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

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Ivan Ovsyannikov: How Russia’s New Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Will Play Out

markischer bunny

Russia: How Will the Laws on Disrespecting the Authorities and Fake News Play Out?
Ivan Ovsyannikov
Eurasianet
March 26, 2019

Six months after easing punishments for speaking out on the internet, Vladimir Putin has signed laws that would restrict freedom of speech in Russia, argue civil rights activists.

People who are deemed to have disrespectfully criticized the Russian authorities and disseminated fake news face blocked websites and stiff fines.

The new laws do not explain how to distinguish ordinary criticism of the authorities from disrespectful criticism, and fake news from honest mistakes or the truth, in cases in which the authorities have decided to declare it fake. Defining disrespect and unreliable information has been left to the discretion of the authorities.

How the New Laws Are Worded
According to Russian Federal Law No. FZ-30 and Russian Federal Law No. FZ-31, which have amended the previous law “On Information, Information Technology, and Information Security” (Russian Federal Law No. FZ-149, dated July 27, 2006), people who disseminate “unreliable socially significant information in the guise of reliable news” could be fined, under the corresponding amendments to the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code, between 30,000 rubles and one million rubles, while people who voice their “flagrant disrespect” for society, the state, its authorities, and its symbols “improperly” could be fined between 30,000 rubles and 300,000 rubles.

On March 18, 2019, Putin signed the corresponding law bills, as previously passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council, into law.

Russia’s federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor now has the power to restrict access to a website that has published “false” or “disrespectful” claims, according to law enforcement agencies, without a court’s sanction.

Both law bills were tabled in the Russian parliament by Andrei Klishas, who formally represents Krasnoyarsk Territory in the Federation Council, the parliament’s nominal upper house. Klishas had previously coauthored law bills on making the Runet autonomous, on stiffening punishments for advocating separatism, on breaking rules for holding political rallies, on desecrating the national anthem, and on declaring media outlets “foreign agents.”

klishasAndrei Klishas, a member of the Russian Federation Council for Krasnoyarsk Territory. Photo courtesy of Ilya Pitalev/RIA Novosti and RBC

The Russian Government Will Be Able to Pinpoint and Block Bad News
Despite the prohibitive bent of MP Klishas’s lawmaking, he heads United Russia’s “liberal platform,” stressing that his law bills are not attempted crackdowns. When discussing the law criminalizing disrespect for the state and society, Klishas pointed to European precedents.

“The rules existing in Europe say you can criticize the authorities as much as you like and demand their resignation. […] But when you communicate with the authorities, you should show respect, because they did not appear out of the blue. They are the outcome of people’s choices,” Klishas told Znak.com in an interview published in February 2019.*

As for the law on so-called fake news, MP Klishas stressed only people who distributed knowingly false information that engendered panic and endangered society had to fear prosecution, not reporters and bloggers who made honest mistakes, he told the website.

Klishas’s stance is not shared by the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, which described his law bills as unacceptable, anti-constitutional, and a threat to the public.

“The way in which these innumerable, insane law bills are tabled reveals a simple desire to curry favor with the regime. They generate a sense of legal uncertainty. First, swearing was criminalized. Then ‘extremism’ and ‘foreign agents’ were targeted. Now fake news and ‘disrespect for the authorities’ have been added to the list. Give the well-known practice of selectively charging and convicting people for these crimes, no one knows what might get them in trouble,” says journalist and presidential human rights council member Leonid Nikitinsky.

The law on fake news does not stipulate how real news should be differentiated from counterfeits, which makes the law a bogeyman, argues Nikitinsky. The authorities can use it to trip up undesirable journalists and silence unwanted news.

Nikitinsky notes that, while Russian state propaganda is chockablock with fake news, it is is independent media that are primarily at risk of being penalized for violating the new law.

New Prohibitions Make Up for Easing of Old Bans
Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, argues the penalties for disrespecting the authorities and fake news are meant to compensate for the partial decriminalization, in November of last year, of “extremist” statements published on the internet.

