Ivan Ovsyannikov: Unity in a Vacuum

Kirov Square, Petrograd, October 28, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
Kirov Square, Petrograd, October 28, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Unity in a Vacuum
Ivan Ovsyannikov
November 4, 2015
anticapitalist.ru

All holidays are rituals of unity, and it is hard to imagine society functioning without them. November 4, however, is a truly odd day, whose originators ask us to experience unity for its own sake. It reflects the emptiness of official ideology, which claims the role of a national idea.

National Unity Day (Den’ narodnogo edinstva) will never be a truly popular, grassroots holiday. Whatever our attitude to living holidays like International Women’s Day (March 8) or Victory Day (May 9), despite the vulgarity surrounding them and the distortions of their original meaning, they are still bound up with significant societal needs: honoring wives, mothers, and heroic forebears. The sense of unity experienced by millions of people at tables laden with champagne and Olivier salad is maybe illusory but it is not groundless. But who besides thuggish nationalists is capable of feeling the narcissistic pleasure of “unity” as such, especially since it is totally unclear what we are called on to rally around?

The search for a national idea in post-Soviet Russia has resembled the quest for the philosopher’s stone, and has been just as fruitless. According to the Russian Constitution, the sovereign power in the Russian state is “its multinational people,” who are usually designated by the semi-bureaucratic term rossiyane [citizens of Russia, as opposed to russkie, ethnic Russians]. And yet multiculturalism (the coexistence of different ethnic traditions within a single society) is considered a dirty word, and federalism has finally been shunted aside by the vision of Empire. Promotion of ethnic nationalism, “Russianness,” and its concomitant Russian Orthodoxy, the official “spiritual bond,” has led to the fact that Chechens, Dagestanis, and Buryats, for example, are often not regarded as “citizens of multinational Russia,” but as suspicious foreigners like the migrant workers from the once-fraternal former Soviet republics.

However, as it flirts with Russian ethnic nationalism, which has served it well in Ukraine, the regime at the same time fears its devastating consequences for empire. While reacting morbidly to the most innocent speeches about federalization, the Kremlin also prevents the holding of the so-called Russian Marches. The regime’s rhetoric contains an explosive ambiguity. On the one hand, the regime constantly tells us about the “Russian world,” thus stoking ethnic chauvinism. On the other, it talks about the country’s multinational people and the danger of nationalism.

When they invented a holiday to replace November 7 (Revolution Day), the Kremlin’s ideologues deliberately chose the vaguest phrasing possible: “national unity”  or “popular unity” [narodnoe edinstvo]. But what is “the people” [narod] today? The word is hardly equivalent to “nation” or “ethnic group.” In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the word denoted all the non-privileged classes, the “simple folk,” especially the peasants. The people was distinguished from educated society by its special (unique and authentic) way of thinking and living, as well as its perennial disempowerment and oppression. In other words, it was more a class and cultural notion than an ethnic or official legal concept.

Later, a new supranational identity, the Soviet people [sovetskii narod], was constructed. We can argue whether it was a reality or the stillborn offspring of communist propaganda. However, this concept cannot be denied its logical shapeliness. The Soviet people was the unity of working people, freed from the yoke of the past and headed towards a post-capitalist future. Unqiue, authentic tradition gave way to Soviet society’s social authenticity and uniqueness. It had overthrown tsarism and capitalism, successfully defended its independence in the fight against fascism, and was proud of its unprecedented historical mission.

In post-Soviet Russia, however, there are no longer any communal peasants or builders of communism. Russia has no monolithic ethnic foundation or alternative social project that it could show to the world and itself. All that can be said about our society it that it is post-Soviet. But there can be no “post-Soviet” people. The mutilated shards of the imperialist, Soviet, and westernized mindsets have generated a postmodernist mishmash that a disoriented and atomized populace gags on and vomits out. It is not the nation or the people but the unscrupulous regime, which has no other purpose than self-reproduction, that is only the glue binding this stagnant society, a society bereft of guideposts. The November 4 holiday is a vacuum into which the ruling class gazes, a void that will eventually swallow it.

 Translated by the Russian Reader

Petersburg Activists Rally in Support of Saratov Antifascist Sergei Vilkov

Petersburg Activists Rally in Support of Saratov Antifascist Sergei Vilkov
David Frenkel
Special to The Russian Reader
June 1, 2015

On Saturday, May 30, activists from the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) organized a theatrical protest rally, entitled “#I Am Sergei Vilkov, or Pinning Labels,” on the Field of Mars in central Petersburg.

