“We Are Racing into a Huge Pit”: The Small-Town Russian Businessman Who Publicly Opposed Putin

All that is left of the anti-Putin leaflets posted by Nikolai Korshunov

“We Are Racing into a Huge Pit”: The Businessman Who Spoke Out against Putin
Аlexander Valiyev
Radio Svoboda
26 February 2018

In the town of Verkhny Ufaley, Chelyabinsk Region, police have torn down posters cataloguing the “brilliant” outcome of Putin’s reign from the outside walls of several shops. The posters were hung there by a local businessman, who has already had occasion to fight the authorities in this way. 

Nikolai Korshunov owns six small shop in this company town 120 kilometers from Chelyabinsk. Police paid visits to Korshunov’s shops on the eve of Fatherland Defenders Day, February 23. The businessman told Radio Svoboda what happened.

Николай Коршунов (в центре) с сыном и родственником на Забастовке избирателей в Москве

Nikolai Korshunov (middle) with his son and another relative at the Voters Strike, Moscow, January 28, 2018. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

Nikolai Korshunov: I am very active civically. I always serve as an elections monitor during elections. I own six small shops. We sell the basics: bread, milk, etc. The stores are my venue for voicing my opinion about current events. This takes the shape of handmade posters, information leaflets.

My argument is that, since the stores are my property, I have the right to post any information whatsoever in them. The Constitution gives me that right. But I have run into opposition from law enforcement and the city hall in our town. It also happened before the 2016 Duma elections, in which Verkhny Ufaley famously voted only four of the twenty United Russia candidates into the local parliament. People read my posters very carefully. Naturally, they regard anything that is not propaganda as out of the ordinary. It is interesting because if they, say, live in one part of town and the neighborhood dairy plant has shut down, they still remember that, but if, say, a timber plant or infant feeding center has ben closed on the other side of town, they might not have heard about it at all, because it does not affect them.  But when they read the entire list, they think to themselves, “What a lot of things have happened in our town over this time.” Even since the 2016 Duma elections there have been colossal changes for the worse in Verkhny Ufaley: total poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness.

An excerpt from one of Korshunov’s information leaflets. It lists by name the Verkhny Ufaley plants, companies, businesses, and services that have closed during Putin’s eighteen-year reign. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

​Radio Svoboda: What was on the the posters?

I have lived in Verkhny Ufaley for a very long time. I was born and raised here. In the run-up to the presidential election I decided to make a list of things that have changed in our town during the eighteen years of Putin’s administration. What businesses and factories have closed? The town’s main employer, the Ufaley Nickel Plant closed [in December 2017]. The Metalworker Factory closed. The open hearth and wheel spring shops closed. Then all hell broke loose: the sausage plant, the dairy, the furniture factory, etc., closed. There are thirty-four items on the list, including the children’s hospital and the railroad’s inpatient clinic. Then there are the plants that are barely hanging on. I wrote about them, too, for example, the metallurgical plant where five thousand people once worked. Now it employs a maximum of five hundred to seven hundred people.

Do you think people have suddenly forgotten about what has been happening in town?

Of course they know, but it is just another reminder, a way of saying, Hey, guys, you say that Vladimir Putin has raised the country from its knees, but I don’t think that is the case. I think we are racing into a huge pit at enormous speed. I cannot answer for the entire country, but as a resident of a small industrial town, I see what has been shut down, what has been destroyed, what has been dismantled, what has been pilfered. When you go and vote, people, think a bit before making your choice.

The continuation of Korshunov’s list. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

​How many votes do you think Putin will pick up in Verkhny Ufaley?

He will win for one simple reason. Our town is small: everyone knows everything about everyone else, and everyone tells everyone else about everything. I will give you an example. At the employment office—our town has terrible unemployment, by the way, because everything has shut down—the boss gathers his underlings and says, “God forbid you don’t go and vote. If you don’t, I won’t pay you bonuses.” This is more or less what goes throughout state sector. So a huge number of people, maybe even dissenters, will naturally go out and vote in order to keep their miserable jobs at places like the employment office. No one will buck against the bosses. So, Putin will definitely win. Because he has the administrative resource behind him, and huge numbers of people are incapable of thinking.

The administrative resource can compel people to turn out for an election, but people go into the voting booths alone. 

They have their tricks. They can ask people to photograph their filled-out ballot paper on their telephones and send them the photos. We have been through it before. It happend during the 2016 Duma elections, and during the 2012 presidential election, when I was a polling station monitor. It’s all elementary. It’s not a problem at all. But most people have, of course, been hypnotized by television. They cannot reason, think or compare facts. When it comes to them, what the TV says definitely goes, although it is flagrant, mendacious, aggressive propaganda.

I am sure people have asked you, “If not Putin, then who?” People do not see an alternative. How do you counter them?

В таком виде полиция оставила стену магазина после своего визита
The wall of one of Korshunov’s shops looked like this after a visit from the local police. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

There is no alternative for one reason and one reason alone: all of politics has been purged by the administrative resource. Anyone who could compete against Putin would never be allowed to run in honest, alternative elections under any circumstances. That’s why there is no alternative. Putin’s only “opponents” are people who have definitely been appointed to the role. They stand for nothing and no one, and compared with them Putin looks like a superhero. On top of everything is the propaganda and hypnosis that reinforces the message that Putin is the most respected politician in the world, and we are the world’s mightiest country.

Do people in Verkhny Ufaley know about Alexei Navalny, his exposés, and his call to boycott the presidential election?

Most of them don’t know, of course. A particular segment knows, young people mainly, of course, because Navalny has access only to the internet, to YouTube, which is largely viewed by young people, by schoolchildren and university students. Elderly people know nothing about Navalny, naturally. They know only what the propagandists on TV tell them: that Navalny is an out-and-out thief, scoundrel, and so on.

What about middle-aged people?

Middle-aged people are probably more thoughtful, but not so very thoughtful at the end of the day. Our town is basically a village. We live in a kind of swamp. Middle-aged people are averse to risks. They work somewhere in the state sector, earn ten thousand rubles a month [approx. 142 euros], and are up to their necks in debt. When they sit around chatting in the kitchen, they support Navalny, of course. But they cannot voice their opinions actively, because they would be fired from their jobs in two seconds flat. People primarily think about themselves. Their political views come second.

A photograph of all thirty-four factory and other closures in Verkhny Ufaley during the Putin years, along with the message, “Think hard! What will become of the town between March 18, 2018, and March 2024? || March 18: Not an election, but a fraud. Don’t let yourself be fooled. Don’t go [and vote]. The Voters Strike.” Photo courtesy of Nikolai Korshunov and Radio Svoboda

How have the authorities reacted to your protests?

Our mayor is also secretary of the local United Russia party branch. During the 2016 election campaign, I hung up leaflets in my shops saying United Russia was the party of crooks and thieves. The United Russians came running and blatantly tore down the posters. Many locals approached me afterwards and said, well done, I had done the right thing, because the United Russians were high-handed, arrogant, and had lost all sense of measure. During this campaign, they have reacted differently. First, they sent young women who work in lowly positions at city hall to photograph the leaflets in my shops. Then city hall put pressure on the police, who showed up on the eve of Fatherland Defenders Day, February 23. The leaflet had been up for around two weeks by then, and from time to time I had added information to them. They showed up when I was not there and tore down everything. In one shop, they tore down a big piece of fiberglass along with the posters. There were five or six of them. They intimidated the cashiers. They took statements from them and drove away. That happened in five shops. They showed up at the sixth shop the next day. There, however, the cashier is a serious woman. She did not let them tear down the posters and called me. I arrived, and we hashed things out with them for two and a half hours. There were two neighborhood beat cops and an investigator. They were unable to tell me what laws I could have violated. I imagine they are quite unfamiliar with the Administrative Offenses Code. From time to time they would call the dispatch center for instructions. I know there is nothing illegal about my actions. Nothing will come of it, just like last time.

