Victoria Lomasko Truckers, Torfyanka, and Dubki: Grassroots Protests in Russia, 2015–2016
In late February 2015, politician Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Russian opposition, was gunned down near the Kremlin.
Grassroots activists immediately set up a people’s memorial, made up of bouquets, photos, drawings, and candles, at the scene of the crime, on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. For over a year, they have been taking shifts guarding the memorial from members of various nationalist movements and bridge maintenance workers, who routinely haul away the flowers and photos as if they were trash.
“The assaults on the memorial occur like pogroms in a Jewish shtetl: it’s the luck of the draw,” these two people on vigil at the memorial told me. “They pick a time when the people on duty have let down their guard, like three or four in the morning.”
Headed by opposition leaders and attended by thousands of people, the 2012 rallies and marches for fair elections and a “Russia without Putin!” ended with the show trials of 2013 and 2014 against opposition leaders (Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov) and rank-and-file protesters (the so-called prisoners of May 6).
In 2015 and 2016, the Marches of the Millions have given way to small-scale rallies and protests. People far removed from politics have tried to defend their own concrete rights.
I made these drawings at a rally in defense of the Dynasty Foundation. An NGO founded to support scientific research and science education in Russia, it had been declared a “foreign agent” by the Justice Ministry.
In June 2015, residents of Moscow’s Losiny Ostrov (Moose Island) District came together to stop construction of a church in their local park, Torfyanka. The building had been planned as part of the Russian Orthodox Church’s 200 Churches Program.
Residents set up a tent camp in the park and stood watch in shifts to keep construction equipment from entering the site. They also filed a lawsuit, asking the court to declare the public impact hearing on the construction project null and void. The hearing had been held without their involvement. Continue reading “Victoria Lomasko: Truckers, Torfyanka, and Dubki”→
Police Search Homes of Torfyanka Park Defenders Grani.ru
November 14, 2016
Defenders of Moscow’s Torfyanka Park have had their flats searched by police. Olga Romanova, founder of the Imprisoned Russia project, reported the searches on her Facebook page.
According to Romanova, police visited the home of attorney Marina Verigina, who has been consulting the activists, and her husband Vladimir Grechaninov. Law enforcement officers broke into their apartment.
Police cordoned off Natalya Fyodorova’s stairwell and did not let her neighbors act as witnesses to the search, explaining they had brought their own witnesses with them. Fyodorova was loaded into a paddy wagon along with her disabled mother, her husband Boris, and her 18-year-old daughter. The door to the Fyodorovs’ apartment was cut down with a metal grinder.
After the search of his home, Pavel Alexeev was put in the paddy wagon with his underage son Alexander. Evgeny Lebedev and his wife were loaded into the paddy wagon with their underage daughter.
Police likewise searched the home of activist Vladislav Kuznetsov and his wife Svetlana Kuznetsova. Kuznetsov’s forehead was injured while he was detained. He was then handcuffed and a scarf was wrapped around his head.
In addition, Konstantin Yatsyn and his father Yuri Yatsyn were detained. It has been reported that several more families of Torfyanka’s defenders were incommunicado.
Natalya Kutlunina, a member of the Communist Party, has reported that her apartment has been searched as well. Law enforcement officers arrived there at six in the morning. Kutlunina is out of town, and the apartment was searched with her son present.
“The search lasted three hours,” wrote Kutlunina. “They confiscated placards, Party literature, my son’s and my husband’s laptops, and my younger son’s mobile phone.”
Meanwhile, OVD Info has reported that the search at the Verigina and Grechaninov household was still underway after 6:30 in the evening. Yet since lunch time law officers had refused to let lawyer Sergei Shank into the apartment, despite the fact he produced a warrant.
The people detained during the searches were taken to the Russian Investigative Committee’s Northwest Moscow District Office. According to RBC, each activist was escorted by fifteen to twenty police officers, and the arrests were filmed by employees of the national TV channel NTV.
All the detainees were interrogated as witnesses in a case opened up under Article 148 of the Criminal Code (insulting the feelings of religious believers) before being released.
OVD Info claims violation of Paragraph 1 of the article, which stipulates a maximum punishment of one year in a penal colony, is at issue in the case. Meanwhile, after his interrogation, activist Evgeny Lebedev wrote on the For Torfyanka Park! VK community page that a case had been opened under Article 148.3 (obstructing the activities of religious organizations), which carries a maximum penalty of a year of corrective labor or three months in jail.