OcGK7I5KI2qAlMWt3NJlkWQM5OqzEtspCIMaIVL0MEsSocialist activists rallying in support of Saratov journalist Sergei Vilkov in Petersburg, May 30, 2015. The placard on the far right reads, “Antifascism is not a crime, journalism is not extremism. I am Sergei Vilkov.”

The activists demanded an end to the persecution of Sergei Vilkov, an independent journalist and antifascist in Saratov, who was physically assaulted in January of this year by two unknown assailants and has been accused by various local authorities of “extremism.” In one particular instance in April of this year, Vilkov was fined 1,000 rubles by a Saratov court for having posted, in November 2011, a caricature on his personal page on the VKontakte social network that fused the logo of the ruling United Russia party and a swastika.

Vilkov has blamed his troubles on Saratov businessman and Saratov Regional Duma deputy Sergei Kurikhin. Earlier, Vilkov had published articles in the local monthly news magazine Obshchestvennoe Mnenie (Public Opinion), exposing Kurikhin’s dubious political and business dealings.

Activists at the rally on the Field of Mars held placards demanding prosecution for the persons who, allegedly, assaulted Vilkov in January and decrying censorship.

Symbolizing the alliance between the authorities and business, two activists were dressed as a judge and a “new Russian,” who wore a crimson jacket, popularly regarded as typical attire for gangster businessmen during the “wild nineties” in Russia.

IMG_0592“New Russian” and “Judge” at Saturday’s protest rally

The “judge” and the “new Russian” brought with them a criminal case file full of labels, such as “foreign agent,” “atheist,” “fifth columnist, “tolerast” (an insulting slang term applied to people regarded as having excessively politically correct values), “forbidden by censorship,” and “offends religious sensitivities.” These labels and epithets are typically applied to critics and opponents of the current Russian authorities.

The two men hung and pinned these labels to the other activists who were present in order to “make them feel like Sergei Vilkov.”

IMG_0717“Judge” labels activist a “tolerast” at Saturday’s rally.

The socialist activists are convinced that Vilkov’s case is not an anomaly. Travesties of justice in the courts, political crackdowns against opposition activists, censorship, corruption, and the fusion of political authority and business are rather typical of Russia, they argue.

All photographs by and courtesy of David Frenkel

Ivan Ovsyannikov: Friends of the Imaginary People

anticapitalist.ru

Friends of the Imaginary People

There is one point on which there is striking agreement among liberals, Putinists, and the “populist” segment of the Russian left. This is the idea that the majority of the Russian population adheres to leftist values, as opposed to the narrow strata of the middle class and intelligentsia in the big cities.

This simplified representation of societal processes, typical of both semi-official and opposition propaganda, is based on a juxtaposition of the so-called creative class with the notional workers of the Uralvagonzavod tank and railway car manufacturing plant, supposed wearers of quilted jackets with alleged hipsters. Discussion of such complicated topics as the Bolotnaya Square protests, Maidan, and Anti-Maidan revolves around this juxtaposition. The various ideological camps differ only in terms of where their likes and dislikes are directed.

V. I. Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (1894)
V. I. Lenin, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (1894)

Leaving aside left-nationalist figures like Sergei Kurginyan and Eduard Limonov, the most prominent proponent of the “populist” trend within the leftist movement is Boris Kagarlitsky. The whole thrust of his current affairs writing is to exalt the silent majority (the working people), who are organically hostile to the parasitic petty bourgeoisie that, allegedly, constituted the core of the anti-government protests in Russia in 2011–2012, and in Ukraine in 2013–2014.

Ukraine in the Mirror of Russian “Populism”
In an editorial published on the web site Rabkor.ru, entitled “Anti-Maidan and the Future of Protests,” Kagarlitsky (or his alter ego: unfortunately, the article has no byline) describes the events in Ukraine as follows: “Nothing testifies to the class character of the confrontation that has unfolded in Ukraine like the two crowds that gathered on April 7 in Kharkov. At one end of the square, the well-dressed, well-groomed and prosperous middle class, the intelligentsia, and students stood under yellow-and-blue Ukrainian national flags. Across the square from them had gathered poorly and badly dressed people, workers and youth from the city’s outskirts, bearing red banners, Russian tricolors, and St. George’s Ribbons.” According to Kagarlitsky, this is nothing more or less than a vision of the future of Russia, where only the “state apparatus despised by liberal intellectuals defends them from direct confrontation with those same masses they dub ‘white trash.’”