There was no pressure on you after the Duma elections? You were not tormented with surprise inspections of your shops?

No, there was nothing of the sort. I was written up for an administrative violation, but apparently the magistrates told the police there was no law covering leaflets. So nothing came of it, nor was any pressure put on me.

Are you planning to file a complaint against the police?

I did not complain last time, and I will not complain this time, either. It is a waste of time. There is honor among thieves.

Will you put the leaflets back up?

Yes, definitely, they are already up in some shops.

What are your plans for March 18? Will you vote?

I completely agree with Alexei Navalny. I’m going to boycott the vote. I even traveled to Moscow on January 28 for the Voters Strike. But I will definitely go to some polling station or another on election day to help prevent vote rigging.

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

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Being a Farmer in Karelia Is Not Easy

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Karelian Farmer Mikhail Zenzin. His placard reads, “For the government’s rotten work a rotten harvest from a grateful farmer.” Photo courtesy of Gleb Yarovoi/7X7

Farmer Brings Rotten Berries to Picket Outside Karelia’s Government House
Gleb Yarovoi
7X7
September 6, 2017

On September 6, Mikhail Zenzin, a farmer from Karelia’s Onega District, held a solo picket outside the Karelian government house in Petrozavodsk, the republic’s capital. The man arrived at the building carrying a box of rotten berries and a placard that read, “For the government’s rotten work a rotten harvest from a grateful farmer,” our correspondent reported from the site of the picket.

Several minutes later, a young woman emerged from government house to talk to Zenzin. She invited him to the reception room of the region’s head, where he was able to make an appointment to meet with the head in October 2017. Officials did not accept Zenzin’s gift of berries, and the farmer was forced to discard them.

According to Zenzin, being a farmer in Karelia is no easy task. He says he sees only interference from the state, but would like to receive help. Since spring 2017, he has tried on several occasions to obtain a permit to sell his produce in Petrozavodsk, but so far he has been unsuccessful.

“Karelia needs a farmer’s market. The one held in October is trivial. People grow a lot of produce, but we cannot sell it outside, since the issue of street trading has not been settled yet. There was a decree in April of this year that allocated three plots in Petrozavodsk for the sale of produce, but they had to be purchased through an auction. All over the world, farmers transport their produce to town and sell it freely. In May, I wrote to Artur Parfenchikov, acting head of Karelia, and asked him how farmers were supposed to sell their produce, but I got no reply from him. Instead, I got the run-around from the Agriculture Ministry, who wrote to me that I should contact the retail chains and ask to sell my produce on their premises. I tried to meet with Parfenchikov during office hours. I called his reception office, where I was told the head received the general public once a quarter, and so I was turned down. If I had known he would refuse to debate the issue, I would have brought my berries to Petrozavodsk long ago and dumped them on the steps of government house,” said Zenzin.

This was not Zenzin’s first protest. For several years, he held similar pickets outside Karelian government house and the Karelian Nature Ministry. In the spring of 2013, he held a picket outside the Karelian Natural Resources and Environment Ministry because Ladva Forest Holding, Ltd., had begun clear-cutting a thirteen-acre land plot that had been transferred to the farmer in perpetuity.

In 2014, Zenzin held a solo picket outside government house and went on a hunger strike. As the farmer told the Forest Website, for several years he had been unable  to farm and develop nature tourism in the vicinity of the village of Ladva-Vetka, because the tenant of the area’s forest reserves, Ladva Forest Holding, Ltd., had damaged the road by which Zenzin reached his own plot.

Zenzin doused himself with water in sub-zero temperatures outside the Karelian Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, thus symbolizing how the republic had put small business on ice. A month later, Zenzin, who lives in Ladva-Vetka, was once again outside government house, but this time he had a noose around his neck and a placard that read, “With a man like this running the republic, Karelian small business can only put its head in a noose.” In 2015, Zenzin stood in the way of logging equipment and prevented loggers from cutting down the forest.

According to Zenzin, the issue was resolved in 2016 after Oleg Telnov, ex-deputy head of Karelia, personally intervened.

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

They Jump on Anything That Moves, Part 2: The Arrest of Dmitry Trubitsyn

Alyona Rydannykh
Facebook
June 9, 2017

The Trial and the 1990s have arrived in Akademgorodok. It’s awful and dishonest and scary. All of Akademgorodok, including the polite employees at the courthouse, are on the side of common sense and Dima’s side. Everyone knows everyone else in our town, and if people in a place like that say someone has a perfect reputation, they really mean perfect.

How awful.

Image may contain: 1 person
Dmitry Trubitsyn

Mikhail Amelkin
Facebook
June 9, 2017

The police searched Tion yesterday. They detained Dima Trubitsyn, the company’s founder and inspiration.

This is a continuation of the hullabaloo over registering medical equipment. All the recommendations were implemented, but now the case has shifted to different plane, and Dima is personally at risk.

I’ve known Dima since school. He’s a fine honest man with a crystal clean reputation. He has done a lot not only for the company’s employees but also for education, for schoolchildren and university students, for the consumers of our products, and for the economy as a whole.  He has always said he would prove it was possible and necessary to run a successful tech company in Russia, to support the country and the economy with actions, not words. He has never been involved in politics, believing one shouldn’t whinge and complain, but get up and do it.

I realize the law enforcement agencies play the game by their own rules. Professional lawyers are now working on the defense. I would be flummoxed if Dima were remanded into police custody during the investigation. From my point of view, that would be overdoing it. Dima is not a villain: I believe that with all my heart. Jail is too severe a measure of restraint for such an honest man, a man willing to prove his case with his visor open and standing up straight.

How can you help? By reposting this message and voicing your support for Dima in the comments to the repost. Tell us about Dima as you know him. Show that you care, that you are concerned about the situation and are keeping an eye on it.

What WON’T help is screaming, chewing out the authorities, and guessing and surmising why what happened has happened. I would ask you not to do this out of respect for Dima, who never engaged in such jawboning himself.

What is it stake is not the company, but a specific man’s life, a man who has not wronged anyone. I just ask you to support him on the personal level. He’s a good man. He’s never lived for himself, and, even as he has been locked up in the pretrial detention facility, he has been planning to make the world a better place.

Tion Smart Microclimate
Faceboook
June 9, 2017

We wish to inform you that on June 8, Tion’s offices in Novosibirsk, Berdsk, and Moscow were searched by law enforcement in connection with a case involving the sale of medical products that, allegedly, do not meet safety requirements.

Tion works in strict compliance with the laws of the Russian Federation. We regard the present circumstances as unjustified pressure on a transparent, law-abiding company, since all the equipment we sell has the necessary permits.

The current grievances are rooted in the past, when there were inaccuracies in registration certificates due to imperfections in legislation. The inaccuracies were corrected on a routine basis and in close cooperation with the relevant government agencies. The selectivity of the investigative bodies raises obvious suspicions that this is a deliberate campaign against a market leader.

The decision to take the company’s director general into police custody is unjustified and aimed at hindering the company’s work. Such actions were typical in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, it is business as usual at Tion. We have been fulfilling our obligations to our employees, contractors, and clients. The company’s non-medical businesses have not be affected.