After first-time convictions for public incitement to hatred or enmity (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 282 Part 1) were reclassified as administrative offenses, Russian police lost part of their workload. Under the so-called quota system, in which law enforcers are evaluated according to the number of crimes they have solved, the introduction of new offenses in the Administrative Offenses Code can generate new possibilities for fudging the statistics on cleared cases and conviction rates.

On the other hand, the amended law appears “liberal” only when compared with its earlier redaction, which stipulated a maximum of five years in prison for careless statements on the internet.

Improper Does Not Mean “Obscene”
If the law against fake news would probably be applied selectively, administrative charges of disrespect for the authorities and society could be a large-scale phenomenon within a few years, argues Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the SOVA Information and Analysis Center.

“People are punished five times more often under the ‘anti-extremism’ articles in the Administrative Offenses Code than under the corresponding articles in the Criminal Code. The partial decriminalization of Criminal Code Article 282 shifts the proportion even more heavily toward administrative punishments. The introduction of new articles in the Administrative Offenses Code means there will be fewer criminal prosecutions and many more administrative prosecutions,” Verkhovsky predicts.

Last year’s easing of anti-extremist laws was justified by the fact that the mechanical application of Article 282 had produced a proliferation of inmates who had no relation to extremist groups. The administrative prosecution of “disrespect for the authorities” could also balloon into a crackdown against rank-and-file Russians.

“It is difficult to predict the extent to which such cases will be politically motivated,” says Verkhovsky.

Prosecuting people of disrespect for the authorities is complicated by the lack of clarity over what can be said and what cannot. According to Roskomnadzor’s official clarification, which was not issued in connection with the new law, “four well-known words (kh.., p…., e…., and b….), as well as the words and expressions derived from them,” are considered obscene.**

Verkhovsky stresses, however, that improper does not mean obscene. The new law does not define what it means by “improperly.”

Nikitinsky agrees.

“You can arbitrarily call anything improper,” he says.

The Authorities Are More Sensitive to Criticism 
According to Chikov, the passage of Klishas’s law bills is the regime’s knee-jerk reaction to its dwindling popularity. After the pension reform of summer and autumn 2018, the ratings of Russia’s supreme executive and legislative authorities took a severe hit. Also, according to a poll done by VTsIOM, a year after the last presidential election, in March 2018, Putin is trusted by 33.4% of Russians, a drop of 21.9% from March 2018.

For example, in March 2018, a court in Naberezhnye Chelny sentenced activist Karim Yamadayev to twenty-eight days in jail for erecting a fake headstone for President Putin by way protesting the law bill that would create a “sovereign” Runet, if passed into law.

putin doa“Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, 1952–2019.” Image courtesy of BBC Russian Service

In summer of 2018, Petersburg activist Varya Mikhaylova was fined 160,000 rubles for publicly displaying the picture 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition, which also depicts Putin, during the city’s annual May Day march. Despite the fact the march itself was legal, the picture had not been vetted by the police. As Mikhaylova admits, she was completely surprised when she was detained, since she has a poor sense of the line between what is acceptable and what is forbidden.

The Kremlin is likely to use the new laws to crack down on its most audacious critics.

varyaVarya Mikhaylova (center, with megaphone), carrying {rodina}’s 9 Stages of the Supreme Leader’s Decomposition as she marched with the Party of the Dead bloc in last year’s May Day demo in Petersburg. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

_________________________

* Members of the Federation Council are not “chosen by people” in the sense of free and fair elections, but appointed by President Putin via highly stage-managed “elections” in the legislatures and parliaments of the Russian regions they only nominally represent. Aided and abetted by lazy journalists and political spin doctors, the thoroughly non-elected members of the Federation Council, whose only function is to rubber-stamp destructive law bills like the two described in the article, have taken to calling themselves “senators” in recent years, although Russia has no senate or senators. TRR

** I.e., khui (“dick”), pizda (“cunt”), ebat‘ (“fuck”), bliad‘ (“bitch”), all of which are indeed incredibly productive roots in colloquial Russian. TRR

Ivan Ovsyannikov is a member of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) and a trade union organizer. Lead photo and translation by the Russian Reader. All other photos featured in the translation were selected by me and were not included in the original article, as published on Eurasianet.