The fact that the venerable sociologist has been forced to resort to such demagogic methods as assessing the class makeup of protesters by reversing the proverb “It’s not the gay coat that makes the gentleman” indicates the conjectural nature of his scheme. (I wonder how much time Kagarlitsky spent poring over photos from Donetsk with a magnifying glass.) When discussing the social aspect of Maidan, most analysts have noted the dramatic changes that occurred as the protests were radicalized. “At the Euromaidan that existed before November 30–December 1,” notes political analyst Vasily Stoyakin, “it was Kyivans who dominated, and in many ways the ‘face’ of Maidan was made up by young people and the intelligentsia, albeit with a slight admixture of political activists. Many students, people with higher educations, and creative people attended it. […] After November 30, when the clashes began, […] a lot of blue-collar workers without higher educations arrived, in large part from the western regions.”

According to Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, as quoted in late January, “[T]he backbone of Euromaidan is men between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five, ‘angry young men,’ often unemployed. […] In my opinion, it would be mistaken to call Maidan a lower-class protest, just as it would be to call it a middle-class protest. It is a Maidan of all disaffected people who are able to get to Kyiv.” According to a study carried out in mid-December 2013 by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, every fifth activist at Maidan was a resident of Lviv, around a third had arrived from Ukraine’s central regions, every tenth activist was from the Kyiv region, and around twenty percent were from the country’s southeast.

Sixty-one (two thirds!) of the protesters killed at Maidan were from villages and small towns in Central and Western Ukraine. As political analyst Rinat Pateyev and Nikolai Protsenko, deputy editor of Ekspert Iug magazine, noted, “Among the victims, we see a large number of villagers, including young subproletarians. […] On the other hand, occupations favored by the intelligentsia are fairly well represented [in the list of the slain]: there is a programmer, a journalist, an artist, several school teachers and university lecturers, several theater people, as well as a number of students.” By “subproletarians” Pateyev and Protsenko primarily have in mind seasonal workers “who live on the money they earn abroad.” Isn’t this all fairly remote from the portrait of the “well-dressed, well-groomed and prosperous middle class” painted by Rabkor.ru’s leader writer? We should speak, rather, of the classical picture observed during revolutionary periods, when peaceful protests by students and the intelligentsia escalate into uprisings of the working class’s most disadvantaged members (who for some reason were not prevented from fighting by either liberals or hipsters).

As evidence of Anti-Maidan’s class character, Rabkor.ru’s editorialist adduces no other arguments except to point out the “short text of the declaration of the Donetsk Republic,” which “contains language about collective ownership, equality, and the public interest.” However, many observers have also noted the growth of anti-government and anti-oligarchic sentiments at Maidan. Journalist and leftist activist Igor Dmitriev quotes a manifesto issued by Maidan Self-Defense Force activists: “The new government of Ukraine, which came into office on Maidan’s shoulders, pretends it does not exist. We were not fighting for seats for Tymoshenko, Kolomoisky, Parubiy, Avakov, and their ilk. We fought so that all the country’s citizens would be its masters—each of us, not a few dozen ‘representatives.’ Maidan does not believe it has achieved the goal for which our brothers perished.”

Maidan and Anti-Maidan, which have a similar social makeup, employ the same methods, and suffer from identical nationalist diseases, look like twin brothers who have been divided and turned against each other by feuding elite clans and the intellectuals who serve them. There is absolutely no reason to force the facts, cramming them into a preconceived scheme drawn up on the basis of completely different events that have occurred in another country.

Is Russian Society Leftist?
But let’s return to Russia and see whether the “populist” scheme works here. Can we speak of a “leftist majority” that deliberately ignores protests by the petty bourgeoisie, who are protected from popular wrath by the authorities?

This belief is common within a certain section of the left, but there is no evidence at all to support this view. Poor Kagarlitsky is constantly forced to appeal to absences. For example, commenting on the outcome of the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, he declared a “victory” for the “boycott party” (that is, people who did not vote in the election), which by default is considered proof the electorate is leftist. It logically follows from this that the absence, say, of mass protests against fee-for-services medicine must testify to the triumph of neoliberal ideas within the broad masses of working people.

Sure, in today’s Russia statues of Lenin are not knocked down so often, and Kremlin mouthpieces eagerly borrow motifs from Soviet mythology. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is still the largest opposition party (but is it leftist?), and many people see the Soviet Union as the touchstone of state and economic power. But are all these things indicators of leftism in the sense the editorialist, who considers himself a Marxist, understands it?