We will defend our position in accordance with established procedure and are confident of success.

Ilya Beterov

Facebook
June 10, 2017

Briefly about Dima for those who don’t know about him and the whole situation. We studied at university together. Then he went into business, and I stayed in science and became a lecturer. Our paths almost never crossed for several years. Then I started taking my students to see his company, to show them a beautiful, modern production facility, built from scratch by an ordinary man. Basically, it was a paradigm of success in the innovative economy, which was all the rage back then. The atmosphere of enthusiasm, youth, and dynamism was also impressive. Later, more and more new educational projects sprang up around Dima, and the company built its own lab for researching aerosols, expanded its ties with the physics department, and established a foundation for supporting students at physics and maths magnet schools. Accordingly, Dima has a rare reputation in our day and age, and because of it I am taking his side without knowing all the particulars of the present case. He and I diverged in terms of political views. I believed that doing business in Russia without protection from the criminal world or the authorities was madness, but Dima was an optimist. Actually, this optimism has two sides. On the one hand, a production facility like that would have been impossible without it. On the other hand, I can easily imagine the carelessness with paperwork that is common in Russia did not bypass the company and served as the peg on which to hang the present case. At the same time, I’m confident Dima was never involved in falsifying descriptions of equipment. Despite my thoroughgoing skepticism, I didn’t anticipate he would be the first of us to come under attack. I learned about the attack against him a year ago, and I believe it is coming from fairly serious criminal and oligarchic organizations. The name and surname of the person who ordered the attack can be easily found. But then a simple question arises. Maybe we should stop hypocritically arguing that Russia needs a competitive economy, technological clusters, innovation, financing from the business world, and other nonsense? There are people with influence. If the production of something has to be set up, give them the assignment, and they will hire specialists and get the job done. But the chatter about innovation and competitiveness has to be stopped once and for all.

Novosibirsk Entrepreneur Detained over Bacteria
RBC
June 9, 2017

The head of one of the oldest residents of Akademgorodok Technopark, Aeroservis LLC’s Dmitry Trubitsyn, has been detained by investigating authorities over charges he sold defective air purifiers.

According to police investigators, Aeroservis (Tion Group of Companies) received permission in 2011 to manufacture the TION-A and TION-V air purifiers, which eliminate bacteria and viruses.

Later, investigators claim that Trubitsyn “had the idea of producing and selling the air purifiers in violation of established standards in order to reduce production costs and maximize profits from their sale.”

They allege that the suspect built and sold air purifiers lacking the necessary components for air purification.

“As a result, during the specified period, the rigged equipment was delivered to clinics in over one hundred cities and towns in Russia. Yet the proceeds from the sale of each air purifier ranged from 45,000 to 98,000 rubles,” the investigators write in their statement to the press.

Tion has said it regards the situation as “unjustified pressure on a transparent, law-abiding company, since all the equipment we sell has the necessary permits.”

According to the company, the charges made by the investigative authorities have to do with the past, “when there were inaccuracies in registration certificates due to imperfections in legislation.”

They say the inaccuracies were corrected when they were brought to light, but “the selectivity of the investigative bodies raises obvious suspicions this is a deliberate campaign against a market leader.”

“The decision to take the company’s director general into police custody is unjustified and aimed at hindering the company’s work. Such actions were typical in the 1990s.”

The company likewise said it was conducting business as usual.

Charges have been filed under Article 238.1, Part 2, Paragraph a, of the Russian Federal Criminal Code: the production and sale of unregistered medical devices on a large scale. The crime is punishable by a prison sentence of five to eight years and a fine of one million to three million rubles.

Dmitry Trubitsyn, a 35-year-old Novosibirsk entrepreneur, founded the Tion Group of Companies.

Founded in Novosibirsk, Tion designs, produces, and sells modern air purifiers. Production takes place at the Berdsk Electromechanical Plant and in China, while design is done at the Akademgorodok Technopark.

Alexei Okunev
Facebook
June 9, 2017

The company that custom-ordered the criminal investigation, Potok (“Stream) does not use “UV, ozone, HEPA filters, and photocatalysis” in its air purifiers. They don’t even use “chemical substances.” This is called “space-age technology” and will be delivered to hospitals and maternity hospitals.

Oksana Trubitsyna
Facebook
June 11, 2017

Friends, thank you so much for your support.

The criminal case against Dmitry Trubitsyn and the police searches at the company are unprecedented coercion against a successful, law-abiding business.

Unfortunately, it is not only we who are under attack but also the very possibility of establishing successful tech companies in Russia. This cannot be tolerated.

Tion is a transparent company. Tion’s equipment is effective and safe. Dmitry Trubitsyn has not broken the law.

We will prove it in court.

We are not entirely certain of the reasons for what has been happening to us. We assume the law enforcement agencies are being used as a tool by competitors. Alas, market competition in Russia can assume such ugly shapes.

What is happening now with Tion?
– Dmitry Trubitsyn and his lawyers are deciding what steps to take next to defend themselves.
– We have appealed to the ombudsman for the defense of entrepreneurs’ rights.
– Tion’s management seeks to ensure the company’s smooth operation. After the weekend, everyone will come to work and keep working on projects.
– Tion has been closely interacting with the media. We are preparing answers to the flood of negativity that has washed over us and defending our reputation.

What can you do?
– Pass all your ideas, thoughts, and useful contacts on to the Tion employees you know. We will review everything and contact you if necessary.
– Write a letter to the President of the Russian Federation via the official website letters.kremlin.ru. Unlike the well-known website Change.org, the Kremlin is required by law to reply to your letters. A large number of letters could raise the issue to the very highest level.

What can do harm to the cause?
– Uncoordinated communication with the media and, especially, with television can misshape perceptions of the situation badly. It will be harder and harder for us to fight back.
– Involving various politicians and public figures. The situation facing Tion is a matter of (harsh and unacceptable) relations within the market. Interacting with political forces automatically strips us of part of our support and forces us to deal with irrelevant issues. It will complicate our lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the accusations against Tion?

Law enforcement is attempting to accuse us of manufacturing low-quality medical equipment by citing the outcomes of a study allegedly done by one of Rosdravnadzor’s expert review centers. [Rozdravnadzor is the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Public Health and Social Development—TRR.] The substantive part of the expert review is lacking: technical tests were not conducted by any experts.

Special attention should be paid to the fact we were able to receive the findings of the “expert review” only two months after our competitors had been using them with a vengeance.

Is it true that Tion’s products are dangerous to your health?

Our products are safe, as confirmed by dozens of independent examinations. Many of these examinations can be be easily accessed on our official website.

Why, then, have investigators concluded your equipment is dangerous?

Conclusions on the danger of using the equipment are based on a mismatch between the mass of the air purifier, as indicated in the instruction manual, and the mass, as indicated in the registration file.

The accusation is without substance. It is bureaucratic and very far from the truth.

Is it true that Tion’s products were initially equipped with photocatalytic filters, but at some point the company stopped using them?

Yes, it is true. Photocatalytic filters facilitate the removal of molecular pollutants (i.e., those in a gaseous state, unlike dust and microorganisms). In Tion’s products, this function is still performed by a catalytic adsorption filter, which handles molecular pollutants just as well as photocatalytic filters.

Is it true that Tion got rid of the photocatalytic filter covertly?

No, it’s not true. Tion’s website describes its air purification technology in detail. It doesn’t involve photocatalysis.

Police investigators claim that, after the photocatalytic filters were removed, Tion’s products ceased to eliminate viruses and bacteria. Is this true?