Titan Beetles

titan beetle

“The titan beetle (Titanus giganteus) is a neotropical longhorn beetle, the sole species in the genus Titanus, and one of the largest known beetles. […] The short, curved and sharp mandibles are known to snap pencils in half and cut into human flesh. […] The adults defend themselves by hissing in warning and biting, and have sharp spines, as well as strong jaws.” Source: Wikipedia. Photo courtesy of Fluencia

Russian Government Approves Bills to Punish Fake News and “Flagrant Disrespect for the State” on the Internet
Mediazona
January 24, 2019

The Russian government has approved a bill criminalizing “flagrant disrespect for the state on the internet,” as well as stipulating fines for disseminating fake news, reports Interfax, which quotes Pavel Krasheninnikov, chair of the State Duma’s state building and legislation committee.

According to Krasheninnikov, the government’s commentary on the two law bills, which his committee had been waiting for, arrived tonight. Both reviews were positive.

Yesterday, the Prosecutor General’s Office sent the Duma a positive comment on the law bills, although previously it had refused to approve them.

In December 2018, MPs from the United Russia party tabled a law bill that would amend Article 20.1 of the Administrative Offenses Code (petty misconduct) by criminalizing the dissemination on the internet of information that “expresses in indecent form” a flagrant disrespect for society, the state, state symbols, and state bodies.

The law bill stipulates punishing violators with fines of up to 5,000 rubles or fifteen days in jail.

In addition, the bill’s drafters propose fines between 30,000 rubles and a million rubles for publishing false information.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

DSCN1726Goodbye to all that. Exchange rates for the US dollar and the euro, as displayed electronically on the door of Zauber Bank, Ligovsky Prospect, September 19, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Putin Signs Law Banning Outdoor Currency Exchange Rate Electronic Display Boards
Delovoi Peterburg
December 18, 2018

President Putin has signed a law banning outdoor foreign currency exchange rate electronic display boards. The document was published on the Legal Information Website on Tuesday, December 18.

The document amends the law on foreign currency regulation. The Russian Central Bank now has the right to regulate how commercial banks post information about foreign currency exchange rates.

In Febrary 2018, the Central Bank proposed banning foreign currency exchange rate electronic display boards outside the premises of banks. The regulator explained the idea was prompted by the need to combat illegal exchange offices.

“As practice shows, information about foreign currency exchange rates is most often displayed outdoors by so-called illegal currency exchange points, which are camouflaged as limited service branches of authorized banks,” the Central Bank’s press service explained.

In December, a law bill that would grant the regulator the right to establish requirements for display of such information was adopted by the State Duma and approved by the Federation Council.

The Central Bank’s draft instructions explain that information about foreign currecy exchange rates can be placed only within the premises of an authorized bank and in such a way that the information is visible only inside the facility itself.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Neocolonialism

7d34dc1c84d3ef36Tatarstan’s second largest city, Naberezhnye Chelny, is known as Yar Chally in Tatar. Photo courtesy of Realnoe Vremya

Minority Languages Ready for Third Reading
State Duma Updates Standards for Teaching Official Languages
Viktor Khamrayev and Kirill Antonov
Kommersant
July 25, 2018

On Wednesday, July 25, the State Duma should pass in its third and final reading a law bill that would make study of the Russian Federation’s official language, Russian, and the official languages of the country’s ethnic republics an obligatory part of the school curriculum. However, parents would freely choose the language their children study as their native tongue. MPs are confident they have defused the anxiety felt in the ethnic republics over the plight of minority native languages. Experts in a number of the republics, however, are still concerned minority native tongues will gradually outlive their usefulness.