To get closer to answering this question, we need to ask other questions, for example, about the prevalence of self-organization and collective action in the workplace. The statistics on labor disputes in Russia, regularly published by the Center for Social and Labor Rights, are not impressive. Even less impressive are the statistics for strikes. Independent trade union organizations are negligible in terms of their numbers and their resilience, and the rare instances of successful trade union growth are more common at enterprises owned by transnational corporations, where industrial relations approximate western standards. Activists in such trade unions as the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (which rejects the paternalist ideology of the country’s traditional trade union associations) are forced to resort to translated textbooks on organizing and the know-how of foreign colleagues, not to native grassroots collectivism or the remnants of the Soviet mentality.

The above applies to all other forms of voluntary associations, which currently encompass a scant number of Russians. Whereas Russian Populists of the late nineteenth century could appeal to the peasant commune and to the cooperative trade and craft associations (artels) and fellow-countrymen networks (zemliachestva) that were common among the people, the “populists” of the early twenty-first century attempt to claim that a society united by nothing except state power and the nuclear family adheres to leftist values.

The standard explanation for the failure of the Bolotnaya Square protests is that they did not feature “social demands,” meaning slogans dealing with support for the poor, availability of public services, lower prices and utility rates, and increased pensions and salaries. But such demands are part of the standard fare offered by nearly all Russian political parties and politicians, from United Russia to Prokhorov and Navalny. These demands sounded at Bolotnaya Square as well. Successfully employed by the authorities and mainstream opposition parties, this social rhetoric has, however, absolutely no effect on the masses when voiced by radical leftists, strange as it might seem. We are constantly faced with a paradox: opinion polls show that the public is permanently concerned about poverty, economic equality, unemployment, high prices, and so on, but we do not see either significant protests or the growing influence of leftist forces and trade unions. Apparently, the explanation for this phenomenon is that a significant part of the population pins its hopes not on strategies of solidarity and collective action, but on the support of strong, fatherly state power. The Kremlin links implementation of its “obligations to society” with manifestations of loyalty: this is the essence of its policy of stability.

Leftists in a Right-Wing Society
Finally, should we consider ordinary people’s nostalgic memories of the Soviet Union during the stagnation period a manifestation of “leftism,” and rejection of western lifestyles and indifference to democratic freedoms indicators of an anti-bourgeois worldview? According to the twisted logic of the “populists,” who have declared most democratic demands irrelevant to the class struggle and therefore not worthy of attention, that is the way it is. Instead of accepting the obvious fact that proletarians need more democracy and more radical democracy than the middle class, and that protests by students and the intelligentsia can pave the way to revolt by the lower classes, theorists like Kagarlitsky try to paint ordinary conservatism red.

They tacitly or openly postulate that workers can somehow acquire class consciousness under a reactionary regime without breaking with its paternalist ideology and without supporting the fight for those basic political rights that workers in the west won at the cost of a long and bloody struggle.

It is time to recognize that we live in a society far more rightist than any of the Western European countries and even the United States. What European and American right-wing radicals can imagine only in their wildest fantasies has been realized in post-Soviet Russia in an unprecedentedly brief span of time and with extraordinary completeness. The Soviet legacy (or, rather, the reactionary aspects of the Soviet social model) proved not to be an antidote to bourgeois-mindedness, but rather an extremely favorable breeding ground for a strange capitalist society that is simultaneously atomized and anti-individualist, cynical and easily manipulated, traditionalist and bereft of genuine roots. And we leftists must learn to be revolutionaries in this society, rather than its willing or unwitting apologists.

Ivan Ovsyannikov, Russian Socialist Movement
April 20, 2014

Ivan Ovsyannikov: Russia’s Welfare Chainsaw Massacre

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev holds

Welfare Chainsaw Massacre
Ivan Ovsyannikov (Russian Socialist Movement)
September 30, 2013
anticapitalist.ru

A “welfare chainsaw massacre” is exactly what we might call the government’s actions and statements over the last few months. The ruling class is once again attempting to pay for the latest uptick in the economic crisis from out of the pockets of workers.

On September 1, while speaking to students at the Far East Federal University, Putin announced the transition to a policy of austerity and reduced social spending. “The world economy has slumped a bit, and ours is hunkering down behind it,” the president said in his typical manner by way of explaining the upcoming unpopular measures. And he supported an earlier proposal, voiced by Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov, to replace the “maternity capital” program with “targeted assistance to poor families.”

However, a few days later, Dmitry Medvedev said that the maternity capital program would not be cancelled. “But it will be modified,” Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Maxim Topilin added in a whisper.

The fact that public opinion has been probed on such a sensitive point is quite significant. The maternity capital program is almost the only widely publicized social achievement of the Putin era. Putin has repeatedly stated it was his idea. And now this essential element of Putin’s social populism has been openly questioned.