No, it’s not true. Viruses and bacteria are eliminated by HEPA filtration. Moreover, the captured microorganisms are additionally deactivated by ozone, which is subsequently destroyed by the catalytic adsorption filter.

Tion’s photocatalytic filter-less products passed all the necessary certifications and were registered for medical use. Roszdravnadzor had no complaints.

Moreover, certain competitors never used photocatalysis in their equipment, which in no way kept them from obtaining permits.

Is it true that Tion specifically removed the photocatalytic filter in order to save money and increase its profits?

Yes, it’s true, and it’s a good thing. Only perverted logic can lead one to the conclusions which police investigators have reached.

Photocatalytic filters are not obligatory for effective purification. Tion’s design makes it possible to achieve the necessary level of decontamination without resorting to photocatalysis, which has been proven by multiple independent studies.

Business should make a profit. Reducing costs is an absolutely legal and reasonable means of increasing profits. Introducing new, more effective, and cheaper technologies is one way to reduce costs without reducing the quality of products. Designing, popularizing, and making new, more efficient technologies cheaper is the Tion way.

Tion’s profits are spent on designing new products and on charity and social projects that you all know about. This is not to mention the fact we pay taxes and salaries.

Is it true that Tion founder Dmitry Trubitsyn made a front man director instead of him?

No, it is not true. As the company grew and new investors came on board, its structure became more complicated. At the moment of his arrest, Dmitry Trubitsyn was the director general of Tion Holding Company JSC, to which the other legal entities in the Tion Group of Companies belong as subsidiaries, for example, Aeroservis LLC, which is the subject of the criminal investigation.

_____________________________

A huge thanks to Alyonna Rydannykh for the heads-up and supplying me with all the Facebook posts and articles used in this collage reportage. Translated by the Russian Reader. This is latest in an occasional series of posts on the regime’s apparent hostility toward medium and small businesses and traders. You can read the previous post in the series here. TRR

Back to Beirut

A Toilet for the Investigator
Tatyana Voltskaya
Radio Svoboda
November 30, 2016

Inside the Café Beirut. Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL

Criminal charges have been brought against the co-owner of the Café Beirut in Petersburg; on November 29, police searched her home. In September and October, the café was searched on several occasions by Investigative Committee, Rospotrebnadzor, and Emergencies Ministry officers.

The café believes the only cause of its woes is a casual patron who tried to use the establishment’s toilet last summer, but was turned away.

There is generally nothing wrong about popping into a café to use the toilet. The employees of the Café Beirut say they would never turn away polite, friendly visitors. But when an individual makes noise, swears, and might make a less than pleasant impression on diners, they do not see fit to let him in. Thus, this past July, they turned away a young man who, they say, behaved just this way.

On September 7, investigators, Rospotrebnadzor inspectors, and Emergencies Ministry officers raided the café and searched it. An employee recognized the young investigator leading the raid as the same young man who had unsuccessfully tried to use the Beirut’s toilet in summer.

Another search took place on September 23, resulting in the completely undocumented confiscation of the establishment’s cash register, computer server, order terminal, and charter documents, meaning everything they needed to stay in business. The café was closed for a whole week, but then it opened again, having suffered considerable losses, of course.

But that was not the end of the matter. On November 29, police searched the home of the café’s co-owner Elizaveta Izvozchikova, who has been charged with violating Article 238 of the Criminal Code (“Production, storage, transport or sale of goods and products, works or services that do not meet safety requirements”). According to Izvozchikova, the female investigator who led the search rang at her apartment at seven in the morning.

“She came to my apartment accompanied by an officer of the economic crimes department district office and two official witnesses. They served me with a search warrant, which made it clear to me that criminal charges had been filed against me under Article 238. The article says nothing about harming anyone, only about providing poor-quality services. To file charges under this article, it is sufficient to record violations of some kind, say, sanitation rules. We quickly fixed all the violations for which we had been cited and submitted a report to the Investigative Committee. After all, we opened just recently, in late February of this year. We did a major overhaul and replaced all the plumbing, sewerage, and electrical wires. The basement was in bad shape. Then we restored the historic storefront, made high-quality repairs inside, and installed new equipment in the kitchen. We wanted to do something good for people, feed them tasty food and give them good service. I am a designer by education, and I really wanted to make the café pretty. I am a responsibe person, so I tried to make sure everything was in order: that the fire extinguisher was certified, that the kitchen was clean, that we followed all the rules. But on September 7 we had our first inspection. The investigator from the Investigative Committee forced everyone outside and demanded we sign papers of some of kind without reading them. Otherwise, he threatened us with immediate closure and put a lot of pressure on my manager, who is fairly young.”

Café Beirut co-owner Elizaveta Izvozchikova. Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL

I asked what the reason for the first inspection was.

“My internal investigation revealed that our manager had seen the young man who turned out to be an investigator: he had not let him use our toilet. We had guests, he had demanded to use the toilet in a rude way, waving his arms and cursing, so he was not allowed to use the toilet. The second inspection, headed by this investigator, took place on September 23. He confiscated the cash register and a bunch of other things. The investigation was then terminated. Later, however, the decision to terminate the investigation was annulled, the case file was submitted for an additional investigation, and another inspection was organized. Rospotrebnadzor and the Emergencies Ministry cited us for four violations. We immediately fixed two of the problems: we installed a missing washbasin and a germicidal lamp. But the other two violations were simply nonexistent. We were told our doors had to be at least one meter wide, and we had to have a second emergency exit. According to fire safety rules, however, wide doors and a second exit are obligatory only for premises larger than one hundred square meters, and if there are over fifty evacuees, but our place seats only thirty people. We explained everything to them and attached documents to our reports, including the cadastral passport, which shows we have only sixty-three square meters of space. We also requested that everything they had confiscated be returned to us, as they had nothing to do with the inspection. Instead of a response, however, criminal charges have been filed. The charges are based on those same two violations, turned up by the Emergencies Ministry, but I do not believe that the Emergencies Ministry officer was unfamiliar with the rules in question. The third violation consisted in the fact that, according to Rospotrebnadzor, we had no right to worked with unpeeled root vegetables; this requires a separate bath or even a whole room. So we ordered peeled root vegetables, meaning we started using prepared food, which we immediately reported to the authorities. But it made no difference at all. I was summoned for interrogation on November 29, but I refused to answer the questions in order to better familiarize myself with the charge sheet. So I will be going to the Investigative Committee on Monday, December 5. While the inspections were going on, we made huge losses. We were closed for an entire week, and many of our clients even now think we are still closed. Nothing like this has ever happened to any of my colleagues, and I continue to hope for justice. We have not violated any law. We are conscientious taxpayers and entrepreneurs who are trying to run a small business, and we do no harm to anyone,” says Elizaveta Izvozchikova.

Restored historical storefront at the Café Beirut (right). Photo courtesy of Tatyana Voltskaya/RFE/RL 

Lawyer Boris Gruzd argues that criminal prosecution has not been used for its intended purpose in this case.

“I think that criminal charges are sometimes filed on insufficient grounds and used for other purposes, as a means of revenge, for dealing with undesirable persons. I think this is one of those cases. It often happens that, even when criminal law has seemingly been violated, it is extremely hard to file criminal charges. An enormous amount of effort is made to turn even obvious crimes into criminal cases. But here criminal charges have been filed out of thin air, so to speak. Because, when criminal charges are filed, aside from violation of the law, another important element is danger to the public. In this case, however, they have found fault with a telegraph pole, as the saying goes. I am sure you could find a dozen such violations in any small business and major state company. What public good has been violated that it is necessary to resort to criminal prosecution? It is a last resort that should be used very selectively and carefully, when other tools do not work. This is a classic case of ‘nightmarizing business.'”