On Tuesday, July 24, the Duma approved in their second reading amendments to the law “On Education.” During their first reading, the draft amendments had drawn criticism from the ethnic republics due to the fact they introduced the principle of choice when studying native languages.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, chair of the Duma’s education committee, told Kommersant two important provisions had been inserted into the law bill for the second reading. The Federal Education Standards “should guarantee the opportunity to be instructed in the native languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation” and, to this end, they should provide for the study of “the official languages of the Russian Federation’s republics, the native languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation, including the Russian language.”

According to Mr. Nikonov, this rule should diffuse “concerns in the republics that the study of minority languages would become optional.”

“The federal standard means mandatory inclusion in the curriculum,” Mr. Nikonov said.

At the same time, the law establishes the free choice of the language of classroom instruction, as well as the choice of what language children would study as their native tongue, as determined by their parents.

During its second reading, 371 MPs voted for the law bill. It should pass during its third reading on Wednesday.

Mr. Nikonov reported the education committee had already negotiated with the relevant parties to establish a fund to support native languages.

“We suggest establishing the fund through a presidential decree, making it a presidential fund with appropriate federal financing,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Nikonov said MPs had been asked to develop the basic concept on which the new Federal Education Standards would be based. The government has established a working group in accordance with the resolution adopted by the Duma after the first reading of the bill.

As approved by MPs, the draft law does not provide for a transitional period while the government elaborates the new concept and educational standards. The law would come into force as soon as it was signed by the president and published. In this regard, the republics are afraid of the consequences set in motion once the law has been adopted. The free choice of a native language would come into play in the absence of new federal standards.

Under current guidelines, pupils attend five hours of Russian classes a week, while minority language classes are offered only three hours a week, Svetlana Semyonova, director of the Ethnic Schools Research Institute, explained to Kommersant.

This means, Ms. Semyonova said, that “pupils who choose Russian as their native language will have eight hours of Russian class a week, while those pupils whose native language is Yakut will study Russian for only five hours a week.”

Given that the Leaving Certificate Examination (EGE) is administered only in Russian, Ms. Semyonova argues Yakut children would be more poorly prepared for it.

Due to the EGE, very few pupils would risk choosing a minority language as their native language, Marat Lotfullin, a researcher in ethnic education at the History Institute of the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences, told Kommersant. Even non-Russian children in Tatarstan would choose Russia as their native language. He fears the Tatar language will gradually outlive its usefulness.

Mr. Lotfullin draws attention to the fact that the new law stipulates the teaching of minority native languages and classroom instruction in these languages only for primary and secondary schools, meaning ethnic schools would function only until the ninth grade.

This is “a serious restriction of the rights of the peoples of the Russian Federation,” he argues.

“If we take Tatarstan, Tatars have always enjoyed instruction in Tatar all through secondary school, including the upper grades,” Mr. Lotfullin said.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See whether you can square this story with my previous post, about a young Khakas woman in Abakan who has been charged with “extremism” by the FSB for promoting Khakas language and culture, and publishing a blog post about the discrimination Khakas experience at the hands of ethnic Russians, who constitute the majority in the nominally “ethnic” Republic of Khakassia.

Russia Has Over a Million Slaves

Russia Plans to Fight Slavery: The Country Has More than a Million Slaves
Ivan Ovsyannikov
PROVED.RF
June 26, 2018

The Russian government has tabled a law bill in the State Duma that would ratify the protocol to the convention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) outlawing forced labor. Russian officials claim ratifying the protocol is a formality, because there is no slavery in Russia. However, the government itself employs forced labor. PROVED has written about how the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) sells the labor of inmates to commercial companies, although it is forbidden by the convention. The Walk Free Foundation (WFF), an international human rights advocacy group, estimates there are over one million slaves in Russia.

The Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (No. 29) was adopted by the ILO in Geneva in 1930. The Soviet Union signed it only at the dawn of the Khrushchev Thaw in 1956. In 2014, the convention was supplemented with a protocol introducing  new restrictions on the use of forced labor. In particular, the original convention had stipulated people could be forced to work for public purposes. Such voluntary forced labor was widely practiced in the Soviet Union. Blue- and white-collar workers spent their weekends laboring at so-called subbotniks, while university students were sent to the fields of collective farms to harvest potatoes, carrots, and cabbages. The protocol to ILO Convention No. 29 deems this coerced labor a criminal offense.

Post-Soviet Russia has not ratified either the first or second versions of the convention. The Russian Labor Ministry has decided to correct the omission and tabled a law bill in the State Duma approving the statutes in the protocol to the convention.

The protocol requires signatories to take vigorous measures for eliminating slavery. They must pay compensation to victims of compulsory labor, educate law enforcement officers and employers about prohibited labor practices, and develop strategies for combating the slave trade.

The Labor Ministry’s draft bill says slavery has been banned in Russia as it is, and so it does not suggest any special measures for combating compulsory labor nor does it amend existing laws.

Seventh Place in Terms of Slavery
Experts claim, however, that Russian officials are disingenuous. In fact, in its 2016 survey, the WFF estimated there are least one million people in Russia subjected to some form of slavery, i.e., 0.73% of the country’s total population. Russia was thus ranked seventh in the WFF’s 2016 Global Slavery Index of 167 countries in terms of absolute number of people subjected to modern slavery. According to the index, only India (over 18 million), China (approx. 3.4 million), Pakistan (approx. 2.1 million), Bangladesh (approx. 1.5 million), Uzbekistan (approx. 1.2 million), and North Korea (1.1 million) had more slaves than Russia did.

slavery indexAn excerpt from the 2016 Global Slavery Index

Russian officials have not analyzed slave labor in Russia and do not acknowledge the problem. In their way of thinking, the president has not given them any instructions on the matter and nothing needs to be done, explains Yelena Gerasimova, director of the Center for Social and Labor Rights.

“I cannot say the government is a party to the scheme, but it closes its eyes on it. Russian Criminal Code Articles 127.1 (Human Trafficking) and 127.2 (Use of Slave Labor) are vaguely worded. While the ILO has a clear definition of slavery, the Russian police often do not understand what we are talking about. They ask us, ‘What slaves? Where are the shackles?’ But no one has ever kept slaves in shackles, for they have to work,” adds Oleg Melnikov, head of the grassroots organization Alternative.

The Government Protection Racket
Slavery includes forced marriages in which women are used as domestic servants, prostitutes forced to work in brothels, and migrant workers whose passports are confiscated by employers. As Gerasimova notes, however, Russian police, prosecutors, and labor inspectors refuse to acknowledge the problem and do nothing to identify people subjected to slavery.

She cites the example of the slaves of Golyanovo, twelve men and women freed from the basement of a grocery story on the outskirts of Moscow in 2012.

“The police were running protection for the store, which had kept people in bondage for years. They had their papers confiscated and were not paid for their work. Golyanovo is the tip of the iceberg,” argues Gerasimova.

The Russian government is willing to sell the manpower of inmates to commercial clients. For example, as PROVED discovered, Arkhangelsk Commercial Seaport LLC, a subsidiary of Evraz, purchased “workers from the inmate population” at the local penal colony for 860 rubles a day per person [approx. €12 a day]. The contract was posted on the government procurements website, although Arkhangelsk Regional Governor Igor Orlov hotly denied the deal. Now it is clear why. The ILO convention permits courts to impose work as a punishment, but it forbids leasing inmates to private companies.

Russian convicts usually work within the FSIN’s own system. Thus, the FSIN’s Main Industrial and Construction Department used inmates to build an entire residential complex for penitentiary service employees on the outskirts of Krasnoyarsk. Ironically, the complex is located on Work Safety Street.

