No Platform for Boris Kagarlitsky

no platform

You can not fight the far right by giving a platform to their friends
Simon Pirani’s Archive
July 25, 2019

The editors of Transform, a socialist journal that aims to strengthen the fight against the far right, are to publish a letter from me protesting their use of an article by Boris Kagarlitsky, a Russian “left” writer who collaborates with fascists and ultra-nationalists.

In 2014, Kagarlitsky energetically supported armed action in eastern Ukraine by Russian forces, mainly ultra-nationalist and fascist volunteers. He also began to cooperate with, and to share platforms with, extreme ideologues of Russian ultra-nationalism and fascism. Antifascists and trade unionists in Russia broke all ties with him. I gave details about Kagarlitsky’s position in 2014–16 in an open letter to the Stop the War campaign here.

Kagarlitsky continues to collaborate with the ultra-nationalists. Earlier this year he addressed a Moscow rally supporting Russia’s claim against Japan to the Kurile Islands, alongside the fascist mercenary Igor Strelkov-Girkin and other ultra-nationalist speakers.

At the same time, Kagarlitsky has never expressed solidarity with the young Russian anti-fascists who have been tortured by the security services and put on trial in the notorious Network case. Antifascists in Russia and internationally have united in a defence campaign around these victims of state repression; Kagarlitsky and his friends have not.

Despite this, Transform published an article by Kagarlitsky—about France, not Russia—in the last issue. This week I wrote to the editors to express concern. One replied, saying that my letter would be published in the next issue, later this year, and that they were “not aware” of Kagarlitsky’s cooperation with the right.

To raise awareness, I have put on line this short statement that you are reading.

This gap in the Transform editors’ knowledge is regrettable. All participants in Russia’s beleaguered antifascist movement know of Kagarlitsky’s high-profile defection. Plenty of material alerting English-language readers to his changed stance was published in 2015–16.

Obviously, this is not just about Russia or about Kagarlitsky. The right-wing populists and fascists, through nationalism and campism, pull “left” demagogues into their orbit more widely. This trend must be understood and fought.

Simon Pirani, 25 July 2019

My thanks to Mr. Pirani for permission to reproduce his statement here. Image courtesy of the Spectator and Getty. // TRR

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Valentin Urusov: A Worker’s Struggle (August 2012)

One of the most egregious frame-ups on drug charges in Russia in recent memory was the case of Yakutia trade union activist Valentin Urusov.

The weekly magazine Russian Reporter told Urusov’s story in August 2012, after he had been in police custody and then prison for over three years.

The article was, in fact, part of a second international campaign, led by Russia’s independent trade unions, to persuade the Russian authorities to release Urusov from prison.

This time around, their efforts paid off, and after his release, Urusov was awarded the Arthur Svensson Prize, the “Nobel Prize” of international trade unionism.

When I posted the following translation of the Russian Reporter article on January 25, 2013, Urusov was still in prison, doing time for crimes everyone who knew anything about the case knew he had not committed.

It is silly to compare these things, but I think Urusov’s story is much more horrifying than the much more recent story of Meduza reporter Ivan Golunov. First, it happened at the end of the earth, geographically speaking. Second, Urusov’s supporters had neither the social capital or the numbers to instantly launch a widespread moral panic to secure his immediate release.

Powerful men, including the men who run Alrosa, Russia’s state-owned diamond mining company (whose board at the time included Alexei Kudrin, laughably regarded as a “liberal” by people who do not want to know any better), wanted Urusov to go down, and so he went down, despite the absurdity of the charges against him, despite the fact that the police officer who engineered his frame-up was later found guilty of fraud and abuse of authority, and despite the fact that the Yakutia Supreme Court overturned his conviction in May 2009. (It was reinstated by the original, lower court a little over a month later.)

In fact, although Urusov’s story is a central episode in the recent history of independent trade union activism in Russia, I would wager a large amount of money that the vast majority of Russians have never heard of Urusov and his horrifying ordeal at the hands of Russian “law enforcement.” || TRR

__________________________

A Worker’s Struggle
How an attempt to create a real labor union lands you in a penal colony
By Andrei Veselov
Russian Reporter
August 23, 2012

It is now acceptable to talk about political prisoners in Russia—it has become good form. But for some reason, bankers and financiers now and again end up on lists of “prisoners of conscience.” Their troubles are discussed in great detail, and there is sincere sympathy for them. Little is said about the fact that for the last four years Valentin Urusov, a rank-and-file worker, has been doing time at the penal colony in Verkhny Vestyak, Yakutia, for attempting to establish an independent labor union. Russian Reporter has decided to rectify this.

“When they drove off the road into the taiga, I hear, ‘Take out the plastic sheet so nothing gets splattered.’ That, as they say, is when I bid farewell to life, calmed down and resigned myself. I lay on the floor of the car and waited. Hands cuffed behind my back. They pulled me out, put me on my knees and fired three shots over my head. But they didn’t kill me.”

urusov

Valentin Urusov. Photo by Aleskey Maishev for Russian Reporter

The senior officer for education at the colony listens attentively to my conversation with Valentin Urusov, a prisoner at Penal Colony No. 3 in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and former leader of the independent labor union local in the town of Udachny. After the interview, the officer comes up to me and says, “You know, maybe he is really innocent. But if five percent are wrongly convicted in America, what can you expect from us?”

“What a terrific job!”

The idea that a full-fledged rather than puppet labor union could emerge in Udachny occurred to Valentin, a rank-and-file employee at Almazenergoremont, a subsidiary of the local mining and processing plant, after the scandalous “affair of the sandblasters.” Urusov himself is a local man, although he was born in Karachay-Cherkessia: he has lived in Yakutia since he was two years old and worked here since he was sixteen, mostly at facilities run by the state-owned diamond mining company Alrosa. There are few other options here.

Udachny is a town fourteen kilometers from the Arctic Circle, and one of the three main sites, along with Mirny and Aikhal, where diamonds are mined. Among the workers involved in the mining process are the so-called abrasive blasters or, more simply, sandblasters, whose job is to work solid surfaces with an abrasive, high-pressure stream of air pumped through a hose. It is not a job that is good for the health of the worker, to say the least: pulmonary silicosis is the occupational illness. Neither a safety helmet nor a [hazmat] suit, like cosmonauts wear, helps.

In 2007, a team of these sandblasters demanded overtime pay, which at that time went chronically unpaid. The workers filed a lawsuit and even managed to win their case: the Labor Code was clearly on their side.

“A special commission arrived in Udachny to arbitrate the dispute directly,” explains Andrei Polyakov, an Alrosa spokesman. “The company agreed with the validity of the claims, an agreement settling all grievances was signed, and compensation was paid out. The managers who were in direct dereliction of their duties were punished.”

This happened, it is true, but later. The main scandal occurred when the dispute was still being settled: the semi-official labor union at Alrosa, Profalmaz, negotiated not on the side of the workers, but on behalf of . . . management. This provoked astonishment and outrage in Udachny.

So, on the one hand, Profalmaz’s authority was undermined. On the other, the feeling arose that one’s labor rights could be protected—moreover, in a civilized manner, through the courts and arbitration, the European way, so to speak.