I asked Gruzd whether there was any hope of punishing those who spin such cases out of thin air.

“It is necessary to take steps in this direction. It produces a particularly sharp contrast with the notorious case of the women who was murdered although she called the police because her [ex-]partner had threatened her. But the dispatcher, the best beat cop in the city, told her that if and when she was killed, they would come and describe her corpse. Here, the Investigative Committee, whose remit is grave and especially grave crimes, has pounced on a café. So they have the time and the energy to deal with this nonsense?” notes Gruzd.

Alexander Kobrinsky, a member of the fifth convocation of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, says the persecution of the Café Beirut’s co-owner is not something out of the ordinary in Russia.

“Recently, everyone watched the video in which security guards tried to keep a drunk man, who turned out to be a police officer, from entering a café. A while later, the riot cops arrived and detained the security guards, who were just doing their jobs. But the situation is understandable, because law enforcement officers consider themselves a superior caste, endowed with special rights, including the right to cook up criminal cases as a means of personal revenge. It is quite widespread, since the law allows them to file criminal charges, suspend business operations, and confiscate tools, computers, whatever. Maybe the charges will be dropped a year from now, but getting a business back up on its feet after such shocks is not always possible. That is why, by the way, prohibiting the detention of people involved in commerce and seizure of their property has now been actively discussed. What point have we reached to openly admit that the vast majority of criminal charges filed against businessmen in Russia is based on mercenary motives and revenge! Clearly there are thieves and con men, but it turns out that they constitute the minority of defendants in such cases. Such is the system and such is the law. We see that a completely peculiar set of circumstances has been established in Russia. I don’t know, maybe Putin was speaking sincerely about the investment climate, but there is no longer any way of manually managing hundreds of thousands of these minor strongmen. In Russia, every police capitan, assistant investigator, and junior assistanct prosecutor is a low-level power broker. They are used to living this way: they have been living this way for a quarter of a century. And they do not want to live any other way, no matter what Putin has said,” argues Kobrinsky.

According to Kobrinsky, this mindset—that I am a landlord, and you are my slaves—is very difficult to eradicate. One has the impression that the head of state seemingly has no leverage over Russia’s law enforcement system, that it must be completely dismantled and reassembled anew.

On November 29, Elizaveta Izvozchikova was released on her own recognizance.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Beirut

Did happy looking customers know what danger they were in?
Did these happy looking customers know what danger they were in?

When It’s More Dangerous in Petersburg than in Lebanon
Denis Korotkov
Fontanka.ru
November 29, 2016

The police came to the home of the woman who owns the Café Beirut at seven in the morning with a search warrant. The grounds for the search were serious: the cafe lacked a germicidal lamp. Thus ended the three-month confrontation between the businesswoman and the Investigative Committee.

All the might of the Central District’s law enforcement and regulatory authorities came crashing down on Café Beirut, which serves Middle Eastern cuisine on Stremyannaya Street. To our knowledge, no one has complained about the service or quality of the food, but the Investigative Committee, police, fire inspectors, and consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor are extremely concerned for the consumer’s safety at this eating establishment.

The Beirut is a small Middle Eastern café on Stremyannaya Street. Since early September 2016, it has been a battlefield between entrepreneur Liza Izvozchikova and regulators.

The first shot was fired on September 7, when Ivan Lyalitsky, an investigator in the Investigative Committee’s Central District office, visited the café, accompanied by police officers, Rospotrebnadzor inspectors, and Emergencies Ministry officials. Lyalitsky drew up a document of some sort and left. According to café employees who were present, he did not let them read the document. During this first visit, nothing but the cash register report was confiscated.

Izvozchikova says that on Sunday, September 18, Lyalitsky contacted her by phone and demanded she immediately report to his office. Otherwise, “criminal charges would be filed.”

Izvozchikova refused to go to the informal meeting. She went to see the investigator on a weekday, accompanied by a lawyer. They were presented with a long list of alleged violations. Izvozchikov says some of the alleged defects were simply not true. For example, the list stated the café lacked a fire alarm (it had one), that the café’s inventory was not labeled (it was), and that there were no employee health books at the café, although no one had bothered to check them.

Izvozchikova admits certain violations, for example, the lack of a chart showing the evacuation plan for the premises. These shortcomings were fixed, and a corresponding registered letter with notification of delivery was sent to the Investigative Committee. The letter was refused, and the notification returned.

Lyalitsky made a second visit to the Beirut on September 23. On this occasion, the café did not get off with an inspection, but had its cash register, computers, charter documents, contracts with suppliers, and other papers confiscated. Employees who were present say they were not provided with a list of the confiscated items. The café was paralyzed for a week, until it purchased and licensed a new cash register, and obtained copies of the documents.

Izvozchikova’s complaints to the prosecutor’s office and the Central Investigative Department of the Russian Investigative Committee’s Petersburg office were reviewed, but the confiscated cash register and computers were not returned to her, and Lyalitsky’s actions were deemed appropriate. On the other hand, the Beirut was left in peace for a month.

The break in the investigation lasted for all of October.

On November 9, the Beirut was once again visited by law enforcement officers, whose order of cognac, two coffees, and a salad turned out to be test purchases. No violations were found during the sample purchases, but they were followed by another inspection, led this time by investigator Ludmila Stepanova. A whopping five violations were found: no sink for washing hands in the kitchen, no germicidal lamp, the toilet door opened onto the kitchen, no second exit, and the width of the evacuation passages was narrower than necessary.

Izvozchikova installed a sink and germicidal lamp, and reported that the requirements for a second exit and wider corridors should not be apply to her café in accordance with the regulations, since it is small and located on the first floor.

It was no use. At seven in the morning on November 29, the investigator came to Izvozchikova’s apartment with a search warrant. From the warrant, Izvozchikova learned that a criminal case had been opened under Criminal Code Article 238.1 (“Production, storage, transport or sale of goods and products, works or services that do not meet safety requirements”), and that “relevant items and documents” might be located in her apartment. No one knew what this meant. The only item investigators confiscated was a Beirut LLC stamp, which no one had hidden.

Surprised by the investigation’s intransigence, Fontanka.ru contacted investigator Ludmila Stepanova and asked her to comment on the need for a morningtime search of an apartment in a case dealing with the lack of a sink and an emergency exit in a café. The investigator refused to comment, citing service regulations, and asked us to contact the Investigative Committee’s press service.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade KV for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of vk.com

“I’m Very Tired of the Sense of Insecurity”: How the Russian Truckers’ Strike Has Gone Indefinite

“I’m Very Tired of the Sense of Insecurity”: How the Truckers’ Protest Has Gone Indefinite
Olga Rodionova
paperpaper.ru
March 3, 2016

The nationwide strike by Russian truckers officially wrapped up on March 1, but Petersburg drivers have continued to maintain their makeshift protest camp outside the MEGA Dybenko shopping center [in the city’s far southeast]. They have declared their campaign against the new Plato mileage tolls system indefinite.

Nearly all of the drivers who have driven their trucks to MEGA Dybenko are individual entrepreneurs. After the innovations wrought by the Rotenbergs, business has become unprofitable for the truckers. Why have those who work for themselves decided to go on protesting instead of hauling freight? Olga Rodionova put together the following portfolio of photographs of truckers and their statements for paperpaper.ru.