However, the temptation to pursue public-private partnerships in the field of hard labor is too great. For example, FISN officials in Krasnodar Territory not only make no bones about their cooperation with business, but even brag about it. Inmates there sew uniforms for regular police and the Russian National Guard, cobble shoes, produce construction material, and are employed in woodworking and animal husbandry. Krasnodar Territory subsidizes businessmen who buy the goods produced by convicts. The entire enterprise is part of the territory’s official industrial development program for 2017–2020.

The Slave International
Forced labor is popular not only in the Russian penitentiary system but also in the outside world.

Melnikov describes a typical path to slavery.

“People from the hinterlands who go to Moscow and other major cities to improve their lot can end up as slaves. Someone approaches them on the streets, offering them a job in another region working on a rotational basis. He offers them a drink. Two days later, they wake up as they are arriving in Dagestan, Kalmykia or Stavropol Territory. Usually, the slaves work in cottage industries. The victims are told they have been bought. When they try and escape, they are captured and given a beating in front of everyone,” he says.

Moscow has recently been deluged with young women from Nigeria. Allegedly, they have come to study, but ultimately they are forced into prostitution. The farther workers are from home, the more vulnerable they are, adds Melnikov.

Fly-by-night firms, registered in Russia, recruit laborers in the rural regions of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. So-called foremen act as intermediaries between the firms and the local populace.

“They are often ethnic Russians from Central Asia or elders of the local communities, the mahallahs. They bring young men and women from the villages and hand them over to the managers of the companies that operate as agents. From the viewpoint of the UN and international law, this is human trafficking. But the migrant workers themselves do not see it that way. Many of them regard it as the natural order of things, an act of initiation. If you have not worked as a migrant laborer, you’re not a real man,” notes Andrei Yakimov, an expert on migrant workers.

People who are employed in this manner usually sign no work contracts with their employers. They do not know the names of the companies where they work or the names of their supervisors.

“A female cleaner from Uzbekistan knows only that she works for someone named Feruz. Feruz is her foreman or her foreman’s manager. At most, she will have heard that somewhere at the top of the food chain her work is supervised by someone named Andrei Nikolayevich, say. If I am an unskilled worker named Abdullo who has not been paid his wages, I am going to find it hard to figure where my money is. The foreman, the manager, his managers or contractor could be holding on to it. The chain of command can consist of dozens of links, especially in the construction business,” Yakimov explains.

There is no one to whom the migrant work can complain. If the migrant worker’s ID papers have also been confiscated, his or her enslavement is complete.

Slave labor is employed in different sectors of the economy. In Dagestan, slaves are sent to work at brick factories, while in Moscow they are employed as shop clerks, beggars, and prostitutes. In Novy Urengoy, they work in construction, while in Tver Region they are employed in sawmills.

Employment Off the Books
Yakimov argues that slavery in Russia is one of the shapes taken by undocumented employment. Russian nationals are fine with the fact that foreigners from Central Asia do the dirty, poorly paid jobs. These workers never turn to the authorities for help, fearing they will be punished for not having residency papers and work permits.

Russian nationals sometimes also avoid turning to the authorities, since many of them are employed on the black market and have not signed employment contracts, either. State Duma MP Oleg Shein has calculated that 34 million able-bodied Russians are employed in the illegal labor market, earning 10 trillion rubles [approx. €136 billion] annually. They constitute 40% of Russia’s entire workforce, says Shein. Such workers risk ending up as forced laborers, according to the wording of ILO Convention No. 29.