Orthodox clerics want to build a church in Torfyanka. Local residents are opposed to their plans, and they have been protesting them since June 2015. The decision to permit construction of the church was made illegally. In the autumn of 2015, the Moscow Town Planning and Land Commission acknowledged this and canceled the permit, demanding that the construction site at the park be dismantled. However, this still has not been done.
Moreover, the park’s defenders have been assaulted several times by Russian Orthodox militants. In the early hours of February 13, militants from the Multitude (Sorok sorokov) movement attempted to start building the church without authorization, but they were stopped by police.
In the early hours of March 3, a camp set up activists maintaining a 24-hour vigil in the park was demolished with assistance from the police. Law enforcement officers drove the environmentalists from their tent and pushed them aside as persons unknown arrived in a GAZelle minivan, loaded up the tent and the activists’ personal belongings, and drove off. It transpired that the minivan belonged to the Losiny Ostrov (Moose Island) District Council.
In the early hours of August 29, police detained twelve people, claiming that activists had been trying to break the fence around the proposed construction site.
Yekaterina Schulman, political scientist
This is a bad story, and it is bad because of the numbers of people involved. Nine people have been detained. The police came to their homes at six in the morning and took them to the Investigative Committee on suspicion they have violated Article 148.1 of the Criminal Code (“Public actions expressing clear disrespect for society and committed to insult the feelings of religious believers”), for which the maximum penalty is a year in prison. Meaning that it is a minor offense. Why is the Investigative Committee involved at all? They supposedly deal with serious and very serious crimes in Russia, no? All the detainees are neighbors, husbands and wives, meaning the police carpet-bombed a neighborhood that had been protesting construction of a new church in a park. What is the magnitude of their crime, which did not involve violence? What, are they terrorists? If charges of insulting religious believers have been filed in connection with a complaint, then investigate the case the usual way. Dear Investigative Committee, as a law enforcement agency you are not in the best position nowadays, and if you think you are going to strengthen it by suddenly arresting a dozen ordinary Russians for the glory of the Russian Orthodox Church, you have another think coming. If you haven’t noticed, the trend now in Russia is against exacerbation, incitement, and extremism, and for keeping people calm during the economic crisis. The FSB at least pulled some terrorists from its sleeve who wanted to blow up shopping malls. People understand that, but what was your bright idea for cheering up the media scene? Source: Facebook
We were born to sin
We were born to sin
We don’t think we’re special sir
We know everybody is
We’ve built too many walls
Yeah, we’ve built too many walls
And now we gotta run
A giant fist is out to crush us
We run in the dark
We run in the dark
We don’t carry dead weight long
We send them along to heaven
I carry my baby
I carry my baby
Her eyes can barely see
Her mouth can barely breathe
I can see she’s afraid
She could see the danger
We don’t want to die or apologize
For our dirty God, our dirty bodies
Now, I stick to the ground
I stick to the ground
I won’t look twice for the dead walls
I don’t want a white pillar of salt
I carry my baby
I carry my baby
Her eyes can barely see
Her mouth can barely breathe
I can see she’s afraid
That’s why we’re escaping
So we won’t have to die, we won’t have to deny
Our dirty God, our dirty bodies
They Got Out of Their Tractors
Why the so-called common people are increasingly joining the ranks of the so-called fifth column Gazeta.ru
August 29, 2016
The arrest of the people involved in the tractor convoy, as well as new protest rallies in Togliatti after Nikolai Merkushin, governor of Samara Region announced wage arrears would “never” be paid off, are vivid examples of the top brass’s new style of communicating with people. After flirting only four or five years ago with the common people, as opposed to the creacles from the so-called fifth column, the authorities have, in the midst of a crisis, been less and less likely to pretend they care about the needs of rank-and-file Russians. Moreover, any reminders of problems at the bottom provokes irritation and an increasingly repressive reaction at the top.
Previously, top officials, especially in the run-up to elections, preferred to mollify discontent at the local level by promising people something, and from year to year, the president would even personally solve people’s specific problems, both during his televised town hall meetings (during which, for example, he dealt with problems ranging from the water supply in a Stavropol village to the payment of wages to workers at a fish factory on Shikotan) and during personal visits, as was the case in Pikalyovo, where chemical plant workers also blocked a federal highway. Nowadays, on the contrary, the authorities have seemingly stopped pretending that helping the common people is a priority for them.
The people have made no political demands in these cases. Moreover, the main players in these stories almost certainly belong to the hypothetical loyal majority.
The people who took part in the tractor convoy against forcible land seizures even adopted the name Polite Farmers, apparently by analogy with the patriotic meme “polite people,” which gained popularity in Russia after the annexation of Crimea.