Dmitry, 42, individual entrepreneur. Has been hauling freight since 1997. The past five years has been hauling containers around the city, but sometimes takes loads to Karelia. Married with a 16-year-old daughter.

“Have you seen the roads in this country? I have been paying taxes for many years, the roads have not got better, but now I have to pay even more? One wheel costs me 20,000 rubles [approx. 250 euros]. Have you seen how many wheels I have on my truck? If I pop a tire in a pothole, whom can I blame? Nobody! No one has ever got any compensation from the highway services or the government for breakdowns caused by the poor state of the roads. We just pay and pay. I have sometimes left at five in the morning to avoid traffic jams. While I picked up the load, got it unloaded, and then returned the container, it was already eleven in the evening. Sometimes there is no point going back, and I’m away from home for three days at a time. Many of our guys say there is no point in striking, that nothing will change, but I’m very tired of the sense of insecurity in all parts of life. It’s important to me to be here.”

Arkady, 54. Owns his own truck. Has worked in heavy freight haulage since 1983. Is a teetotaler. Has driven round the entire country: the farthest he has ever driven was Blagoveshchensk. Hauled “Cargo 200” loads during the war in Afghanistan.

“Where are the ruts deepest on multi-lane highways? In the left lanes! But we are obliged to drive in the right lanes. The roads in Russia are bad, because funds for road construction are embezzled and roads are not built to technical specss. But they put the blame on us, saying the trucks are to blame for everything. [Answers his telephone.] Hello. Yeah, we are doing a bit of striking. You come with Dima. He can climb around on the rigs.”

Vadim, 45. Owns his own truck, a 2000 Volvo. Previously drove a KamAZ. After his house was destroyed by fire, rebuilt it with his own hands. Married with two daughters.

“Plato has only one office in Petersburg where I can get a mileage recorder installed, but they don’t have them in stock! Meaning I couldn’t use Plato even if I wanted to. The mileage recorders were doled out to the major companies, while we, the midsize companies and individual entrepreneurs, are being squeezed out. To be able to get onto the road and work without paying a fine, I have to travel hell knows where to a computer terminal on Fermskoye Highway [in the far northwest of the city] and waste time and money. But there is no guarantee the terminal won’t freeze or just won’t be working. There is no point in talking with the people who work there: they are clerks who don’t decide anything. It’s like trying to agree with a highway patrol inspector about changing the traffic rules.”

Valery, 49, individual entrepreneur. Has driven his own MAN truck since 2008. Has been driving since 1987. Got behind the wheel in the army, then worked in the motor pool of a port. Did his army service in Poland, and in 1988 worked as a driver near Chernobyl. Married with two grown children and a 4-year-old granddaughter.

“Cargo haulage rates have not changed for seven or eight years. During that time, only the price of fuel and taxes have gone up. If you work it out, I pay threefold. First, I pay all my taxes. Then, due to them, I end up with less and less money. Finally, I pay again as a consumer at the stores: everything has become more expensive. The Plato system is not the whole matter here. They are just muscling out small business. Before, when there was no Plato, we never gave a it a second’s thought. We drove and drove. There was work, and thank God. I am fifty years old. Who is going to hire me? It is a long way to retirement, and I do not want to sit on my butt working as a watchman.”

Dmitry, 30. Works with an individual entrepreneur as a crew member. Has driven since he was 18. Got his semi-trailer license at 21 and has been driving big rigs ever since. Married with two children.

“Before the crisis of 2007, I had three trucks. I had to sell all of them to pay the mortgage: I was afraid of winding up homeless. I myself am from Ufa. I came here with a load and stayed to support the protest. The wife chews me out, of course, saying I should come home already. But if everyone thinks it doesn’t concern them, then nothing is going to change.”

Vladimir, 49. Has lived and worked in Petersburg since 1997. After his wife’s death, has had to raise his 5-year-old daughter alone. Used to work a three-days-on, three-days-off schedule, driving garbage to a penal colony for recycling. But with a young child to raise, had to change his schedule and in recent years has done intracity freight hauls.

“I don’t expect anything good to happen. I would be thankful if they wouldn’t prevent me from working. The less the government worries about me, the better it is for me. It’s scary, of course. I’m 49. Where am I going to find a job?”

Alexander, 45, individual entrepreneur, owns his own truck. Moved to Petersburg from the Urals in 2013. Married. Has raised six children, four of them his own and two adopted.

“I have an illegal fine against me in the database. I proved in court the fine was illegal, but it is still listed there. The highway patrol tried to keep me from getting here to the camp. I only broke through thanks to a truck driver who helped out. I got him up on the radio, and he covered me from the highway patrol. I have been behind the wheel my whole life. I was even born in a car, in my dad’s Pobeda. I pay taxes and duties. I don’t work under the table. I just want to work in peace.”

Vladimir, 32, individual entrepreneur. Has worked as a heavy-duty freight driver for 10 years, the last three on his own rig. Married with child.

“I was involved in the first protest, too. I met some of the guys there, and some of them here. What do I want? The other guys have said it already. If things don’t work out, I will close my individual enterprise and register for unemployment. They have put so many obstacles in our way we cannot get out on the highway at all. There are no mileage recorders in stock, the Plato computer terminal doesn’t work, and if a trip isn’t registered on Plato, the fine is higher than the money you would make on the load. It is just a legal means of driving us from the market, you see? It’s not even a matter of extortion. We simply cannot work.”

Oleg, 37. Has lived in Petersburg since 2001. Used to drive himself, but around 10 years ago,, registered an individual enterprise and hired a driver to run his rig. Married with two children. Was among those detained by police on the first day of the protest.

“You know, my lawyer told me not to wag my tongue here especially.”

Sergei, 48. Drives a rented truck and works for a limited liability company founded by his wife. Has worked as a driver since 1991. The occupation runs in the family: his stepfather was a driver, and his uncle, a long-haul trucker. Mainly works for three regular clients, hauling furniture, household goods, and construction mixes. Worked for a long time with the Saint Petersburg Theater of Ice, traveling half the country with the company.

“Plato is not the end; it is only the beginning. People say we should raise rates or let the customers pay the tolls. But fuel has again gone up, and spare parts for trucks have gotten a lot more expensive. As a consumer, I suffer from this, too. The wife chews me out, of course. We have no money, the tank is empty. But as a man, I would feel ashamed towards the other guys, so that is why I am parked here. Or rather, that is why I live here. The wife says I should just live here then.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. See my previous posts on the Russian truckers’ strike.

Waiting for the Anti-Platonists: Striking Truckers Prepare to Convoy to the Moscow Ring Road

“What is Basil Saying? Where is Oversize Lyokha? And How is Platform Trailer Vadim?”
Kommersant Explored How Truckers Are Convoying to the Moscow Ring Road to Protest 
Alexander Chernykh and Katerina Shcherbakova
December 3, 2015
Kommersant

The protests by truckers that have taken place over the past three weeks because of the introduction of the Plato payment system are nearing their climax. On Thursday, drivers around the counters waited for President Putin to mention their problems and promise to get to the bottom of them in his annual Address to the Federal Assembly. When this did not happen, truckers begin forming the convoys that will attempt to travel to Moscow and block the Moscow Ring Road.