Translated by the Russian Reader

UPDATE (July 24, 2018). The 2018 Global Slavery Index has updated the figures for modern slavery in Russia. It has this to say in particular about slavery in Russia and efforts to combat it. Continue reading “Russia Has Over a Million Slaves”

You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party

Involving Teenagers in Unauthorized Protest Rallies Could Cost as Much as One Million Rubles
Experts Say Authorities Won’t Find It Hard to Prove Charges
Olga Churakova
Vedomosti
July 11, 2018

Госдума готовится ввести многотысячные штрафы за вовлечение подростков в несанкционированные митингиThe State Duma plans to introduce hefty finds for involving teenagers in unauthorized protest rallies. Photo by Andrei Gordeyev. Courtesy of Vedomosti

On Tuesday, the State Duma’s Family Affairs Committee gave the go-ahead to a law bill that would introduce penalties for “encouraging” teenagers to attend unauthorized protest rallies. On Monday, the bill was approved by the government’s Legislative Affairs Commission. In its written appraisal of the bill, the Family Affairs Committee recommended clarifying the minimum age at which offenders would be held liable for violations, although the relevant committee reviewing the bill is the Committee on Constitutional Law.

Tabled by Alyona Arshinova, Anatoly Vyborny, and other United Russia MPs, the law would amend the Administrative Violations Code to include penalties of 15 days in jail, 100 hours of community service or a fine of 50,000 rubles for individuals who encourage minors to attend unauthorized protest rallies. Fines for officials would range from 50,000 to 100,000 rubles, while fines for legal entities would range from 250,000 to 500,000 rubles. A repeat violation could send individuals to jail for up to thirty days, while legal entities would be fined as much as one million rubles [approx. €13,800].

“In my experience, there is no such thing as a perfect law bill. As for the current bill, the relevant committee has not yet meet to discuss it,” says Vyborny.

However, Vyborny is certain the amendments are necessary.

“Children cannot resist the negative influence of adults. It matters to them to express themselves, and we hope this bill will deter them from ill-considered actions. Administrative liability will be a deterrent,” he says.

What matters is that young people are not drawn into a culture of legal nihilism, the MP argues. According to Vyborny, the bill does not aim to punish minors, but protest rally organizers. Hence, the age limit is defined in the bill.

OVD Info estimated that ninety-one teenagers were detained on May 5, 2018, in Moscow at an unauthorized protest rally to mark the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as president for the fourth time. According to OVD Info, at least 158 minors were detained nationwide on May 5 at similar protests. OVD Info estimated that a total of 1,600 people were detained that day.

Lawyer Oleg Sukhov says proving protest rally organizers are in violation of the new law would be a piece of cake. Rallies are organized in different ways, including personal contacts and public announcements.

“Our government is planning to deter all means of organizing protest rallies. It realizes this work on the part of the opposition will only intensify over time not only via the web but also through communication with young Russians,” notes Sukhov.

The main point is the government would not have to prove anything, argues Sukhov. Minors will go on attending protest rallies. Whenever they tell police they saw an announcement on the web, the organizers will be charged with violating the law according to a fast-track procedure.

“Clearly, the law will be enforced selectively. It’s a classic manifestation of the so-called mad printer. The terms used in the wording of the bill are not defined at all. For example, what does it mean to ‘encourage’ a teenager to attend a rally? Can teenagers attend rallies? They can. So, how do we figure out whether they attended on their own or were ‘encouraged’? We can’t,” says Navalny’s righthand man Leonid Volkov.

Volkov does not believe the law will be effective since protesters have been paying fines as it is.

“It is no accident this attempt to intimidate young people made the news today, the same day the Investigative Committee released a video about a teenager who goes to prison for reposting [‘extremist’ items] on social media. Of course, this will only produce new Primorsky Partisans,” Volkov concludes.

“Extremism Is a Crime,” a video posted on YouTube on June 25, 2018, by the MultiKit Video Studio. The annotation to the video reads, “A public service video on the dangers of extremism, produced by MultiKit Video Studio for the Russian Investigative Committee’s Altai Territory Office. The video will be shown in schools to prevent such crimes.”