In 2011–2012, the authorities used approximately the same people to intimidate street protesters sporting political slogans. That was when the whole country heard of Uralvagonzavod, a tank manufacturer whose workers promised to travel to Moscow to teach the creacles a lesson. Subsequently, the company’s head engineer, Igor Kholmanskih, was unexpectedly appointed presidential envoy to the Urals Federal Distrtict.
Back then, the cultivation of a political standoff between working people from the provinces and slackers, “State Department agents,” and self-indulgent intellectuals from the capitals seemed pivotal, but in the aftermath of Crimea and a protracted crisis, it has almost been nullified.
The people are still important for generating good ratings [via wildly dubious opinion polls — TRR], but it would seem that even rhetorically they have ceased to be an object of unconditional concern on the part of the government.
Nowadays, the authorities regard the requests and especially the demands of the so-called common people nearly as harshly as they once treated the Bolotnaya Square protests.
The government does not have the money to placate the common people, so people have to be forced to love the leadership unselfishly, in the name of stability and the supreme interests of the state. Since politics has finally defeated the economy in Russia, instead of getting down to brass tacks and solving problems with employment and wage arrears, the regime generously feeds people stories about war with the West. During a war, it quite unpatriotic to demand payment of back wages or ask for pension increase. Only internal enemies would behave this way.
“We are not slaves!” Coal Miners on Hunger Strike in Gukovo. Published on August 25, 2016, by Novaya Gazeta. Miners in Gukovo have refused a “handout” from the governor of Rostov Region and continued their hunger strike over unpaid wages. Video by Elena Kostyuchenko. Edited by Gleb Limansky.
So the coal miners in Rostov, who have continued their hunger strike under the slogan “We are not slaves,” have suddenly proven to be enemies, along with the farmers of Krasnodar, who wanted to tell the president about forcible land seizures, and the activists defending Torfyanka Park in Moscow, who were detained in the early hours of Monday morning for, allegedly, attempting to break Orthodox crosses, and the people defending the capital’s Dubki Park, slated for redevelopment despite the opinion of local residents, and the people who protested against the extortionate Plato system for calculating the mileage tolls paid by truckers, and just about anyone who is unhappy with something and plans to make the authorities aware of their dissatisfaction.
Grassroots initiatives, especially if they involve protests against the actions or inaction of the authorities, are not only unwelcome now, but are regarded as downright dangerous, almost as actions against the state. This hypothesis is borne out by the silence of the parliamentary opposition parties. In the midst of an election campaign, they have not even attempted to channel popular discontent in certain regions and make it work to their advantage at the ballot box.
The distinction between the so-called fifth column and the other four has blurred.
Nowadays, the fifth column can be a woman who asks a governor about back wages. Someone who defends a city park. Farmers. Coal miners. Even the workers of Uralvagonzavod, which in recent years has been on the verge of bankruptcy. The contracts the state had been throwing the company’s way have not helped, apparently.
If the authorities, especially local authorities simply afraid to show federal authorities they are incapable of coping with problems, continue to operate only through a policy of intimidation, they might soon be the fifth column themselves, if only because, sooner or later, they will find themselves in the minority.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up
A surprisingly frank and dead-on editorial from Gazeta.ru, who usually have not struck me as wild-eyed radicals, about how the Russian authorities have increasingly come to behave as if nearly the entire Russian population, including the so-called common people, is a gigantic fifth column arrayed against them.
The reason they have sunk into this black pit of reaction is that the current regime is simply incapable of solving the country’s numerous political, social, and economic crises, because it has directly or indirectly generated nearly all of them, including the utter lawlessness in Krasnodar Territory that was finally too much for a group of farmers who climbed into their tractors and set out for Moscow several days ago. But because even allegedly simple farmers can become a fifth column as soon as they draw attention to their sorry plight and the role of the authorities in it, they got only as far the neighboring Rostov Region on their tractors before the police shut them down.
This editorial is also valuable for its catalogue of similar conflicts, most of which you probably have never heard of because they are not well covered or covered at all by the western press and only marginally better by Russian print and online media. Russian mainstream TV outlets mainly avoid them altogether, as do most of the opposition parties currently contending for seats in the Russian State Duma and regional legislatures, as the editorialists point out.
So the hunger-striking miners in Gukov and their wives are left to their own devices when dealing with their creepy regional governor, no doubt a KGB vet, who all but accuses them of acting on behalf of the CIA, although they just want to get paid for their hard, thankless work.