“I just found it interesting. I’m a generally curious person, and that is probably why I’m in prison,” jokes Valentin. “I went online and came across Sotsprof, a trade union association that is an alternative to the FNPR (the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia). I wrote an email to its leader, who was then Sergei Khramov. He replied by sending me documents on how to create a new union.”

“But why a new one?” I ask. “Was it really impossible to make things work within the existing union?”

“All [organizations] belonging to Mikhail Shmakov’s FNPR, including Profalmaz, are not labor unions but appendages of personnel departments. All they do is allocate vacation vouchers. They will never oppose management.”

“Was the only problem overtime and the fact it wasn’t being paid then?”

“Of course not. There were a lot of problems! And then, you understand, this is very difficult work: you have to work night and day, and on holidays, and take someone else’s shift, whatever management says. But you get paid for an eight-hour day. And then there are the working conditions and safety. In the department where I worked, the equipment should have been scrapped twenty years ago, at best. There are a lot of accidents as a result. The ones that were made public were like a speck in a big heap of sand. I got a big piece of flesh taken out of my hand, and that was nothing. Of course, it’s hard to hush up fatal incidents. But fractures and injuries are different. There are thousands of them and nobody cares. It was a shame that the company was so wealthy, that it built five-star hotels and all kinds of business centers, but scrimped on us.”

In Moscow, I met with Sergei Khramov, to whom Valentin had sent the email and who had instructed him on creating a union local.

Udachnaya_pipe

The open pit of the Udachnaya Diamond Mine, Russia, from a helicopter, July 17, 2004. Photo by Alexander Stepanov

“Add to this the aggressive water in the gully where they mine diamonds.” Khramov hands me a complaint from Udachny miners addressed to Vladimir Putin. “It’s nearly acid and it penetrates their rubber suits. Here they write, ‘We don’t know what it is we are breathing when the ventilation equipment is lubricated with used oil.’ Or there’s this one: ‘Cold, unheated air is pumped into the mine, even in winter.’ And it’s minus forty-fifty in winter there. What a terrific job!”

How to frighten a republic’s leadership

Right at this time, in August 2008, the so-called Siberian Social Forum was held in Irkutsk. “Free” trade unions were among the forum’s founders. Urusov’s new acquaintances invited him there, too. In fact, it was a small event, attended by no more than two hundred people, but it made a strong impression on Valentin.

“[Civil rights lawyer] Stanislav Markelov, who was later murdered in Moscow, lectured on legal issues. He was a very competent, energetic, lively man—it’s a shame [what happened] to him. He talked about how to act in this or that situation so as not to set oneself up and achieve [your goals] at the same time. And then the call came. Problems with pay had begun at the second motor depot, and the guys had decided to organize a strike.”

Events unfolded rapidly. In a small suburban home outside of Udachny, Urusov met with motor depot drivers and mechanics in an almost conspiratorial atmosphere and began persuading them to join the union. Armed with new knowledge, Urusov tried to prove to his comrades that if a strike began they would immediately be fired for trumped-up excuses, and there would be no one left to work on getting them reinstated. During the second “conspiratorial” meeting, sixty-two people joined Urusov’s union local.

There were two options as to how to proceed. First, a classic strike. But the Udachny miners had no experience with strikes, and therefore they could easily have been fired for “absenteeism.” And even if they had managed to get fired workers reinstated, they would have lost the initiative, and the remaining workers would have been demoralized. The second option was a hunger strike. Everyone goes to work; there is no downtime and, therefore, nothing for management to complain about. But demands are loudly declared and, basically, a scandal erupts. They chose the second option.

“At first, [management] demonstratively paid no attention to us. Then they see we aren’t going to back down. That is when they began dropping by,” Urusov laughs. “People came from the police, from plant security, from the company itself, trying to talk us out of it. In exchange for setting up a conciliation commission, we suspended the hunger strike.”

However, the commission was unable to achieve a compromise. Management made no concessions.

“We decided to hold an open union meeting right on the town’s central square. It wasn’t a [protest] rally, and by law, we weren’t required to notify anyone. On the first day, all the motor depot workers came, plus another two hundred people. The director of the plant came and tried to say something. But he couldn’t answer a single question and left. And right there on the square, people began joining the union. By the end of the day, something like three hundred people had joined. We decided to repeat the meeting. The second time, more than eight hundred people gathered. There was no rioting and no laws were broken. We didn’t even have a loudspeaker. By evening, I remember it even now, 1,012 people had joined the union.”

We have to remember that Udachny is a very small town with a population of slightly over ten thousand, and such developments outright scared both the local authorities and certain people in high places. The situation was headed towards a citywide strike and a potential stoppage of diamond mining in the Udachnaya kimberlite pipe—the largest in the world, by the way.

“We have enormous enterprises in our country. Often [they] monopolize their regions, and so a strike or simply a large [industrial] action could freeze an entire industry,” explains Alexander Zakharin, Urusov’s friend and colleague, and chair of the Sotsprof local in Surgut. “And if you organize such an action, you risk running into a brutal response. From the owners and from the authorities. But it happens that milder measures don’t work. Then you need to choose: take a risk or keep your mouth shut.”

At Alrosa itself, the union’s activities in Udachny are seen primarily as an attempt at self-promotion.

“A media effect—promoting awareness of Sotsprof and the number of times it got mentioned in the press—was probably the main objective for some of its executives,” argues company spokesman Polyakov.

As during the [dispute in 2007], Profalmaz adopted a peculiar position in the new confrontation. Its leader, Il Tumen (Sakha Republic State Assembly) deputy Pavel Tretyakov, not only failed to help the workers but also asked the republic’s leaders to reason with the “rebels.” Profalmaz’s executive committee sent an appeal to the President of Yakutia, Vyacheslav Shtyrov, and FNPR head [Mikhail] Shmakov asking them to prevent “incitement of a conflict.”

Tretyakov later, in a similar vein, told Vasily Gabyshev, the Mirny town prosecutor, “It’s surprising that law enforcement authorities didn’t respond to attempts by various persons to artificially incite conflicts, to calls for illegal hunger strikes and [labor] strikes.”

The Yakutia presidential administration composed a panicked memo on the basis of Tretyakov’s appeals. The President instructed law enforcement agencies to figure out what was happening. (Russian Reporter has all these documents in its possession.) What exactly Shtyrov wanted from the security services is still unclear, but the local office of the FSKN (the Federal Drug Control Service) reacted to the situation, let’s say, in an extremely original way.

Udachny—Aikhal—Mirny

“Then what happened? Then the third of September came. I was leaving my place. I heard a car door open. I instinctively turned around.  It was a simple UAZ[-452], a “Pill” [i.e., a van] with tinted windows. Out came three guys in leather jackets and jeans with shaved heads. I didn’t know them. I immediately knew something was wrong and ran. They caught up to me and knocked me down.”

“Did they show you any identification?”

“Absolutely nothing. They restrained me and brought me to the van. First, they handcuffed me with my hands in front. Later, in the van, they tried to cuff me with my hands behind my back. I clasped my hands and held on. They pulled and pulled, broke my finger, and finally handcuffed my hands behind my back. They threw me to the floor and one of them sat on top of me. We drove for a long time.”

