In the spring of 2011, a group of oil workers in Western Kazakhstan went on strike. They were working in one of the richest countries in the former Soviet Union, in dangerous conditions, in a hugely profitable industry, and yet they were being paid less than £450 a month. They wanted a raise and stayed on strike for seven months. That December, KazMunaiGaz, the state-owned oil company – headed by President Nazarbayev’s son-in-law – decided enough was enough: the police came to a meeting and fired on the strikers with live ammunition. At least 16 workers were killed, possibly more.
Later that week, Konstantin Lebedev and I staged an action at the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow. We had both recently become members of the Russian Socialist Movement, and he came up with the idea of covering the embassy with fake blood. We met up a few blocks from the embassy. Lebedev and his assistant had volunteered to make the blood, and they did a great job, mixing beetroot juice with something thicker. They brought it in a ten-litre container, and I was able to pour a lot of it over the pavement in front of the embassy before the guards moved us on. Lebedev hung a banner on the gate denouncing the repression. It was a successful action, as far as it went. Lebedev had once been part of a pro-Putin youth group, as well as the neoliberal Smena (Change) movement during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. But being part of a political organisation like ours – one that welcomes people with all sorts of political pasts, including some former neo-Nazi skinheads – means being more trusting than you might otherwise be. The trust is usually rewarded, and I became fond of Lebedev.
After that, we were both caught up in the activity around the anti-Putin protests of the winter and early spring of 2012. A rally on 6 May in Bolotnaya Square, not far from the Kremlin, ended with some pushing and shoving between police and protesters. In the months that followed, the government tightened the screws. Lebedev was arrested in October 2012. In April this year, he was the first to make a deal with the prosecution. He ‘confessed’ that he and his associates had been plotting ‘mass riots’, and that they had paid people to take part in the anti-Putin protests. He said they’d been put up to it by foreign powers. Had he told the truth, I would have said he’d sold us all out. But his confession is pure fantasy, as far as I know, so this is something else.
What have we been protesting about? The Putin regime has been spilling blood from the start. Think of Chechnya. It has encouraged local bosses to deal with union activists, journalists and antifascist youths as they see fit: whether by planting drugs on them and manufacturing a jail sentence, by hiring a small crew of thugs for a beating, or with a bullet to the head. For the rest of the population, the regime relies on apathy, on the idea that there’s enough oil and gas money to buy the people off with consumer goods, digital entertainment, or the promise of a ‘private life’. Some people see a return to the old days – ‘back to the USSR’; we on the left call it ‘capitalist authoritarianism’.
But what’s been happening this winter and spring is something new. So far, 19 people have been jailed for their part in the Bolotnaya protest. At the end of April, my friend and comrade Alexei Gaskarov, a courageous 28-year-old antifascist, was arrested; a few days before that the trial of Alexei Navalny, the charismatic anti-corruption activist, began in Kirov, where in 2009 he had served as an adviser to the governor. Now he is in court on trumped-up charges of corruption; he will almost certainly be found guilty. A few weeks ago Sergei Guriev, an economic adviser to Dmitri Medvedev when he was president, fled the country. A supporter of Navalny and the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he’d been subjected to repeated searches and feared that arrest was imminent.
All these arrests have demoralised a movement that just a year and a half ago looked as though it could fundamentally alter the Russian political landscape. In recent weeks most attention has been paid to the Navalny trial, not only because you can watch it on television but because of Navalny’s unique position in the ranks of the opposition. It would be nice if the movement for democracy were itself democratic enough for the regime to be wrong in thinking that by jailing or otherwise silencing Navalny, it can do serious damage to the opposition. Unfortunately, given the opposition’s continuing wish for a ‘good leader’ to put up against the ‘bad leader’, the regime may be right. But Navalny worship is far from being the opposition’s only problem. Until it connects its protests with a genuine social programme – rolling back neoliberal reforms in health and education; strengthening and expanding independent trade unions; separating church and state – the authorities will be able to paralyse it with a dozen well-placed arrests.
Where, right now, is the Russian left? The massive decaying carcass of the Communist Party, filled with Stalinists, nationalists and anti-semites, still polls at a steady 20 per cent in parliamentary elections. The non-Stalinist, non-nationalist left is much, much smaller. Neoliberals see us as crazy utopians, but someone like Navalny, though he may view us with irritation, recognises that we’re an organic part of the opposition. For several years, I was a member of a little group called Vpered (Forward) that mostly consisted of graduate students and junior lecturers. In 2011, we joined with a group called the Socialist Resistance to form the Russian Socialist Movement. Now we are larger and more diverse, with about 300 members and affiliates in several cities. The comrades in Kaluga want us to go to work in factories, as they do, and start organising the workers. We tell them there are no factories in Moscow any longer. ‘What about the metro?’ they say. ‘Get a job in the metro and organise the transport workers.’ We’re thinking about it.
