock puts it. “Our worst fears are materializing.”

No help is coming from Europe. The European Union has made its peace with Ankara — Erdoğan prevents Syrian refugees from sneaking into Greece or Bulgaria or setting out in leaky rafts into the Mediterranean, and Europe looks the other way while Erdoğan deports Syrian refugees back to the slaughterhouse of Idlib.

Neither is any help coming from the United States, where the Kremlin-friendly Trump administration is balking at the idea of imposing sanctions on Turkey for buying into Russia’s S-400 missile system, and is otherwise continuing the Obama administration’s policy of thinking about mass murderer Assad as somebody else’s problem.

And then there’s Canada, where we’re all supposed to congratulate ourselves for having high-graded the best and brightest Syrians from the UN’s refugee camps, and we expect the Syrian refugees we’ve taken in to be grateful and to forgive us all for standing around and gawping while their country was turned into blood, fire, and rubble.

Whatever our reasons, or excuses, Idlib is being liquidated, a humanitarian nightmare is unfolding in Syria again, and hardly anybody notices.

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Nationalizing Russia’s Middle Class

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the last decade or two, Russia’s monied classes and middle classes have been wildly enriched or merely kept afloat by cheap, disenfranchised labor from Central Asia. I took this photo on April 10, 2017, in the container village inhabited by Central Asian migrant workers building Petersburg’s so-called Marine Façade on 476 hectares of reclaimed land in the Neva Bay next to Vasilyevsky Island.  

Nationalizing the Middle Class: Society’s Previously Most Dynamic Group Seeks to Rely on the State
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
June 26, 2019

Analysts at Alfa Bank have concluded Russia’s middle class has been shrinking. More importantly, it is being nationalized, which distances the prospects of qualitative economic growth.

What constitutes the Russian middle class is mostly a philosophical question: a specific definition of it has never gained a foothold. Some researchers argue it never emerged in the social sense and remains akin to a folklore character. Other researchers, focusing on income levels, have claimed to have sighted it in Russia, but in recent years their observations have been suffused with sadness.

In a new report, “The Russian Middle Class: Lowering the Appetite for Risk,” analysts at Alfa Banks have defined the middle class as a group of people whose monthly income is between 39,000 and 99,000 rubles per person [i.e., between 546 euros and 1,387 euros at current rates], that is, 110–250% of the median income in Russia, and who are able to buy durable goods.

In the noughties, the middle class grew. By 2014, it constituted 37% of the Russian populace. In four years, however, all of this growth had been forfeited. In 2017, only 30% of the populace could be counted as middle class, which was less than in 2004 (34%). Simultaneously, the group’s share in the populace’s total income dropped from 48% in 2014 to 39% in 2017.

The middle class has lost its economic clout, becoming more vulnerable. In some ways, it has lost more than other classes. Alfa Bank’s analysts write that the middle class’s real incomes stagnated in the ten-year period between 2008 and 2018, while the incomes of the country’s most impoverished groups rose by four percent, and the incomes of the wealthiest Russians increased by eleven percent. An indicator of the middle class’s fading fortunes was that its core spent three percentage points more on groceries during the ten-year period, just like the country’s lower classes, while its expenditures on holidays and education dropped by one to two percentage points. In 2014–2018, the middle class’s loan payments grew by 20% in nominal terms. This is probably why it has not been involved in the new consumer loan boom.

Simultaneously, the middle class has been undergoing nationalization. It is a commonplace the middle class consists of people independent of the state and living on their own means. Its progress has been regarded as a vital driver of economic growth, including in Russia.

Its potential, however, appears to have weakened. Whereas in 2003 approximately ten percent of the middle class was employed in the state sector, this figure had grown to fifteen percent in 2017, according to Alfa Bank.

This is not a disaster yet, especially since middle-class employment in commerce, the restaurant business, finance, real estate, and health care has grown. However, the middle class’s share of business income has decreased more than it has among the general populace.

Traditionally considered the core of civil society, the middle class has come to rely more and more on the state for employment, claims Natalya Orlova, Alfa Bank’s chief economist. Even if the middle class does not shrink anymore, its nationalization worsens the prospects for Russia’s progress, since its ranks will be replenished by people who do not power the economy but count on the regime for their livelihoods.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What they had to say on the matter was telling.

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

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

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

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

He quoted Mark Twain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of them said society was not told everything.

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

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

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

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

Another worker, Vladimir, countered Roman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grigorii Golosov: The Year 2020

DSCN6650Living it up with Russia’s shrinking “middle class.” Sulphur Island, St. Petersburg, 19 May 2018.  Photo by the Russian Reader

Grigorii Golosov
Facebook
February 5, 2019

Many people have been citing a 2008 article in Rossiiskaya gazeta.

“By 2020, Russians will be earning an average of $2,700 a month, a family of three will have no less than 100 square meters of living space, and the middle class will constitute over half of the population.”