It subsequently emerged that Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Rudov, the head of drug control in the Mirny District, had personally led this “operation.” In order to apprehend Urusov, he and his subordinates had driven six hundred kilometers [to Udachny]: [his] “Hunter” [i.e., jeep] was waiting for the “Pill” on the outskirts of the town. In court, Rudov claimed to have had “operational information” that Urusov was involved in selling drugs.

“We asked the court to confirm or refute Rudov’s testimony, and requested written confirmation that the ‘operational information’ had been registered in the police operational ledger,” says Urusov’s attorney Yevgeny Chernousov, a former police colonel who specializes in narcotics cases. “We didn’t demand that this information itself or its source be revealed. We just wanted to confirm that the information had existed. The court did not fulfill our request. There is thus no evidence of its existence. In light of this, Rudov’s unwarranted trip to Udachny and back seems more than suspicious.”

Valentin says that Rudov was on the phone with a certain Alexei Yurevich or Yuri Alexeyevich the whole time, reporting to him that they had “taken” Urusov and wanting to know what to do next. After one of these conversations, the van pulled off into the taiga. There the narcotics officers spread out plastic sheeting and fired a few shots over Urusov’s head, recounts Urusov.

“They were shooting the whole time,” says Valentin. “They shot at birds, and at trees. Apparently, they wanted to frighten me. We had already driven far from town, and basically, they could have done whatever they wanted with me.”

At a fork in the Udachny-Aikhal-Mirny road, the car of Grigory Pustovetov, head of security at the Aikhal mining and processing plant, drove up to Rudov’s group “entirely by accident.” Only then did the police decide to search Urusov for drugs. Pustovetov and his driver acted as official witnesses. The search was a complete success: sixty-six grams of hashish oil were found in the union activist’s pocket.

“A number of questions arise,” says an outraged Chernousov. “First, when the arrest happens in one place, but the [official] search with witnesses happens dozens of kilometers away, it’s a clear sign that the drugs could have been planted. Second, if the head of one of a company’s security units serves as a witness when an employee in a labor dispute with that company is being searched, it also gives rise to the most unpleasant thoughts.”

Urusov himself claims the hashish was planted on him in the car after the fake execution. He says that hash oil was specially applied to his hands so that traces of the drug would later be detected when his hands were swabbed.

“When we were organizing the miners’ union in Neryungri (a major industrial center in Yakutia), I was reminded of this story,” says Valery Sobol, first secretary of the Neryungri Communist Party City Committee. “I won’t name the names [of the persons involved] because I live there. Employees of the so-called organs [i.e., the security services] invited me to a pub. We hung out there for a while. Then at another place, and then another. I myself didn’t drink, [but] they drank a lot. And, as if it was an afterthought, though they had summoned me there [to deliver just this message], one of them says, ‘You remember that thing with Urusov? You also better not be naughty. If anything happens, we’ll plant a gun [on you] or whatever.’ And then he laughed. Like it was a joke.”

Several months ago, Sobol nearly won the election for the head of the Neryungri District. He came in second by only a small margin. And if a potential district head can be threatened almost openly, then the kidnapping of a simple working stiff like Urusov, who has no political backing at all, does not seem farfetched.

Sobol and I sat in the kitchen of Sergei Yurkov, an engineer, businessman, and leader of [an organization called] the Russian Community of Yakutia. He met Urusov in a pre-trial detention facility. I ask him how he had ended up there.

“My story is simple. Transneft was building a pipeline here. They didn’t want to pay normal wages to the locals. So when the locals balked, they brought in rural Chinese willing to work for peanuts and live in barracks. When we organized a rally and put up flyers saying this wasn’t how things were done, I was arrested under Article 282 of the Criminal Code for ‘incitement of interethnic hatred.’ What does ‘incitement’ have to do with it? I was sentenced to two years in prison.”

Drugs via the Special Courier Service?

It must be said that the theme of drugs, with which they decided to shut Urusov up, did not arise by accident. Drug use is a local scourge. And this makes sense. There are few other ways to have fun in small towns and villages in the North. That is why on the surface Urusov’s prosecution under a drug statute was meant to have appeared more or less plausible.

“It’s a big problem here, as is drinking,” says Maxim Mestnikov, a Sotsprof spokesman in Yakutia. “When Friday comes, hang onto your head: there is a deluge of knife wounds [and] head injuries.”

But Urusov, in fact, never had the reputation of a mischievous drug addict. In his youth, at the beginning of the 2000s, he and a few friends created an organization called Youth for an Athletic Movement-North, whose activists patrolled the city monitoring places where drugs were sold. Eventually, the mayor of Udachny even suggested that they create a branch of City Without Drugs on the line of [Yevgeny] Roizman’s [controversial anti-drugs organization].

The relationship between certain local [Alrosa] subcontractors and drug dealers, however, may require a separate investigation. Russian Reporter has in its possession an official memo written by Sergei Denisov, the predecessor of [Grigory] Pustovetov (the man who acted as a witness during the police search of Urusov) as head of security at the Aikhal mining and processing plant.

The memo is addressed to Yuri Ionov, former vice-president for security at Alrosa, and it deals with the overall crime situation in the area. Among many others, the memo contains the following passage: “It is impossible to ignore the fact that a drug trafficking network has developed in the village. According to operational information from the Mirny office of the FSB, the delivery of drugs is carried out by the [Federal] Special Courier Service, with which Alrosa has a contractual relationship for the transportation of diamonds.” Moreover, the memo shows that confidential and friendly relations exist between certain high-ranking Alrosa executives, law enforcement officers, and outright criminals.

“I’ll say this: the criminal world is generally in first place here,” [Sotsprof’s] Mestnikov says with conviction. “In this respect, it is still the nineties here. Something needs to be done so you go to them and they handle it. And this could also have happened with Valentin. Perhaps it was better that they sicked the cops on him and not the wise guys.”

After he presented the memo to Ionov, Denisov was forced to resign and move to Novosibirsk.

“No decision was taken on my report. Ionov showed me the door and said he didn’t need any unnecessary problems. As for Urusov, I can say that it’s a pure frame-up,” [Denisov says].

In May 2010, Lieutenant Colonel Rudov was sentenced to three years of probation for fraud and abuse of authority. According to [Urusov’s other] lawyer Inga Reitenbakh, “He was charged with receiving 2.5 million rubles from Alrosa for the purchase of an apartment in Mirny.” The investigators and Rudov himself categorically denied any connection between this case and the Urusov case. Nevertheless, the funds were allocated to Rudov shortly after Urusov’s arrest. According to Russian Reporter’s source, Rudov now works as a procurements specialist in the repair and construction office at the Mirny mining and processing plant.

“He shoots before he thinks”

Urusov was also unlucky in that he had set about creating a Sotsprof local in Udachny exactly when the union’s leadership had entered the complex process of building relations with the Kremlin.

“Beginning in 2007, people from the Russian Presidential Administration began to pressure us very actively,” says Sergei Khramov. “We were strongly recommended to name Sergei Vostretsov from the United Russia party as [our] new leader. I had good reason to believe that if we didn’t, we would simply be destroyed. And I figured, the heck with him, let Vostretsov be the leader and do public relations, while I, as Sotsprof’s general labor inspector, will do the day-to-day work.”

