Boris Kagarlitsky on the current state of the left and social movements in Russia

Anti-Putin protest in Moscow.

[For more by Boris Kagarlitsky, click HERE.]

By Boris Kagarlitsky, translated by Renfrey Clarke

March 30, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In Russia, the first two weeks of January are a time when nothing happens. Members of the well-heeled layers, bureaucrats, politicians and the bourgeoisie, set off to spend their holidays abroad, distributing themselves around various locations on the basis of their means, tastes and vanity. Their destinations might range from comparatively cheap hotels in Egypt to ski resorts in France, Austria or Switzerland.

People who cannot afford such things simply drink, and shed their stress in front of the television, at their dachas in the countryside, or in the sauna.

For the past two and a half decades the only exceptions have been the mass protests in January 2005 linked to the “monetisation of benefits” (the name bestowed on the abolition of free travel and various other “privileges” accorded to pensioners, to people who took part in cleaning up the contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and to several other categories of citizens).

January 2013 was no exception, even though the “reforms” unleashed by the government from the first of the month were no less far reaching, and perhaps even more dangerous in their consequences. A total commercialisation of all aspects of the “social sphere” (health care, education, culture and so forth) has been initiated. Meanwhile, market reforms have brought a dramatic rise in prices for rail transport and in charges for communal services. The government, however, has taken account of the experience of 2005, and the population have been hit with the consequences of the various reforms in unequal fashion and at different times. Various groups have come to appreciate the scale of these developments at different rates, and some have not yet felt any impacts at all.

Local protests

As a result, the picture in January was extremely mixed, consisting of numerous local protests most of which were directed at very specific problems. Of these protests, a certain proportion addressed issues of particular local significance (the demolition of garages, the cancelling of urban and inter-city public transport services, and so on). But many of the local protest actions were called around specific situations (school or hospital closures, increases in transport or communal charges, problems of the environment and of urban construction, delays in the payment of wages and so forth) that reflect the general trend in the development of the economy and of the social sphere. During January and February protests of this type were seen in many districts throughout all regions of the federation.

In Moscow and St Petersburg, opposition forces organised several large protest actions, which were echoed in the provinces. The decision by the State Duma to answer the US “Magnitsky Law” by forbidding the adoption of Russian children by US citizens inspired an “Anti-Scumbag March” in Moscow on January 13. Taking the “seasonal factor” into account, the protest in the capital was surprisingly large (various counts had between 10,000 and 40,000 people taking part, with the figures provided by the participants far exceeding official estimates). In St Petersburg only about a thousand people took part, and in Yaroslavl, Rostov-on-Don, Kalinigrad, Yekaterinburg, Magnitogorsk, Barnaul, Tomsk, Omsk and Khabarovsk the actions were very small.

On January 19, there were anti-fascist demonstrations, marches and pickets “in memory of Stas and Nastya” on the anniversary of the murders of the human rights defender Stanislav Markelov and the journalist Anastasiya Baburova. Protests took place in Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Tyumen and in Syktyvkar, where there was picketing.

Liberal groups on January 31 held their traditional protests in defence of Article 31 of the constitution in Moscow, Ryazan, Rostov-on-Don, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, Saratov and Nizhny Novgorod. The numbers attending were modest.

Despite wide publicity in the press, such actions, like other pickets and demonstrations of a general political nature, do not make up the main trend in the development of social conflict in Russia today. For the present, they are not receiving support in the form of broad popular protest. They are not intersecting with the concerns of the masses, and are not resonating with their basic social interests.

An exception has been protests connected with the abolition or restriction of elections for governor (as in Vladikavkaz in Northern Ossetia on January 26), and with the tightening of rules for residential registration (in Moscow on February 15). These protests, however, are at present few and widely dispersed. They take on significance only against a background of widening social protest, representing the augmentation and strengthening of social demands by political ones.

For the present, these political actions stand out as exceptions amid the social protest generated by the state of the social area and of infrastructure, by the growth of communal and transport charges, and by moves to “optimise” institutions of health care, education and culture. These are the protests that are now dominant in Russia, and that reflect the main trend in the development of social tension in the country. These social protests are linked to situations that touch directly on the urgent, vital interests of citizens; they make up a second large group of protest actions, which in terms of their causes, content and participants differ sharply from the first.