The Meeting Place Must Be Changed

The protesting truckers should have been in Moscow a few days ago, but the traffic police have been successfully countering them all week. Nationwide, traffic cops have been stop suspicious drivers at every post, checking their documents for several hours, looking for explosives or narcotics in their cargo, fining them for not having first-aid kits and fire extinguishers, and simply turning the most active of them around. This has seriously complicated coordination of the protests: several times, police have shown up right at secret meeting places. To learn the location of another such spot, we had to spend two nights in an online dialogue to convince suspicious drivers that we were reliable. Ultimately, our source did send us a telephone number, a contact name, and the address of a small roadside cafe around 200 kilometers from Moscow. We were given strict instructions to not mention the exact location at all over the phone.

When we got there, it turned there was no more need for conspiracy: the drivers had been been made by the police the day before.

“They didn’t even hide,” smiling in amazement, says Viktor, a young trucker from Novgorod the Great. “I had thought I would never notice if I were being tailed. This business is not my thing. But in this case it is all very simple. That passenger vehicle over there arrived after us and has been sitting next to the cafe for a suspiciously long time. Then a Gazelle [light truck or van] with an antenna on its roof parked next to it.”

When the bored drivers decided to go for a ride in a passenger car, the suspicious automobile immediately pulled out behind them, tailed them for the duration of the trip, and then parked in the exact same place. After this, some of the drivers decided to take their trucks to another stop and drove toward Moscow, but within several kilometers they were all stopped by traffic cops, who asked where the convoy of trucks was headed.

“The guys thought they could outfox them. They said they were really going to Petersburg and were just looking the U-turn on the highways,” recounts one of the drivers who has stayed behind. “But the cops told them they would escort them to the regional border. So they traveled with a motorcade.”

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

A roadside cafe chockablock with truckers is an ordinary sight for those who travel federal highways at night. But this time the setting resembles a black-and-white Soviet film about revolutionary sailors and striking railway workers. Several drivers sit at a table in the corner and noisly discuss where protesters set out for Moscow and where they got stuck. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the protest has no unified leadership, truckers from different cities do not know each other, and communications between individual convoys have to be established right now.

Mysterious phrases break through the buzz of the conversation.

“What is Basil saying?”

“Where is Oversize Lyokha?

“How is Platform Trailer Vadim?”

“He says he has thirty platform trailers behind him.”

“We are confused ourselves,” gaily remarks Viktor to universal laughter. “We are confused about the highways, the days of the week, and about life in general.”

Communication between the convoys is maintained by  delegates, trucker drivers who have got behind the wheel of passenger cars to get past the traffic police posts.

“Andryukha traveled to the Don Highway and talked with the groups [of truckers] parked there. In some places there were a hundred trucks, in other places, thirty,” explains Vova, a well-built man in a sweater. “We have to get the lay of the land, to understand how many trucks in all are planning to convoy and what people’s moods are. Meaning the protest movement is looping back on itself. Tonight, everyone should be on the line so that the coordination is tighter the closer we get to Moscow.”

No one knows the exact number of protesters involved, even the date is still under question, but all the truckers know what they have to do: get to the Moscow Ring Road on Saturday, get into the far right lane, and reduce speed to the minimum allowed.

“Picture this. At the same time, we drive onto the ring from different directions and take up positions in our rightful lanes, one and two,” describes Vova, his eyes blazing. “And our Moscow activists switch to passenger vehicles and driver alongside us in lanes three, four, and five. You thus end up with a giant snail: five lanes on the Moscow Ring Road in both directions. And in Moscow, two such snails are enough for everything to short circuit and grind to a halt,” he says, smiling proudly.

The truckers do not know what they will do next.

Heavy Duty Arithmetic

The date when the snail was to crawl on the Moscow Ring Road has been postponed several times. Now the truckers have seemingly come to a final agreement. On Thursday (December 3, 2015) at noon, they will watch President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly.

“This whole time, nobody has reported about us and our demands, neither Channel One nor NTV,” Victor says with resentment in his voice. “Only the Internet has written about us, but radio and TV have been silent. We are waiting for the address in order to see whether Putin knows about the problem or not, whether he intends to do something or whether we are ‘uninteresting’ to him.”

“I think he doesn’t decide such issues. It is all done for him. Well yeah, the Rotenbergs are his friends. But the law was passed while Medvedev was still president, and he signed this ‘rubbish.’ Maybe Putin just does not have all the information,” says a young driver, a little haltingly.

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

“Personally, I am fed up with this uncertainty,” wearily says a very thin young man with close-cropped hair as he approaches the table. He is Alexander, a convoy delegate who recently returned from Rostov. It is evident he can barely stand on his feet from lack of sleep, but he shakes hands with everyone and sits down at the table.

“Putin should say it clearly: pay, guys. That is what we have decided and we are not going to change it. It would be good if he came out to the people and told them straight in the eye.”

“And then what?”

“Then I’ll sell my truck, pay off my loans, and go live in some other country.”

Currently, Plato charges 1.53 rubles per kilometer, but beginning in March of next year this rate will double, to 3.06 rubles per kilometer. Self-employed truckers are completely certain that the new toll system will bankrupt them within a few months. To prove this, they discuss their incomes and expenses in detail, citing figures.

“Well, look. A freight run between Petersburg and Moscow costs 36 to 40 thousand rubles. This is considered a very good rate for a round-trip run,” says Viktor. “But almost 20 thousand rubles of this sum goes for fuel. The exact figure depends on the truck. European trucks use less fuel; American trucks use more. Russian trucks use even more.”

On the road, truckers need to fuel up themselves.

“You can see yourselves what the prices are like in the cafes. You go into eat and you spend no less than 300 rubles, sometimes a whole 500 rubles. You run up a food bill of no less than two or two and half thousand rubles during a run.”

A run lasts from three to five days. Moscow is closed at night to trucks, so they often have to idle on the approach to the capital.

“As a result, I have one, at most two runs a week,” says Viktor. “Excluding fuel and food I make 16 to 18 thousand rubles per run. And that is if nothing has broken down on the road. It can happen that you run over a piece of metal and burst a tire. Then you hand over that 18 thousand for repairs. You haven’t been home for an entire week, and you show up with no money.”

In addition, there are monthly expenses on routine maintenance of the truck—topping up the oil, making small, preventive repairs—whose costs come to about 20% of the fuel consumed over a month.

“I also pay 40 thousand a year in motor vehicle taxes,” the drivers says, bending his fingers. “Plus around six thousand for insurance. And I am registered in Novgorod Region, where the rates are tiny. Vovka pays twice as much in Leningrad Region.”

Vovka nods in agreement.

“And there is the excise tax for fuel, seven rubles a liter,” continues Viktor. “And I also have to pay for vehicle inspection, tire replacement, and all expendable supplies. We all here are just barely earning the minimum, and they are trying to finish us off with a new tax.”

According to Viktor, he puts between 100,000 and 150,000 kilometers a year on his truck.

“Next year, the toll will be 3.06 rubles [per kilometer],” the trucker reminds us. “So I will have to pay at least 400 thousand rubles [approx. 5,500 euros at current exchange rates] to the Rotenbergs. Meaning to Plato.”

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

The truckers have no idea where they will get the money. Officials at the Ministry of Transportation have tried to persuade them that their wallets will not suffer because their customers will end up paying the difference.

“Yeah, the customer will pay me more, but he will raise his prices. I will go into his store and pay more,” says Viktor, shrugging.

In addition, the Ministry of Transportation has not taken into account the fact that truckers have to run empty for many kilometers.

“I live in Novgorod the Great. It is a small city. We have nothing to transport,” says the trucker. “The largest freight turnover is between Moscow and Petersburg. For me to get to a customer in Petersburg I have to travel 200 kilometers, mileage I pay out of my own pockets. Dropping by home is 200 kilometers there and 200 kilometers back. And so it goes every time.”