The first outcome of this “castling” move was that the formerly oppositional Sotsprof supported Dmitry Medvedev in the 2008 presidential elections.

”And when they began pressuring Valentin, Vostretsov told me not to make any unnecessary noise, because he would fix everything anyway. I knew that the Vostretsov family—his younger brother was the youngest FSB colonel in the country—was very close to General Alexander Mikhailov, the then-director of the Federal Drug Control Service. I thought that Valentin’s case would be decided with a single phone call.”

For the sake of fairness, we should note that complicated events were underway at the Federal Drug Control Service at the time. Viktor Ivanov had replaced Viktor Cherkesov, who had famously publicized the existence of a war within the security services in an article [entitled “We Can’t Let Warriors Turn into Traders”]. In October, General Mikhailov left the FSKN as well. There was simply no one left to make that “single phone call.”

Subsequently, Vostretsov pushed Khramov out of Sotsprof altogether, and the organization became completely loyal to the Kremlin.

In December 2008, the Mirny District Court sentenced Valentin Urusov to six years in prison for drug possession. Vostretsov tried to fight it, but more from behind the scenes: he met with officials from the Yakutia administration and officials of the security services, and even, allegedly, raised the issue of Urusov with Medvedev. It was no use.

Khramov, in contrast, acted publicly. It was he who got the famous lawyer Chernousov to take the case. Chernousov convinced the Yakutia Supreme Court to overturn the verdict (on procedural grounds: the judge had not retired to chambers while considering a motion to dismiss), after which the case was retried.

“I had absolutely no illusions,” Valentin smiles. “After the Supreme Court decision, many people thought I would be exonerated.  I was certain of the opposite, that now I would be ‘shut down’ for sure. This was evident from the faces of those in the courtroom at the second trial. After the first hearing, I gathered my belongings, put on the track suit I’d been wearing while traveling between pre-trial detention facilities and prisons, and from then on I went to hearings in this outfit.”

In Udachny, there is a small newspaper with the humorous name of Gorodok [“The Burg”], edited by a local journalist named Alla Demidova. After Urusov was released, she published a short article. Immediately, the very same day, she got a call from Maxim Dobarkin, one of the police investigators who had participated in Urusov’s “arrest.”

“Dobarkin called me at home,” says Demidova. “Drunk. He told me how many bullets he would put in me, said that ‘he shoots before he thinks,’ that he knows where I live, and that he would ‘get’ me ‘whether in Udachny or in Sochi.’”

“What did you do?”

“I filed a complaint with the FSB.”

“Did they respond?”

“They responded by sending me a one-line answer: ‘There is no threat.’”

Dobarkin, however, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and together with Rudov took command of the Federal Drug Control Service’s interdistrict department in Mirny.

Another Yakutia journalist, Aitalina Nikiforova, was also threatened for covering Urusov’s case.

“I reported on every hearing during the trial from the courtroom. Rudov called me over during one of the hearings and said word for word, ‘Your oldest daughter is fifteen. It would be interesting to see how you’ll defend Urusov after some old drug dealers drug her up and pass her around.’ This definitely sounded like a threat. At the time I was working as editor-in-chief at the only independent newspaper in Mirny, Moya Gazeta. The only printing plant in town refused to print us. Local Federal Drug Control Service agents began coming to my house, allegedly because of anonymous tips that I also used and dealt drugs. Some of [the agents] were insolent and rude; others were ashamed because the last visits took place when I was six to seven months pregnant with my third child.”

After that Nikiforova decided it would be safer to leave her hometown and move to Yakutsk.

In June 2009, the Mirny District Court delivered a new verdict in the Urusov case that completely upheld the previous verdict, but in September the Yakutia Supreme Court lightened Urusov’s prison sentence by one year. The Sotsprof local in Udachny had been crushed. The second motor depot has been completely shut down. The company has had no more problems with the workforce in this town.

“Valentin, who do you tend to blame for what happened to you?” I finally asked.

“Alrosa is a state-run company. It is owned by the government, by the state, so . . . you understand.”

1345633951216469_big_photo

Valentin Urusov. Photo by Aleskey Maishev for Russian Reporter

***

“Our government is fascist,” Yurkov, the leader of the Russian Community of Yakutia, suddenly declares, and it sounds quite equivocal.

Sobol, the man who missed becoming head of the Neryungri District by a heartbeat, turns and stops smoking next to the window.

“We have to be precise with our terms: neither Nazi nor nationalist, but precisely fascist as it is understood in Mussolini’s theory of the corporate state, as Franco, Salazar, and even Pinochet understood it. In our country, the authorities and big business are intertwined in a ball. And anyone who gets in their way is crushed. Here in Yakutia, in the provinces, it’s just more clearly felt.  But it’s the same thing all over the country.”

Translated by Sean Guillory and Chtodelat News. Slightly different versions of the same translation were published by n+1 and Sean’s Russian Blog.

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

Fatherlandish

I am going to break an unwritten rule today and publish a long videotaped interview with the Russian independent trade union organizer Dmitry Kozhnev without providing a translation in English.

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time covering the struggles of Russia’s independent trade unions, as well as the abuses of labor rights in the country and the grassroots pushback against these abuses.

I was alerted to the interview by my friend Comrade Moose who, when he posted it on Facebook, wrote that it was “perfect.”

I agree with him completely. Kozhnev provides an ideal primer on why we need trade and labor unions, and how to organize them into effective tools for advancing the interests of workers, not only in Russia, but anywhere else in the world.

In fact, the conversation between Kozhnev and his engaged, smart interviewer on the YouTube channel Station Marx is so exemplary of the other Russians and other Russias to whom I have been trying to give a voice to on this blog and its predecessor for the last twelve and half years, I would urge my readers who teach high school and university students Russian language, history, culture, and current events to use the interview to look at subjects such as labor rights and the fight to protect the interests of workers in Russia and elsewhere, and grassroots political and social movements in Russia today.

Station Marx‘s annotation to the video, which I have translated, includes a long list of the websites run by Russia’s independent trade unions and other good stuff. Maybe it would be worth your time and that of your students to take a break from Tolstoevsky and “There is no Russia without Putin” to see what some real Russians have been doing against incredible odds.

Sooner or later, the other Russias and the other Russians who exist in the subjunctive mood in this interview and on my blog will win the day. Why don’t we get to know them now? In a few years or so, they will be running Russia, while Putin and his gang of criminals will be rotting behind bars, utterly forgotten. {TRR}

Why Do Trade Unions Not Work in Russia? Dmitry Kozhnev
STATION MARX
March 15, 2019

Our guest today, Dmitry Kozhnev, is an activist with the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR), a trade union organizer with MPRA and Novoprof, and a member of the Marxist group Workers Platform. He came by for a cup to coffee and talked about Alexei Navalny’s program for a new-model trade union, the problems of the trade union movement, and how strikes are organized.