This is a paraphrase of the “Social and Economic Development Strategy to 2020,” drafted at the time by the Russian Economic Development Ministry.

The article goes on.

“Experts have already dubbed the strategy a ‘breakthrough scenario’ that will see Russia establishing itself as a leading world power by 2020.”

The Economic Development Ministry was wrong, of course, but the experts were right. Russia has already established itself as a world power, albeit in roughly the same sense as North Korea and Iran. It has gone even farther. Iran and North Korea, at least, are not in everyone’s face all the time, while Russia butts in everywhere nowadays.

We should look for the root of the Economic Development Ministry’s mistake in the machinations of Russia’s enemies, of course, although the reason Russia has so many enemies is to be sought in the circumstances that also explain its promotion to the same league as North Korea and Iran.

That is the intriguing dialectic at work here.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Stability Pit, or, Bend Them like Gandhi

Screenshot of a photograph on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva
Screenshot of a photograph found on the website of the Debt Collection Development Center. The photograph was taken during a conference on debt collection. The man in glasses displayed on the screen is identified as “M. Gandhi.” Source: Tsentr razvitiia kollektorstva

Russia in the Pit of Stability
The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Moskovsky Komsomolets
June 22, 2016

The country has been handed the bill for Crimea, Donbass, and “stability.” The bill includes unemployment, poverty, and hopelessness. The petrodollar dolce vita is over. The only things growing now in Russia are prices, taxes, and utility bills, while incomes, purchasing power, and the standard of living are falling. Nineteen million Russians live below the poverty line. Yet the minimum monthly cost of living in Moscow is 14,413 rubles [approx. 200 euros], and 9,452 rubles nationwide, meaning that a huge number of people who are not officially poor are barely making ends meet. Thirty-nine percent of families do not have spare cash; they spend their entire incomes on groceries. The worst thing is that these people cannot afford to buy not only things but also medicines. Almost fifty percent of the population suffers from structural hunger. And that is not is the limit: the crisis is not over yet.

On the other hand, no one in the government has been sacked, there has not been a single bankruptcy on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, and the number of dollar millionaires in Russia has not changed. “We picked the sweet berries together, but the bitter berries I pick alone”?

“Berries Are Sweet,” a song from the film Earthly Love (Yevgeny Matveev, dir., 1974)

The propagandists have, of course, been trying to powder the ugly picture with “poll results” claiming that eighty percent of Russians consider themselves happy, ninety-four percent look to the future with optimism, and eighty-two percent support the president’s policies. Not even the most desperately optimistic patriots believe in this anymore, however. Universal jingoistic boldness has given way to a heavy hangover, and instead of talk about Russia getting up from its knees, you more often hear the saying, “It won’t be worse than the nineties.”

It will be worse. In the nineties, it was only the free hand of the market that suffocated ordinary folk, but now the market will be reinforced by the strong arm of the state. More and more new taxes will be introduced: on property, land, vehicles, securities, and anything that moves. More and more bureaucratic dodges will be devised so the state can get its share, but from everyone and for nothing. There will be more and more new construction projects whose price tags will be doubled or trebled so the “elite” can maintain their prosperity. Phrases like “Crimea tax,” “payment for an extractive economy and decades of incompetent sloth,” and “money for officials and security forces” will be inscribed in invisible ink on each new levy, requisition, and massive construction project.

Sensitive to change, since they have something to lose, and quick off the mark, because they are able to leave, the middle class has quickly realized that hard times are coming. Since the introduction of sanctions, its ranks have thinned: some have been ruined, while others have fled. Even before the crisis, the regime did everything it could to make doing business more or less honestly in Russia unprofitable. Even the sanctions and promises to support domestic producers have changed nothing. Those who steal have it good, those who work have it bad, and the smaller the business, the more it gets fleeced. Due to the government’s anti-western rhetoric, many entrepreneurs who do business with other countries also got scared they would be targeted with everything from travel bans to confiscations of money and property. Hedging their bets, they have taken refuge in the Baltic countries, where it is easy to get a residence permit, as well as in Europe, Asia, and even Latin America. So many economic emigrants have left the country in recent years that we could speak of “economic steamships” bearing them out of the country. Many have purchased citizenships in other countries, and many of those people plan to renounce their Russian citizenships due to the passage of new laws. (The question of whether Russia needs such citizens and whether we should mourn their departure is beyond the scope of the article.)

But what will happen to those people who stay here? Will the nineties seem like a piece of cake to them?