“I am from Tver. We have work for a fifth of our drivers at most. Everybody else goes to Moscow or Petersburg,” confirms the man sitting next to him at the table.

“Listen, but even if you are traveling empty, you are still damaging the road, no?” I ask.

The truckers eye me suspiciously. Stating that trucks have negative impact on the road surface is a grievous heresy to them.

“Look at the ring roads in Moscow and Petersburg,” they argue. “Cargo vehicles are forbidden from driving beyond the second lane. So what is the lowdown? In the left lanes, where only passenger vehicles travels, the ruts are much deeper and the bumps bigger than in the lanes where trucks travel.”

“And most importantly, what are we paying for?” asks Alexander. “I traveled though Totma just now, the snow was coming down, and they were putting down asphalt? Right under the snow, can you imagine? And they are demanding money from us for this.”

And yet the drivers point out that Platon will be a blow not just for them but for all of small business. Alexander quietly tells us about a small furniture factory  in Saratov owned by three young men his age. The factory used to send three truckloads a day to stores in Moscow and Petersburg, but in recent months, they have been sending three truckloads a week.

“They say that because of the crisis all their supplies have become more expensive,” recounts Alexander. “The parts and the leatherette are from China, their furniture has become more expensive, and people don’t want to buy it at the new prices.”

If the factory now has to pay its driver an additonal five or six thousand rubles for each run, it will simply go bust.

“And it is local people who work there, not Uzbeks. I have talked to them. They make 40 to 50 thousand rubles a month, good money. I went into the cafeteria, and there you can eat for fifty rubles, without a markup,” says Alexander. “Who is going to win if the factor closes and dozens of people lose their jobs? Who wants that?”

“That is why we private drivers are so worried< he says, turning to me. “We see our customers, talk with them, and realize that many of them will just not be able to cope. This road toll will finish them off.”

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

“Well, what are we all going to do?” Viktor asks angrily from the other end of the table. “My daughter is five months old. My wife is taking care of her and cannot work for now. And my wife has a problem with her milk, she has been underfeeding her. We have been buying dry milk now. A can costs 1,200 rubles and lasts for a week. Figure out how much that comes to for a month.”

“I don’t mean this is such an unbearable amount,” he continues with such fervor it immediately becomes clear that this is big money, why hide it? “But it’s another fifteen hundred for diapers. Then it’s something else, and something else again. Now it’s this Plato,” he says angrily. “What am I supposed to? What are we supposed to do now? Where do we go? To be honest, all we know how to do is drive trucks.”

The other truckers look at him in silence.

An eighteen-wheeler slowly passes the window.

“There is another one driving under the black flag,” someone at the table scornfully utters. “Profiting at our expense, the bugger.”

Due to the fact that some drivers are involved in the protests, there has been a deficit of free trucks in recent weeks. Customers have begun offering two times as much for runs, and many private drivers have gladly agreed to haul their goods. But, in order to save money, they also have not installed the Plato system. The striking truckers regularly ridicule them on CB radio, but they prefer to remain silent.

“Well, so what should we call them?” one of the drivers asks me indigndantl. “Strikebreakers? What kind of breakers are they? They’re out-and-out ‘reptiles’ is what they are!”

“No to Plato!” Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

Viktor recounts how he recently quarreled with his father-in-law, who is also a truck driver, but said that resistance was useless and installed the Plato system.

“The war hadn’t even begun, and he had already surrendered,” said the driver, outraged. “I told him so. I said, ‘You are my enemy, and I don’t want to know you.”

“You remember how Stalin didn’t free his son from the Germans?” Victor asks unexpectedly. “Well, I thought that if Stalin did not spare his son, then why the hell did I need such a father-in-law. The boys here with me, they are my family.”

The Road to the Moscow Ring Road

Late at night, most of the drivers disperse to their trucks to sleep. Those who are participating as passengers stay up to drink with stringer photographers who have shown up from somewhere. The whole time well-built men drink vodka sourly at the next table. Suddenly, one of them approaches the drivers and screams at a photographer, allegedly, for taking a picture of him. The situation becomes heated instantly. The strangers began pushing and challenging the other men to “come outside and talk.”

“They look like titushky,” says one of the truckers. “We saw them today. They were hanging around that car that has been following us. Now they’ll start a fight, and the cops will show up and detain everyone.”

“No, they’re just drunks,” his comrade disagrees with him. “But it’s unpleasant all the same.”

A fight has already begun outside, and the drivers advise all outsiders to leave the cafe until morning. We go to warm up in the truck of Valera, a calm 49-year-0ld man who proudly tells us he has been driving big rigs since 1987.

“Take off your shoes and come in. We’re going drink tea now,” he cordially invites us into the cab of his truck as if it were a flat.

Hearing about the drunken comrades, he shakes his head disapprovingly.

“We are already losing soldiers on the way to Moscow.”

Valera ignites a small burner and puts a tiny metal teapot on it. As the water heats up, we thaw in the warmth and inspect the cab.

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

“I’ll have to sell the truck now,” the middle-aged driver says softly. “Although who wants it? I’ll get kopecks for it. Yes, it’s old, but I bought it that way on purpose, then repaired it myself. I am good with my hands.”

I ask him why private truckers would rather leave their jobs than work for a haulage company.

“A comrade of mine worked for a company. He made 50 thousand rubles a month,” Valera drily replies. “Only he spent one or two days at home a month. He gets back to Petersburg from a run, leaves his truck at the boss’s lot, gets on a commuter train, rides seventy kilometers, spends the night at home, and in the morning gets a call telling him to come in right away. Is that a life? I cannot take that anymore, I’m too old. And nobody can take it. That is why almost 80% of long-haul drivers are private drivers or tiny individual entrepreneurs who own a couple of trucks.”

We drink hot tea as Valera unfolds the sleeping berth.

“We all realize, of course, that the government suddenly needed money,” he says as we part. “We have got the turmoil in Syria, and missiles also cost money. But MPs should find other reserves to pay for this, not pay for it at our expense.”

In the morning, the drivers sleepily gather for a smoke next to their trucks.

“Policemen approached us last night and warned that everyone would be stopped at the nearest Road Patrol Service post and charged with extremism,” one of them grimly recounts.

“Come on, he was pulling your leg. What kind of extremists are we?” a comrade responds to him incredulously.

“Well, maybe he was kidding, but it is unpleasant in any case,” concludes a third driver.

While the drivers gather in the cafe, where they have planned to watch the president’s speech together, we drive to a Road Patrol Service post.

“We are not looking for any extremism here,” the police commander answers firmly as his subordinates snatch trucks and semis from the stream of traffic with waves of their batons.

“We are just in the midst of Operation Anti-Terror, and we are selectively checking all vehicles,” he explains in an official tone before adjusting a young policeman’s sagging reflective vest and walking away.

The policemen at the post copy down the license numbers and passport details of the truck drivers.

“Are you waiting for the anti-Platonists?” asks one of the policeman, unable to contain himself. “They won’t make it here. They will be stopped before they get here.”

Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

Ten minutes before the start of the broadcast, the drivers suddenly change their location and drive a couple of kilometers to the next cafe, where about a dozen truckers are already sitting. The drivers silently listen to the president. They refrain from commenting on his speech, but with each passing minute they lose more and more interest in it. When the head of state begins talking about the problems of villagers, the drivers start telephoning their comrades and discussing different routes to Moscow.