Our videos are made possible only through your support. You can donate money to us via:

Russia’s independent trade unions and other labor organizations:
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Oleg Volin: How Capitalism Kills in Nizhny Tagil

уралвагонFront entrance of the famous Uralvagonzavod Factory in Nizhny Tagil. Courtesy of Vasily Shaposhnikov and Kommersant

Oleg Volin
Facebook
February 20, 2019

Capitalism kills. Overwork, wage cuts, nasty managers, and the lack of a clear future drive workers to kill themselves.

On the morning of February 19, 2019, in Nizhny Tagil, Sergei Chernykh, a young worker, left his boss’s office, put a noose around his neck, and jumped off a raised area, damaging his spine and suffocating in mere seconds. Arriving on the scene, an ambulance crew (who, to top it all off, were not immediately let into the factory) were powerless to save his life.

The situation in Nizhny Tagil is not merely rough but bloody. Chernykh’s suicide was the fifth suicide in the past year by a worker at the Uralvagonzavod plant.

There have been several dozen similar incidents, but Chernykh’s death stands out from them in that he committed suicide at his workplace.

Chernykh could not bear life’s hardships and so he parted with it right on the spot. Whether he meant it or not, he thus focused the public’s attention on the outrageous working conditions endured by Uralvagonzavod workers.

The plant’s press service has not yet commented on the case, but it is obvious the increasing incidents of suicide have been caused by deterioration of socio-economic conditions and the lack of prospects.

Over the last twenty-eight years, Nizhny Tagil’s population has steadily declined, dropping from 440,000 residents to 350,000 residents. It would be strange not to see this as a telltale sign of what has been happening in the city.

Chernykh’s friends and acquaintances mainly say he was “driven” to kill himself. Many residents of Nizhny Tagil could find themselves in similar circumstances, especially if they work at Uralvagonzavod.

A female worker in Forging Shop No. 170, where Chernykh was employed, said the 27-year-old man’s suicide occurred after he attended a meeting of plant managers that he was not supposed to have attended. The employee asked she not be named since, she claimed, everyone in the shop was afraid, everyone needed a job, and she did not want any extra problems.

“Sergei was a rank-and-file worker, a cutter, but since our section foreman and section manager were on sick leave, Sergei was temporarily appointed foreman. And since there was no manager in our section, Sergei was sent to that meeting,” the woman claims. “It’s at these morning meetings that the shop foreman tells everyone what section has to do what and how much they have to do during a shift.”

“There are emergencies, and the shop foreman forces people to hurry up. He could not care less whether are enough workers to do the job or not, whether they have the tools they need or not. All that matters is that the work be done quickly. If you don’t have any workers, you go do the job yourself,” she says.

Marina Pogrebnykh, a distant relative of Chernykh’s, does not know the particulars of his death, but she likewise has no doubt plant management was to blame.

“I’m certain management are to blame for it. I don’t believe he would just take his own life like that, especially since this was not the first such incident,” says Pogrebnykh.

The anonymous female worker at Uralvagonzavod confirmed Chernykh was the third plant employee to have killed himself in the past three months. On the social networks, there has been talk there may have been more such incidents.

“We are under extreme pressure at work. You can make good wages, but you have to live on the shop floor to make the good money.

“Our section foreman killed himself. Yes, of course, it was a personal situation, but I can say that if he hadn’t drunk he would be alive. But when he was foreman in another shop he never drank, although the workload was huge. So, it’s a little hard to believe in coincidences.

“Our current section foreman, a woman, quite often comes back from meetings with management completely stressed out. She’s already getting up there in terms of age, but they yell at her like they yell at everyone else,” says the late Chernykh’s female coworker.

Two weeks ago, twenty-five Uralvagonzavod workers filed suit against their employer over new rules for calculating wages. According to the workers, the new rules have cut their pay in half while their workload has increased. Although these rules came into force in 2018, the workers have only now decided to file suit.

“Management tells us the the plant has been modernized. Due to this modernization, our workload has decreased, allegedly, meaning we should produce more. It’s on paper that things look good to them. On the contrary, we haven’t noticed any changes,” say the workers by way of explaining why they have sued olant management.

“On the contrary, we now have additional functions, but our wages have been halved.  This happened despite the fact that previously we had one of the highest pay grades at the plant due to occupational hazards and the heavy physical workload,” they say.

Nizhny Tagil’s Dzerzhinsky District Court has not yet made a ruling in the case.

Founded in 1936, Uralvagonzavod manufactures military equipment, railroad cars, and road construction equipment. In 2016, the company was merged with the Russian state corporation Rostec.

Poverty and overwork have led workers to hang themselves. It is all quite sad. Workers must realize they need to fight together to improve their condition. They must organize themselves, go on strike, and take other actions.

The nooses should be reserved for other heads.

This text is based on media reports.

Thanks to Tom Rowley for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Danone, Discrimination, Chekhov

danone_logosIs Danone Socially Responsible? Or Do Danone’s Managers Put Pressure on Trade Union Activists?
Novoprof
December 24, 2018

For the last two years, management at Danone’s flagship plant in the city of Chekhov, Moscow Region, have tried to destroy its trade union local. Senior and junior managers at the plant have attempted pass off each incident as separate, unrelated, and harmless cases, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

After the trade union local at the plant fought a hard fight to raise the wages of employees and improve work safety, plant management has clearly and deliberately tried to shut the trade union down.

Management has used various methods to “explain” to trade union members why they should refrain from activism, fighting for pay rises, and being members of a workers organization. Management has often resorted to telling plant workers that trade union members would have problems and spreading lies about the trade union’s work. They have tried other things as well.

Two years have passed, and another case of anti-union discrimination has emerged. Alexander Chubukov, a key activist in the Danone plant’s trade union local who has never yielded to threats and coercion, has recently been subject to pressure from management.

At the beginning of the year, Chubukov was formally reprimanded for an alleged infraction. To make a long story short, Chubukov was alleged to have failed to notify the responsible manager of a malfunctioning production line. He continued to work on the line, which produced spoiled products. A court is currently examining the case.

Currently, plant management has a different gripe with Chubukov, accusing him of warning management about malfunctioning machinery and refusing to work until the machinery was repaired.

What is the rationale in this instance? Management is not concerned about machinery and malfunctions. They simply want to get rid of a trouble-making trade union activist.

Plant management wants to transfer Chubukov to another shift. They want to put more distance between him and the trade union committee’s chair and leading activists. They want to “teach” him how to work, although Chubukov has worked as a machine operator and mechanic at the plant for over ten years.

The trade union would not be surprised were management to take more serious measures, since they have been trying to force Chubukov to resign all this time.

Danone’s “socially responsible” management agreed to meet with trade union local chair Alexander Ivanov and Alexander Chubukov, of course, but the quality of the meeting left much to be desired.

Plant management has failed to supply the trade union local with the necessary documents. It has reacted in no way to specific complaints about the condition of the malfunction production line. It has failed to prove Chubukov committed any of the infractions of which it has accused him. Nevertheless, it has decided to transfer him to another shift for “training.”