People had no money in the nineties, but neither they did have any debt. Today, around thirty-eight million people have outstanding bank loans. This is fifty-nine percent of the working population, and it excludes people in debt to semi-underground micro lenders. Moreover, eight million people have at least three outstanding loans, and every sixth person has no way to pay back his or her debts. More than half the loans taken out in 2016 were used to pay off outstanding loans. In addition, people raised on the ideology of consumption cannot kick the credit habit even in hard time. Impoverished and unemployed, they mechanically keep on acquiring debt, using the money they have left to buy appliances or a trip to a resort, thus getting bogged down ever deeper in debt. The laws are written in the interests of the banks, and the inaction of the police and the connivance of the authorities favor the debt collectors. Banks get away with things mere mortals could not get away with. Billions are spirited out of the country annually using crooked banking schemes, and these crimes go to trial only in exceptional cases. It is one thing, however, to move capital abroad and not returns millions in loans to the treasury. It is almost a safe thing to do.

It is another matter not to give back a bank 100,000 rubles on time. True, a law regulating the work of debt collectors has finally been passe. As of 2017, absolutely criminal methods of forcing people to pay their debts will be prohibited. The law is quite timely, but you can count on laws only in countries where they are obeyed. Debt collection will thus shift from the legal realm to the semi-legal realm. Instead of official bank employees, debtors will now be getting visits from shaven-headed wise guys who supposedly have no connection to the banks.

By the way, bailiffs have recently been permitted to garnish the bank accounts of debtors. No one could care less whether you need the money for a life-or-death operation or you have a whole house of children to feed. The bank needs the money more than you do. The more the debt burden of the population increases, the more such measures will be adopted to help banks get their money back.

In the nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, utility rates had not yet skyrocketed, and people could put off paying bills for years on end, until better times. There were no methods of debt collection, and besides, the housing and utilities sector had not yet been divvied up among contractors, many of whom are now in the hands of officials and their “subsidiaries,” only minus any government liability.

Nowadays, people who are overdue paying their utility bills for a couple of months are threatened with having their gas, electricity, water, and heating turned off, sued in court (which in Russia is always on the side of the strong), and can legally be evicted from their apartments. The regime, of course, serves the interests of the property management companies by increasing fines and simplifying debt collection procedures. Trying to carve up a meager budget, people wonder whether to pay the utility bills or make their loan payments. They base their decision on whom they fear most: the extortionists from the utility companies or the gangsters from the banks. The water and the power will probably not be turned off nationwide, but targeted outages and evictions will definitely kick off, and the most defenseless will be at risk. In my landing, a pensioner living with her sick son has had her electricity shut off, and the widow of a man disabled during WWII has received a “polite” threat from the housing service.

For the time being, Russians are keeping on top of their bills, but according to experts, the numbers of overdue utility bills will skyrocket and grow exponentially. Already sensing the profits to be made, collection services have taken an interest in the matter. (The new law on debt collectors, by the way, does not extend to people in debt to utility companies.) Considering their methods, this is definitely frightening. The website of the Debt Collection Development Center features a special section on extorting utility bill debts that lists such methods of pressuring debtors as special notices in the media and leafletting, participation of debt collection specialists in general tenant meetings, legal threats, and unorthodox options [nestandartnye varianty].* The last point gives me the creeps. What exactly are these unorthodox options? A clothes iron? A soldering gun? Matchsticks under the fingernails?

Another sign of the times that did not exist in the nineties is that no one feels sorry for anybody nowadays. A young family with a child has no way of paying back its foreign currency mortgage? Parents cannot pay for their son’s eduction? People have to sell the TV, car or dacha to pay off the loan used to buy that selfsame TV, car or dacha? You shouldn’t have borrowed money from a bank! You have no money to pay your bills? Sell your flat and buy one you can afford! You cannot pay for medical treatment or pay your university fees? Get a job! There are no jobs? That is your fault!

People have no sympathy for others or sense of solidarity. Nor should we expect protests and rallies in support of these who have gone into debt, even when the whole country ends up in that pit. The police and judicial system insures our government against any disturbances.

In fact, the punitive apparatus (from the police and the courts to bank debt recovery departments) is a single sector in which the state is present in one way or other. But what does the state do for its own people? It squanders state funds, including the pension fund. It cuts spending on everything not associated with the military, abroad and domestically. It has been exiting the social sector, shutting down hospitals, schools, and kindergartens, eliminating further and supplemental educational programs, canceling benefits, and reducing welfare payments that as they were amounted to kopecks. 24,000 schools, 4,800 hospitals, and 4,800 medical clinics were closed in Russia from 2001 to 2013 alone. (There is no data on the Rosstat website after 201. Apparently, it was decided to classify the information.)

The state has disclaimed all liability for the country’s future, but it still costs a lot to its people. In the nineties, the regime attempted to spend the Soviet inheritance, which was so rich that part of it is still left over today. In the noughties, it cashed in on resource extraction.  Today, it has no choice but to shake down its own citizens for money. The entire state vertical, the entire system of power, from the government to the security forces, has focused on this. And since it often has to shake the last kopecks from people’s pockets, the process will be cruel and painful.

Translated by the Russian Reader

* In the interests of fairness, I should mention I could not find this exact wording on the Debt Collection Development Center’s website, although I did find the page where the other methods listed, above, were discussed. TRR