The Left Front, ideologically a more various grouping than the RSM, is an attempt to unite under a single banner different leftist groups, from radical street movements to public intellectuals and even professional politicians like Ilya Ponomarev, a Duma deputy for the social democratic party, A Just Russia. It’s a motley gathering of several hundred members and perhaps thousands more sympathisers, who believe, as the RSM does, that there should be a total repeal of neoliberal policies, abolition of the presidency, and workers’ control in all spheres. It’s led by a young man called Sergei Udaltsov, currently under house arrest.
Udaltsov’s father is a well-known historian who’s written books on Plekhanov, the Mensheviks and Kerensky; his great uncle was the Soviet ambassador to Greece in the 1970s; his great-grandfather was an Old Bolshevik. Much of the young Russian left comes from this social sphere: not the liberal (in the old sense) intelligentsia, who were either sympathetic or close to the dissident movement in the 1970s, or the nomenklatura, who saw which way the wind was blowing in the 1980s and quickly became the new ‘democratic’ elite, but the Soviet intelligentsia: engineers, doctors, architects, academics, people with the same professional profile as the liberal intelligentsia but with a more benign experience of Soviet power.
When the USSR collapsed, they didn’t know what to do. They had internalised much of what was good and fair about the Soviet system, but they were isolated in their jobs, and unprepared for mass political action. During perestroika they were unable to put forward a political alternative to the neoliberal-capitalist project. In the 1990s, when the authorities were unambiguously on the side of neo-capitalist barbarism, the Communist Party was too preoccupied with nostalgia and revanchist fantasies to give the Soviet intelligentsia decent political representation. This led to their disintegration as a class. They experienced the same mass pauperisation and loss of social status as their neoliberal counterparts, but without the psychic compensation, such as it was: the conviction that the ‘reforms’ were necessary, that things were going in the right direction, that on the other side of shock therapy was Western Europe and a ‘normal country’.
It’s largely their children who fill the ranks of the small but growing leftist movements, and Udaltsov is a representative figure. He had an early antipathy to the neoliberal order, and participated as a young graduate in many street actions in the 1990s, eventually joining a Stalinist party called Workers’ Russia. This wasn’t a rejection of the fathers, but an attempt to overcome their passivity and confusion. In the early 2000s, Udaltsov earned a name for himself in a wide range of campaigns, defending cultural monuments and the Khimki forest, and protesting against new and higher public transport costs. After the rigged parliamentary elections in December 2011, he was on stage with the liberals and liberal-nationalists. It can’t be said that he became hugely popular: in the intramural elections for the opposition’s Co-ordinating Council, he came 20th, with 21,000 votes (the leader, Navalny, had twice as many). Still, if there was a figure who expressed the left’s position during the protests, it was usually Udaltsov.
Perhaps it’s an encouraging sign that the authorities have devoted as much energy to discrediting the socialist Udaltsov as they have to framing the nationalist-liberal Navalny. One of the key pieces of ‘evidence’ in the government’s case against Udaltsov is a bizarre video – which may or may not be genuine – of a meeting between Udaltsov and Givi Targamadze, a Georgian politician full of advice about ways to destabilise Russia. You could send your boys to seize the regional government of Kaliningrad, he tells Udaltsov. Ha! Lithuania and Poland are members of Nato. Ha ha! Would Russia send troops through Lithuania? Through Poland? Presumably they would fly troops there. But how would Nato feel about it? It would be a ticklish situation. Ha ha ha! Udaltsov laughs too, a little nervously, but not, in retrospect, nervously enough.
One of the men at the meeting with Targamadze was Leonid Razvozzhaev. After the investigation began he fled to Kiev and asked for political asylum. While his application was being reviewed, he was abducted, drugged, brought back to Moscow and forced to sign a confession in which he admitted receiving money for the protests from foreign sources and plotting ‘mass riots’ to destabilise the country. In court he renounced the confession, and said it had been forced on him under physical pressure. He’s been in jail ever since. The other man at the meeting was Lebedev, my partner in beetroot-blood. After he decided to co-operate with the authorities, we voted to exclude him from the Russian Socialist Movement. But that does nothing to help Udaltsov, who’s been under house arrest for nearly six months, banned from communicating with the public or his supporters, and could be facing a very long time in prison.
Some commentators have said it’s 1937 all over again. I hope not. I live – as I’ve lived for most of my life – in the centre of Moscow, near Chistye Prudy, just a few blocks from the old KGB headquarters on Lubyanka, now home to the FSB, and I also play in a protest rock band called Arkady Kots, after the first Russian translator of the ‘Internationale’. In the past month I’ve walked past two different FSB officers out on a cigarette break, both of whom hailed me, in a friendly, joking way, as ‘Comrade Kots’. ‘Where are you going, Comrade Kots?’ they said. ‘Why not come in for a chat?’ I smiled and nodded and kept walking. There are rumours of disaffection in the FSB. If one day my neighbours were to join me on the barricades it wouldn’t be the strangest thing to have happened here of late.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.