“Novoprof cannot ignore this case. We will do everything possible to end the discrimination at Danone. We believe management’s behavior is motivated solely by the desire to eradicate the trade union local at the Chekhov plant. There are special means of ending the discrimination  at the company’s disposal and the trade union’s disposal. We will use all means necessary,” said Ivan Milykh, chair of the Novoprof Interregional Trade Union.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russian Trade Union Blues

f98cd1
“Peace, Labor, Putin.” The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) has 22.7 million members, who annually pay out almost 68 billion rubles to fund their trade union associations. (The FNPR has 122 such affiliated organizations nationwide). At best, only 140 million rubles make it to Moscow. The rest stays at the local level. Photo courtesy of vestnikburi.com

An RBC Investigative Report: How Russian Trade Unions Make Money 
Vyacheslav Kozlov
RBC
April 29, 2016

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) will celebrate May Day with a march in support of workers. As RBC has found out, the budget of the country’s largest trade union organization runs in the billions of rubles, much of it earned from real estate it freely inherited from the Soviet Union. 

In February 2016, Crimea’s most famous resort got a new owner. The Foros Spa, right down the road from the residence where Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was held captive during the 1991 coup attempt, was purchased for 1.4 billion rubles by the Federation of Trade Unions of Tatarstan.

Even their bosses in Moscow could not understand where a little-known noncommercial organization from Kazan had got its hands on that kind of money.

“When we saw the news, we didn’t even reprint it at first. We called and checked whether it was true,” an employee at the FNPR’s central office told RBC. (The Federation of Trade Unions of Tatarstan is an affiliated member of FNPR.)

The folks in Kazan reassured the trade union bosses in Moscow. The organization, which is mainly funded by membership dues paid by workers, really did not have that kind of money. It had acted as a middleman in the purchase of Foros, getting the money from major regional companies.

“There are such companies there: KamAZ, Tatneft, petrochemical plants [part of the TAIF GroupRBC],” said FNPR leader Mikhail Shmakov, bending his fingers back as he listed off the companies.

Shmakov spoke with RBC in his office on Leninsky Prospekt, 42, in Moscow. In keeping with Soviet tradition, the building is even nowadays called the Trade Unions Palace of Labor.

foros
Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, who owned the property before the peninsula was annexed by Russia, could have insisted on imposing sanctions on the buyers of the famous Crimean spa Foros. The scheme for buying Foros, involving the Tatarstan trade unions, made the deal less risky, sources told RBC. The view, above, is of the government dacha Zarya (Dawn), where the coup plotters held Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Courtesy of Mikhail Pavlishak/TASS

Shmakov could not conceal his satisfaction with the deal, calling it “brilliant.” RBC’s source in the FNPR executive committee and another source, close to the Tatarstan government, said the scheme for buying Foros, involving trade union bosses, was employed so the real buyer would not end up on the sanctions lists of the European Union and the US.

“To act as a middleman in such deals you have to have good connections with the authorities and big business. They have to consider you one of their own. You have to be a loyal organization,” a source close to the FNPR leadership explained to RBC.

The FNPR has long been cooperating with the authorities and business. Heir to the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS), the federation is proud of the fact it is the largest labor union in Russia, with 122 affiliates and over 20 million members.

How does the country’s largest trade union organization make its money?

Budget
Despite its federal scale, the FNPR is an extremely closed organization. It does not publish financial statements.

“This information is available only to members of the executive committee, and even then documents containing specific figures are not distributed to everyone. Some are given documents without any figures,” said an employee in the central office.

RBC has obtained a document describing the FNPR’s budget in terms of percentages. From this document it follows that the federation has only two sources of income, membership dues and “other income,” a phrase that mainly conceals revenue from commercial operations.

shmakov
FNPR chair Mikhail Shmakov (pictured above) has remained at the helm of the country’s largest trade union organization for all 25 years of its existence. Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC

The document reveals that membership dues make up 70% of the FNPR’s revenues, while “other income” amounts to 30%.

Expenses are more complicated. 40.5% is spent on organizational and business operations, and 46.6%, on subsidizing FNPR institutions. Six percent goes to the so-called solidarity fund (for holding protests, paying wages of workers during downtime on the job, and making one-time payments to members involved in work-related accidents), while another 6.3% pays for dues in the international organizations of which the FNPR is a member, and 0.4% is spent on maintaing the auditing commission. In other words, nearly 90% of expenses go towards maintaining the organization itself.

Shmakov confirmed the income percentages in conversation with RBC. (He said nothing about expenses.) In 2016, the FNPR’s budget was 200 million rubles, according to Shmakov. An RBC source close to the Kremlin, who was well acquainted with the operations of the trade unions, confirmed that the FNPR’s annual budget was comparatively small.

“A few years ago, it did not exceed one million dollars,” he said.

The amount looks strange when you consider the number of people paying membership dues nationwide. The income of FNPR’s various affiliated trade unions, from factory locals to central committees, is incomparably greater than the parent organization’s budget.

Membership dues in most Russian trade unions are one percent of wages. If we take the official membership figures (according to Shmakov, the FNPR has around 20.7 million dues-paying members, plus another three to four million students and pensioners who do not pay dues) and the national average monthly wage (according to Rosstat, it was 33,900 rubles in February 2016), the dues paid by all FNPR-affilated trade unions should come to approximately 5.7 billion rubles monthly or 67.9 billion rubles a year.

But not all that money makes it to Moscow.

“The money is spread around the entire organization,” said an employee in the central office.

Locals keep from fifty to ninety-five percent of collected dues, explained our source. The rest is split among central and regional organizations.

How are these billions of rubles spent?

Expenditures
“Exempt trade unionists” is the Soviet-era legal term for trade union employees, from executives to secretaries, who are exempt from working directly at a particular enterprise. Their salaries are usually paid by the trade union itself. Trade union association executives surveyed by RBC confirmed that up to half of an organization’s budget can go to paying exempted workers. For example, the Pskov Federation of Trade Unions spent nearly 30 million rubles of its 2015 budget of 66 million rubles on the salaries and bonuses of over sixty exempt employees, says the federation’s head, Ulyana Mikhailova.

RBC asked the FNPR to provide it with the number of exempt employees nationwide but our request was turned down. Open sources mention the number of elected trade union officials. According to a 2011 FNPR executive committee decision, there were 13,500 such officials.

union membership
How Union Membership Has Declined. [According to the graph, union membership in Russia has declined from 65 million in 1992 (the first full year of independence) to 20.7 million in 2016. – TRR.] Sources: RBC interview with Mikhail Shmakov; decisions of the FNPR executive committee; white paper edited by Sergei Khramov and Mikhail Delyagin. Inserted text reads: “On average, 24% of the able-bodied population, i.e., approximately 17.2 million people, admit they are trade union members, according to an October 2008 poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).” Courtesy RBC

But this is only a small part of the trade union army. According to figures for 2011, there were 191,000 trade union locals in Russia.

“At least one exempt worker emerges in a local with no less than three hundred members,” said Yuri Milovidov, director of Proftsentr, which assists trade union activists. “By my calculations, at least a quarter of these locals have at least one trade union worker. Some have several. There are fifty to seventy thousand such workers countrywide.”

A source in the FNPR executive committee said there were fewer trade union employees, around forty thousand. But even if we take this figure at face value, it turns out that the FNPR is one of the country’s major employers. (By way of comparison, AvtoVAZ, Russia’s largest auto manufacturer, employed around fifty thousand people as of late 2015.)