The only grain of salt one should chew while reading this editorial is the fact that these local grassroots campaigns have been going in rather large numbers across Russia throughout Putin’s 17-year reign. And in many cases the altogether uncommon common people who fought these battles were fifth-columnized (through beatings, murders, and jail time) as badly as the current grassroots campaigners mentioned by the editorialists. During the fat years of the noughties, however, times were much better economically in the Russian capitals for a lot of people than they had been just a few years earlier, so they preferred not to notice too hard what was going on in their midst, much less some part of their country they would never dream of visiting even.
The Putinist state has been waging a cold civil war against the people of Russia for seventeen years whether the media has noticed it or not. But a lot of the common people have noticed. TRR
Tamara Eidelman How I Gave a Lecture to Truckers echo.msk.ru
December 26, 2015
When I informed my near and dear that I had been asked to give truckers a lecture on civil disobedience, their reactions were basically the same.
“They won’t understand a thing.”
“They support Putin and won’t give you the time of day.”
“Update your vocabulary,” someone even said to me.
“Haven’t they left yet?” asked a woman who knows her way around politics quite well.
All these statements were not very encouraging, and in any case I was badly dithering. I knew I was capable of giving interesting lectures, just not to truckers. I pictured burly men who yawned as they listened to my arguments and might even, for all I knew, shout, “Why are we listening to this? We are not interested.”
But it turned out they were interested.
My friend, who had dreamed up this whole thing, and I slowly and painfully made our way to Khimki. The shuttle bus dropped us off on the wrong side of the Mega shopping center, so we had to walk through it. Holiday lights were shining, people were hurrying to do their New Year’s shopping, but no one wondered about the big rigs parked in the parking lot.
And we still had to find the parking lot. We walked a long way through enormous spaces crammed with the cars of happy Mega and Ikea customers. Finally we saw the trucks: the word “lonely” came to mind. They were parked in the back of beyond. True, they had to be visible from the road, not far from the anti-tank obstacles, but who would see them there?
The trucks sported homemade placards reminding Rotenberg that the tire iron was under the seat. There was a New Year’s fir tree with only a few decorations on it. We were looking for Viktor with whom we had arranged the lecture. We were told Viktor was in the “cafeteria.” Oh, they had a cafeteria? The cafeteria was yet another truck, where you could have tea. We discovered only two or three fellows there. The rest had gone off to have lunch, obviously, to a more suitable place for such things. Were they really going into Mega? What did they think about the happily occupied shoppers, who had arrived as it were from another world?
We stood and chatted. It transpired we were not the only guests there. There was a bus driver who had brought a load of passengers to Mega and in the meantime had stopped by to see how things were going. It seemed it was not his first visit. He talked about how much money people who drive buses had to shell out for no reason at all.
Young women who wanted to draw what was happening at the truckers’ camp and post the drawings on Facebook showed up, as well as a woman with a camera. They said it was not their first visit, either, and that there were even old women who brought the lads borscht.
Meanwhile, the guys had started to gather. They really were big and strapping, and I found it hard to picture them listening to the lecture. But as soon as Viktor said the lecturer had arrived, they immediately happily formed a circle round me and listened.
I told them about Parnell and the first boycott in the world, against Captain Boycott, about how the landlords in Ireland had pitilessly raised the rents and complaining was useless.
“It conjures up certain associations,” commented one of the listeners. “Only there is no point in boycotting Rotenberg.”
“Hang on and let us listen. This is interesting,” the others said, stopping him short.
I looked around and could see they really were interested.
I saw I was surrounded not by ferocious wild men, but by attentive listeners with intelligent faces. I continued.
We moved on to Gandhi. The interest grew. The slogan “fill the prisons” provoked healthy mirth. One of the men was told he would be their Gandhi and would go to prison first. Another man asked whether there was not a difference between Russia and India: in Russia, where so many people had perished in Stalin’s camps, it would hardly be possible to fill the prisons. He was told that no one was forcing him to go to prison: he was just being told how things had been in the past. Someone immediately said they did not have to repeat what had already been done, but could come up with something of their own.
We had an intense discussion of what exactly they could come up with. This was the problem. So far they had not come up with anything than blocking the road to Moscow, and even then far from everyone agreed with this plan. The drivers gathered in Khimki were supposedly supported by their comrades in dozens of regions, but the majority was inclined to “wait and see.”
Discussions broke out after almost every sentence. Meanwhile, Shamil, an intelligent-looking Dagestani, and Sergei, a short, energetic man, had joined us. Everyone had his or her say. Someone said it was a pity that his schoolteacher, Raisa Demyanovna, had not talked about things as emotionally as I was.