No less provocative looking are the experiment with introducing social norms for electricity consumption (see Andrei Zavodskoi, “Cruel Economy”) and the de facto raising of the retirement age, which has long been discussed and is today closer than ever to realization. According to Deputy Primer Minister Olga Golodets, “We are not discussing raising the [retirement] age for any category of workers. We’ve gone another direction by promoting voluntary postponement of retirement. That is our principled position, and the government’s position.” However, such tricks are unlikely to mislead anyone.

The most scandalous revelations, however, are the statements made by government officials concerning labor relations. If, until recently, Mr. Topilin based his ministry’s decision not to index Russia’s penny-ante unemployment benefits on the fact that “at present there remains a high probability of finding employment in the labor market,” Mr. Medvedev has now said the exact opposite. He argues it is time to get away from the policy of preserving employment at all costs and not be afraid of cutting inefficient jobs: “The times all of us now face are not the easiest. […] Some people—perhaps a significant portion of the population—will have to change not only their jobs but also their professions and place of residence.” There is no doubt we have fallen on hard times, but the Prime Minister is clearly disingenuous when he talks about “all of us.” Russia’s ruling elite has no intention of depriving itself of jobs and handsome profits. So, in a conversation with François Fillon, Mr. Putin elegantly hinted that he would “not exclude” the possibility of seeking a fourth term as president.

But has the Russian economy “hunkered down” badly enough to warrant such painful experiments on the population? Isn’t “stagnation” only a plausible excuse for implementing the longstanding plans of the gentlemen from the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs?

As was reported in late August, the Ministry of Finance planned to save 1.1 trillion rubles [approx. 25 billion euros] over three years by eliminating the maternal capital program and reducing expenditures on pensions. At the same time, federal and regional budget expenditures on preparations for the 2018 World Cup should amount to 438 billion rubles, that is, almost half a trillion. The mass protests and riots in Brazil, sparked by excessive government spending on the 2014 World Cup, are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Russians could learn a lesson or two from Brazilians.

But maybe massive sports venue construction projects will generate many new jobs and return the taxpayer money spent on them? No, they will not. Unlike the great construction projects of the Soviet era, when funds were invested primarily in developing production, Olympiads, Universiades, and World Cups are, by definition, loss makers for national governments. Many analysts trace the current economic disaster in Greece to the 2004 Summer Olympics, which enriched transnational corporations while depleting public finances. The London Olympics have also been declared unprofitable. As for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, its unprofitability has been recognized by nearly all serious experts, including Vnesheconombank chair Vladimir Dmitriev, who said in an interview with Vedomosti newspaper that “a serious percentage of [Olympics-related construction] projects are calculated to make a loss.” According to Dmitriev, “Given the current model and market trends, there are big problems with returns on investments. For example, one million square meters of hotel space are being built in the Imereti Lowland. When this space goes onto the market after the Olympics, a sixty percent occupancy rate will be hard to achieve. The costs of many projects have seriously risen as they have been implemented. […] For many sites, there is no complete project documentation or confirmed cost estimates. All this confirms our doubts.”

As for jobs, they really will be generated—for thousands of migrant workers. Federal Law No. FZ-108, adopted specifically for the World Cup, leaves no doubt about that. First, the law establishes special lightweight entry requirements for foreign workers involved in preparations for the World Cup. Second, it limits the applicability of a number of existing labor laws, effectively legalizing slavery. As the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR) declared in their statement on the subject, “The potential for runaway importation and recruitment of cheap labor, undermining the national labor market, and leading to a decrease in wages and legal guarantees in the area of labor relations, and an increase in the level of unemployment among the population, has been legally enshrined in the Russian Federation.”

The government could not care less about the fortunes of workers during the crisis, and it does almost nothing to hide it. How else can we account (to cite just one example) for Mr. Topilin’s proposal to deny free health care to all informally employed and unemployed people not registered with an employment bureau?

In light of the foregoing, the Kremlin’s actions aimed at reconciliation with the liberal opposition also become intelligible, as do unexpected initiatives to put the “against all” option back on voting ballots. The authorities fear that public discontent will grow and want to channel it in a direction that presents no danger to the ruling elite. Whether this political maneuver succeeds depends in part on the willingness of leftist political forces and trade unions to win over public opinion and make the fight against austerity measures as much of a mobilizing factor as it has been in Greece, Spain, and other countries facing the consequences of the capitalist system’s crisis.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of deviantart.net