According to the FNPR employees surveyed by RBC, the average monthly salary among trade union employees is around 25,000 rubles, a little lower than the national average. The payroll bill for professional trade unionists across the country thus might be as much as one billion rubles a month.

Known as the Labor Palace of Trade Unions since Soviet times, FNPR's headquarters on Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow is of the most well-known pieces of real estate managed by the federation. Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC
Known as the Trade Unions Palace of Labor since Soviet times, the FNPR’s headquarters on Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow is of the most well-known pieces of real estate managed by the federation. Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC

The exact number of employees in the FNPR central office is unknown. The federation declined to answer this question when asked by RBC. A source in the central office said there were no more than 120 employees. Another source said their salary was small but higher than the national average: around 60,000 to 70,000 rubles a month.

Shmakov declined to disclose his salary.

28 Kilometers from Moscow
In the village of Chigasovo, in an elite neighborhood on the Rublyovskoye Highway in the Moscow suburbs, there is a house and plot of land (516.2 square meters and 1,798 square meters large, respectively) owned by a Viktor Shmakov, which is the exact same name as that of Mikhail Shmakov’s son. The FNPR chair’s son does business. According to SPARK, he is the director of Art Mix LLC, which organizes celebrations and events. As ads on the real estate and property rentals website CIAN.ru indicate, several five-hundred-square-meter cottages sited on fifteen-acre plots in Chigasovo are valued at around 36 million rubles. Mikhail Shmakov forwarded our questions about the house and land’s ownership to the proprietor, as listed in the Unified State Register of Real Estates Rights and Transactions (EGPR).

The Russian Federation of Spas
The FNPR acquired property amid the turmoil of the early 1990s, when familiar institutions of Soviet power crumbled. It was then that the young trade union leader Mikhail Shmakov, previously employed as a rocket engineer, managed to gain standing among Russian leaders and head the new organization, which immediately declared itself the VTsSPS’s legal successor. In legal terms, its property was transferred to the FNPR in 1992 through a special agreement. This property is now the source of the “other income,” mentioned above, the revenues the trade unions generate from commercial operations.

The exact number of real estate properties and land plots that were donated to the FNPR is contained in the appendices to the 1992 agreement, which the federation keeps secret. During the twenty-five years of its existence, the agreement has never been published. (The FNPR also refused to provide a copy to RBC.)

Milovidov, who worked for the FNPR for many years, claimed that 2,582 properties were transferred to the federation: 678 health spas, 131 hotels, 568 stadiums, and over 500 Young Pioneer camps.  It is unclear how many of these properties are still managed by the federation, but informally, sources there said the trade unions had lost around sixty percent of the property belonging to the VTsSPS when the Soviet Union collapsed.

According to Profkurort, the main trade union tourist agency, the trade unions now run exactly 374 resorts (health spas, boarding houses, vacation retreats, and children’s summer camps) in sixty-five regions from the Russian Far East to Kaliningrad.

The FNPR’s most profitable properties are in the southern Russia and Moscow. The trade unions particularly cherish their properties in the Caucasian Mineral Waters area. Their health spas account for over a quarter of so-called bed capacity among all the resorts in the area. Annually, they can take in 160,000 guests.

“Shmakov personally handles the Caucasian Mineral Waters. It’s his project,” RBC’s source in the federation’s central office explained.

To manage all its properties in the Caucasian Mineral Waters area, the federation founded Spa Management (Holding) LLC in 2005, which runs twenty-two health spas, including balneo baths and mud baths, mineral water drinking rooms, three boiler plant companies, a kindergarten, a library, a repair and construction company, and a car and truck pool. The federation’s share in the holding is nearly 85%, while over 15% belongs to the Stavropol Territory Association of Trade Unions, also affiliated with the FNPR. In 2015, the holding’s total revenue was 5.4 billion rubles, and its net profit was 294 millions rubles, Yulia Korogodova, Spa Management’s director, told RBC.

The FNPR’s other claim to fame are its hotels and health spas in Sochi. (According to RBC’s calculations, the FNPR and its subsidiaries own twenty-six buildings and seven lots there.) Sochi was the site of the FNPR’s biggest project in recent years, the reconstruction of three hotels for the Winter Olympics.

“Everyone was surprised that Shmakov had decided to get involved in the reconstruction of Sochi along with billionaires Vladimir Potanin and Oleg Deripaska, and other big businessmen. The authorities set them the harsh task of finishing in time for the Olympics at all costs, and this led to the fact that the poor FNPR was almost among the first to deliver its sites,” a source close to the federation’s central office told RBC.

metallurg
Steelworker Spa in Sochi is one of three properties reconstructed by the FNPR for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The federation borrowed two billion rubles from Vnesheconombank to finance the work. The trade unions are now attempting to restructure their debt. Photo courtesy of PhotoXPress

The trade unions had no money of their own, said our source, so they took out a loan from state-owned Vnesheconombank, which was the main source of funding for the Olympic projects, another source close to the FNPR told RBC. Shmakov confirmed that there was a loan. RBC found out from Vnesheconombank that the funds had been allocated to three joint-stock companies: Adler Spa, Steelworker Clinical Spa, and Trade Union Spas (Svetlana Spa). These companies all manage trade union properties in Sochi.

According to Shmakov, the loan amounted to 1.5 billion rubles. Spa Management, however, clarified that 2 billion rubles had been borrowed. The total investment in the Olympic hotels was 2.7 billion rubles, according to Spa Management, although they did not explain the source of the additional 700 million rubles. Shmakov said the FNPR was forced to put up Adler Spa as collateral for the loan. He confirmed that all revenues from the reconstructed hotels now have to go towards paying off the loan. In the current circumstances, however, the FNPR would rather not have to pay. According to sources at Vnesheconombank, the FNPR has sent them a request to restructure the loan.

Vnesheconombank’s money was used to rebuild the Svetlana Health Resort as the Sea Galaxy Hotel Congress & Spa and renovate the Steelworker Spa and one wing of the Adler Spa. There are 690 beds in the 18-story Sea Galaxy. In high season, a standard single room, according to the hotel’s price list, costs 5,300 rubles a night. In 2014, Profkurorty (Svetlana Spa) JSC, which manages the reconstructed hotel, recorded revenues of nearly 197.3 million rubles and a net profit of over 178.6 million rubles.

The ownership of trade union real estate is extremely confusing and opaque. Without engaging in commercial operations itself, the FNPR has founded dozens of companies to manage its properties nationwide.  (The Krasnodar Territory Trade Unions Council alone has registered 74 subsidiaries at various times.) However, as analysis shows, many of the spa companies in the Caucasian Mineral Waters areas and Kuban are closed organizations: over thirty of them are closed joint-stock companies, while the rest are private legal entities. From 2010 to 2014, these companies earned nearly 45 billion rubles.

From One Funeral to the Next
In late June 2015, the latest memorial service took place in the House of the Unions on Bolshaya Dmitrovka in Moscow, a building that belongs to the trade unions. People came to pay their last respects to former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Even President Putin attended the ceremony. Almost three weeks later, Alexander Bulgakov, perennial director of the House of Unions, was arrested by police investigators right in his office, next door to the State Duma.