The conversation became more and more relaxed. When I said that Gandhi had called on his supporters to refrain from sex, everyone gleefully hooted that I was talking about them, that they had long refrained from sex. All of them had very unhappy wives waiting at home, some of whom had threatened divorce. They had no money and their husbands were away from home, so of course you could understand them. Some of the men had gone home, while others said they could not, because “what would the guys say.”
We segued to Martin Luther King. The story of the busy boycott by Montgomery’s Negro population elicited cheers of approval.
“That’s great! They hit them in their wallets!”
Sergei commenced on a fairly coherent account of Gandhi, but he was interrupted and told the “speaker” had just told them about Gandhi.
The questions rained down one after the other. Of course they mainly boiled down to the famous “What is to be done?” We tried to discuss how to break through the media blackout. Some said we had to establish a public television channel.
Everyone unanimously chewed out Channel One. Everyone wanted more lectures. Everyone was interested.
An hour later we said goodbye. We were asked to come back again, and we promised to do it.
We headed back home, our emotions overflowing. What a joy it had been to converse with completely sane, intelligent, energetic people, to establish a rapport with them, to see the look in their eyes, and hear their questions.
I would love for them to get an answer to the question “What is to be done?” I would love it if as many people as possible went to see them, if they did not feel worthless and abandoned on New Year’s Day, if they won.
By the by, as for the issue of “updating my vocabulary,” not a single truck driver swore even once when I was there.
And the man who asked about Stalin’s camps also asked me why I thought that, unlike in Europe, each new Russian regime wanted to “bend” us. I said there was a really long answer, but I would give the short answer: because we put up with it. Everyone applauded.
Tamara Eidelman is an Honored Teacher of the Russian Federation and a historian.
Yura, Mikhail, Anatoly, Andrei, and Vitya are all truckers and arrived in Moscow from different cities almost a month ago. After an unsuccessful attempt to paralyze the Moscow Ring Road, they are stuck in a parking lot in Khimki. They can leave if they like, but the police will not let them back. In Khimki, almost all the protesters against the Plato toll payment system are individual entrepreneurs. After making all the various deductions, their take-home income is around 20,000 rubles a month [approx. 250 euros]. If they earn even less, they won’t have enough to feed their families, and some of them have three or even four children. This is their first large-scale protest and coordinating with their brother and sister drivers has not been so easy, because it is a big country and very few of them know each other personally. There were many provocateurs at the beginning, and the know-how of cooperating accumulates only gradually in a new protest arena. “The economy must be changed” is a phrase that you hear them saying along with disappointed remarks about the government and those commentators who depict them as savages. In fact, it is very pleasant and interesting to converse with the truckers in Khimki. They are interested in lots of things and are open to communication. And they need support. In addition to information support they mainly need diesel fuel, 300 liters a day. One Moscow activist showed up with his own canister. Everyone can do this: you don’t have to have your own car. So let’s support the truckers both emotionally and materially!
Compared to A Chronicle of Resistance, which I compiled in 2011-2012, this is a more modest series. I have neither the drive nor the resources to regularly document protests, nor are there inspiring scenes of rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of people, but there are certain kinds of pressure groups I still want to sketch.
What do they have in common?
The people involved are self-organized and there is a lack of obvious leaders.
The people involved constantly emphasize they are “normal, ordinary people, remote from politics.”
They have specific social demands, caused by a violation of their rights.
“Dear Neighbors, On July 9 at 7:00 p.m., you are invited to the BEGINNING OF A REVOLUTION. Postpone all your holidays and forget about prosperity. You will be called upon to disobey the authorities and the courts, and take to the barricades, and this appeal will be funded by the Americans. Ask the Ukrainians how their MAIDAN ended.”Photo courtesy of arthur-msk.livejournal.com.
This is a counter-invitation to a rally, held yesterday in Torfyanka Park, in Moscow’s Losinoostrovsky District, to protest the building of a Russian Orthodox church in the park.
You can see Anatrrra’s photo reportage of the rally here.
And read a blow-by-blow account (in Russian) of the conflict and the rally, written by a local activist and generously illustrated with photographs, here.
Hipster news website The Village also has a short account of the rally and the conflict (again, in Russian).
I posted this, in part, because of how remarkably easy it has become, in Russia, to attribute “pro-American,” “fascist,” “pro-Maidan,” etc., motives to literally anyone who opposes anything proposed by the powers that be, no matter how petty, stupid or wrongheaded. Judging by the reports and photos from Torfyanka, not everyone is buying what they’re selling, however.