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KMO_156800_00022_1_t218_212746.jpgAlexei Avetisov. Photo by Emin Dzhafarov. Courtesy of Kommersant

Youth Policy Finds a Direction
Kremlins Finds a Specialist in Subcultures and Extremism
Sofia Samokhina, Maxim Ivanov and Lada Shamardina
Kommersant
July 11, 2018

Kommersant has learned Alexei Avetisov, member of the Russian Public Chamber and president of the Russian Student Rescue Corps, could join the Office of Public Projects in the Kremlin. Avetisov has been tapped to head the Department for Combating Extremism among Youth. Ksenia Razuvayeva, head of Rospatriotcenter (Russian Center for the Civic and Patriotic Education of Children and Young People) has been named as a candidate for head of the Department of Youth Policy in the Office of Public Projects. Both candidates would still have to be vetted by the Kremlin.

Alexei Avetisov, member of the Russian Public Chamber and president of the Russian Student Rescue Corps, could head the Department for Combating Extremism among Youth in the Kremlin’s Office of Public Projects. Currently, the Office of Public Projects, which is run by Sergei Kiriyenko, the president’s first deputy chief of staff, has no such department. Our sources say Mr. Avetisov would be tasked with overseeing youth subcultures and decriminalizing the youth scene, in particular, by dealing with the popular AUE network of criminal gangs. The Presidential Human Rights Council discussed the issue with Vladimir Putin in December 2016.

Olga Amelchenkova, head of the Victory Volunteers Movement and member of the Russian Public Chamber, told us there were few organizations in Russia involved in volunteering in emergencies, and Mr. Avetisov was one of the few people who had constantly brought up the subject in the Public Chamber.

An acquaintance of Mr. Avetisov’s said his Russian Student Rescue Corps had brought many universities together. The organization took part in the first Taurida Camp held after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, an event attended by MPs and high-ranking officials. From 2015 to 2017, Mr. Avetisov was director of Territory of Meanings on the Klyazma, a youth education form, sponsored by Rosmolodezh (Russian Agency for Youth Affairs). His main job at the forum was providing technical support for the camp.

On June 6, Znak.com, citing its own sources, reported law enforcement agences were investigating Territory of Meanings on the Klyazma and, in this connection, “questions for the forum’s ex-director Alexei Avetisov could arise.” The website indicated companies allegedly affiliated with Mr. Avetisov had for several years been awarded “lucrative” contracts for constructing venues at the forum. The firms in question had no experience implementing government contracts. Currently, some of the companies have either gone out of business or are dormant, wrote the website.

Timur Prokopenko, deputy chief of staff in charge of the Office of Domestic Policy in the Kremlin, had been in charge of youth forums in recent years. He also handleded youth policy in his capacity as head of the Office of Domestic Policy. However, on June 14, a presidential decree turned youth policy over to the Office of Public Projects.

znakcom-2039402-666x375Territory of Meanings staffers. Photo from the camp’s VK page. Courtesy of Znak.com

Gazeta.Ru has reported that Rospatriotcenter head Ksenia Razuvayeva could take charge of the Office of Public Project’s Department of Youth Policy. Before taking over the running of Rospatriotcenter, Ms. Razuvayeva ran the Moscow branch of the Russian Volunteers Union and collaborated with the Young Guard of United Russia (MGER), which Mr. Prokopenko ran from 2010 to 2012. Ms. Razuvayeva would not confirm to us that she was moving to the Office of Public Projects Earlier, a source of ours in the Kremlin said she might not make it through the vetting process. Another of our sources noted a possible conflict of interests was at play. Ms. Razuvayeva also told us it was the first time she had heard about Mr. Avetisov’s moving to the Office of Public Projects.

“The vast majority of Young Guardsmen and other pro-regime activists brought up through the ranks in the past decades are supremely focused on their careers. The system simply spits out anyone else,” political scientist Abbas Gallyamov told us.

According to Gallyamov, “Changing colors for the new boss and refusing to have anything to do with people they worshipped only the day before are quite ordinary for this crowd.”

“Therefore, it does not matter whose people they were considered yesterday. They will be loyal to any boss, just because he or she is the boss,” Gallyamov added.

Translated by the Russian Reader