The Investigative Committee reported that Bulgakov had been detained as he was receiving 308,000 rubles from the director of another commercial entity, House of the Unions Refreshments LLC. Allegedly, Bulgakov had extorted the money, which was ten percent of the cost of the banquets and receptions catered by House of the Unions Refreshments. A year later, Bulgakov was sentenced to four years in prison.

house of unions
The House of the Unions, adjacent to the State Duma building in Moscow, has long been considered the country’s primary venue for paying last respects to famous politicians and public figures. Along with the Trade Unions Palace of Labor, it is the most popular architectural landmark belonging to the trade unions. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

An RBC source, close to the FNPR, did not rule out a link between the two events, the memorial service for Primakov and Bulgakov’s arrest.

The service’s organizer, the Presidential Property Management Directorate, was, allegedly, displeased with the original fee Bulgakov had asked for holding the ceremony, said the source. (According to the state procurements site, the event’s final cost was 1.222 million rubles.) Complaints against Bulgakov were made to law enforcement authorities. RBC’s source in the FNPR’s central office confirmed he had heard this hypothesis.

Shmakov also acknowledged he had heard the story about dissatisfaction with the price of the memorial service, but he said it was not confirmed in the end. According to him, when negotiating the arrangements for Primakov’s service, Bulgakov had quoted the usual rate for such an event.

“It all started with the memorial service for Shvetsova [former State Duma deputy and former Moscow deputy mayor Ludmila Shvetsova — RBC]. It cost four million rubles. Moscow city hall paid this money, because that is how much such events cost. It was this price that he [Bulgakov] offered,” Shmakov said now.

Like most of the trade union properties in the capital, the House of the Unions belongs to the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP), which is part of the FNPR. The MFP also owns the Izmailovo Hotel Complex, Krylatskoye Velodrome, Znamensky Brothers Olympic Center, Trud Swimming Pool, Sokolniki and Peredelkino Spas, and Planernaya Olympic Center in Khimki.

Izmailovo-Hotel
The Izmailovo Commercial and Hotel Complex in Moscow is trade union property like, for example, the Sputnik Hotel on Leninsky Prospekt. In contrast to the Sputnik, however, which is owned directly by the FNPR, the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions holds the controlling stake in the Izmailovo complex. Photo courtesy of top10hm.net

The most profitable asset in Moscow is the Izmailovo Hotel Complex. The Moscow Trade Unions Property Fund owns 75% of the shares in Izmailovo Commercial and Hotel Complex JSC, which manages the Gamma, Beta, Delta, and Vega buildings, while the FNPR holds a seven-percent share. (The remaining shares are owned by members of the board of directors.)

In 2014, the total revenue generated by the hotels in the Izmailovo holding was over 3.25 billion rubles, with a net profit of over 240 million rubles. The MFP wholly owns the Alpha Commercial and Hotel Complex, which manages one more of the Izmailovo hotels, which is not part of eponymous joint-stock company. In 2014, Alpha’s gross profits were over 770 million rubles; its net profits, over 33 million rubles.

The FNPR does not own so much property directly in Moscow. It owns the Trade Unions Palace of Labor on Leninsky Prospekt, where the organization has its central office; the nearby Sputnik Hotel; a motorpool near Kaluzhskaya subway station; the building of the Academy of Labor and Social Relations, in western Moscow; and its own tailor’s shop and primary care clinic.

At Public Expense
People who began their careers in Soviet times know the terrifying sounding word sotsstrakh (“social insurance”). These were payments made by the Social Insurance Fund (FSS), which was managed by the trade unions until the early 2000s. Sotsstrakh paid for children’s trips to Young Pioneer summer camps, and for workers and pensioners to go to health spas. Then the FSS was taken over by the state, but the health spas were left to the trade unions, providing them with yet another way of making money.

“When the state lacks enough of its own health spas to provide treatment for everyone who has a legal right to it, it refers people to trade union spas,” explained Nikolai Murashko, director of the FNPR’s Spa Directorate.

Judging by public procurement records, government contracts are a serious source of revenue for the trade unions. Over a period of six years, from 2010 to 2016, FNPR’s Resort Holding implemented government contracts worth more than 4.8 billion rubles. During the same period, the spas owned by the Krasnodar Territory Trade Unions Council sold holiday packages worth a total of approximately four billion rubles.

The FNPR’s affiliated trade unions also make money on government contracts. The MFP and its member organizations, for example, were awarded government contracts worth more than 617 million rubles during the same six-year period. The Federation of Trade Unions of Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Region earned 242 million rubles, while the FNPR earned 32 million rubles itself.

What does the FNPR give the state in return?

A Necessary Organization
Shmakov had no doubt the federation fulfilled its main functions: protecting labor rights and controlling the propertied classes. For sixteen years, the government has convened a special tripartite commission for regulating social and labor relations. Government ministers, employers (e.g., the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and Opora Russia), and trade unions officials sit at the same table. A Kremlin official, however, warned against exaggerating the commission’s role.

“The minutes from some of the meetings are long, but that is where it ends: in the minutes. The state conducts its own policy,” he said.

He was echoed by someone who had been involved in the meetings.

“A trade union that, for example, is capable of getting people onto the streets can have a real impact on social and economic policy. Because of this, when it comes to the FNPR’s bread-and-butter issues, pensions, for example, the federation finds it quite hard to pound its fist on the table and say things will be the way it says.”

Rosstat’s data suggests that while in the 1990s there were several hundred or even thousands of labor strikes recorded annually, the numbers slumped to several strikes a year in the 2000s. One of the causes was the tightening of procedures for striking, as described in the new Labor Code, which took effect in 2002.  One of the authors of the new Labor Code was current State Duma deputy speaker Andrei Isayev, formerly a secretary of the FNPR.

“The law on strikes is prohibitive,” said Boris Kravchenko, chair of the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR).

The KTR, like a number of other independent trade unions, such as the locals at AvtoVAZ and the Ford plant outside Petersburg, emerged in the late 2000s as a counterweight to the the FNPR, which cooperates with the authorities.

The Kremlin appreciates the fact that the FNPR does not go on strike and cooperates with the United Russia Party. [Isayev is a member of the party’s general council — RBC.]

“The FNPR are constructive critics. The goal of certain other organizations is to get people protesting on the streets. The FNPR has a different stance: solving a problem before people take to the streets,” says an official in the presidential administration.

* * *

In May 2011, the FNPR was one of several organizations that joined together to establish the Russian People’s Front (ONF), headed by Vladimir Putin. The ONF is now the only public organization in Russia comparable to the FNPR in terms of numbers of regional offices. And, like the FNPR, the ONF does not disclose its budget.

With additional reporting by Mikhail Rybin, Anastasia Napalkova, Maria Zholobova, and Yevgenia Glazova.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up. NB. Because of the sheer quantity of figures given in rubles in this article, I have foregone my usual practice of converting them into euros for ease of comprehension. Current and historical currency rate conversion tables, however, are eminently accessible on the web, so knock yourselves out. TRR