Oleg Volin: How Capitalism Kills in Nizhny Tagil

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

Oleg Volin
Facebook
February 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nooses should be reserved for other heads.

This text is based on media reports.

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

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Nous sommes tous la cinquième colonne

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

A fifth column of tractors? Photo courtesy of @melnichenko_va/Twitter

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.

It is telling that the alleged charging of the tractor convoy’s leader with extremism and the Samara governor’s disdainful interaction with ordinary workers (who responded by blocking a federal highway on Monday) has nothing to do with political opposition.

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

Ivan Ovsyannikov: Friends of the Imaginary People

anticapitalist.ru

Friends of the Imaginary People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivan Ovsyannikov, Russian Socialist Movement
April 20, 2014