Housing struggles

In particular cases, meanwhile, the resistance directed against the authorities and property owners from below has been extremely persistent. Throughout January, for example, residents of Moscow hostels continued to engage in struggle. This was evident in the tense situation surrounding the hostels of the firm, Moscow Silk, with a subsequent campaign in support of arrested left activist Aleksandr Zimbovsky; in a protest against the eviction of medical personnel from their hostels; and in protests by residents of the former hostel of the firm, Red Worker. Protesters also tried to chain themselves to the railings of the Moscow Department of Housing Policy. The struggle over the Moscow Silk hostel was accompanied by clashes between activists and private security guards who tried to blockade the building. Later, after the security guards had been forced off the grounds by the combined strength of activists (mainly anarchists and members of the Left Front party, together with several members of the Organisation of Communists), riot police arrived on the scene and began making arrests.

In Moscow and Moscow Province, protests are growing against the urban construction policies of the authorities, which involve an effective ban on public hearings as a mechanism for citizens to put their views on infrastructure questions. Protests have been aroused by plans for a new traffic artery (the North-East Chord) in the Khovrino district of Moscow, and by the illegal clearing of forest in the settlement of Selyatinsky in Moscow Province. The protesters in Moscow have included small entrepreneurs, since a campaign is being waged in the capital against stalls and booths.

It should be noted that on the whole, social and juridical protest is taking shape gradually in response to legislation adopted by the authorities, including in the area of social, labour and economic relations. Mention can be made of a sit-down strike by taxi drivers, in response to the adoption of a Law on Taxis. Discussion is continually taking place on the internet on the need for active protests, including a one-day stoppage by individual entrepreneurs. A date has even been named for a demonstration – 26 May 2013.

In St Petersburg, the most notable actions have been successful protests against the closure of City Clinical Hospital No. 31. In Vologda at the beginning of the year a demonstration was held demanding that the gas industry firms, Stroyneftegaz and Dorgazstroy, pay their employees 10 months’ back wages. The workers’ protest was relatively successful, with the provincial prosecutor’s office insisting that criminal charges be brought against the enterprise managers, and with wages beginning to be paid. Social and labour conflicts connected with a refusal to accept new managers and their policies came to a head in such different organisations as the Velskaya agricultural company and the Kizhi museum and nature reserve in Kareliya.

In the first case the dispute arose as a local and internal matter, but in the second, the appointment as director of the Kizhi reserve of a former governor of Kareliya outraged public opinion and stirred general indignation. Andrey Nelidov, who had intended to transform the historically and architecturally important site into a fashionable resort for wealthy people, still became director of the museum, but was forced to give constant assurances that no construction would take place on the territory of the island or in the protected zone. Also of note in the area of labour relations have been protests by doctors; medical personnel in Veliky Novgorod have issued appeals, and doctors in Vologda have staged a sit-down strike.


In St Petersburg, migrant workers have engaged in protest for the first time. On February 1, building caretakers from Central Asia picketed the office of their company, demanding the payment of wages that were two months in arrears. Their demands were met. Similar actions then took place in Moscow and several other centres. The protests by the migrant workers were supported and in part organised by the New Trade Union, which is part of the Confederation of Labour of Russia (KTR), a democratic trade union federation with moderately left-wing positions (KTR president Boris Kravchenko is among the directors of IGSO, the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movements).

In Astrakhan a campaign has unfolded against increases in communal charges; this has been organised by provincial duma deputy Oleg Shein, in the past also a trade union leader and still a member of the KTR. In Rostov Province, residents of the city of Zverevo threatened to stage a hunger strike against increased charges for heating. Meetings were organised between an initiative group of city residents and members of the provincial government, and the hunger strike did not go ahead. But the threatened action forced the authorities to recognise the problem and to enter into dialogue with the residents, whose protests they had earlier ignored.

It is significant that in all the cases listed the authorities have been ready to make concessions. If the protests have not been crowned with complete victory, then in any case they have resulted in compromises which for the most part have suited the aggrieved population. The authorities are fearful of social protests expanding into political ones, and are therefore showing far more restraint than in analogous situations a year or two ago.

In the Urals at least three foci of tension have appeared. In Sverdlovsk Province these have concerned the Bogoslov Aluminium Plant (BAZ) and the Verkhnesinyachikhinsky Metal Works (VMZ). In Chelyabinsk Province communal services are in an increasingly catastrophic state; this is especially evident in the settlement of Anayash, where the centralised heating system has stopped working and residents have received communal services bills of 7000-10,000 rubles per month, compared with average wages in the settlement of 12,000 rubles. Situations such as these understandably give rise to conflicts. There is discontent and social tension, and last year the BAZ and VMZ workers protested and staged hunger strikes. No organised protest actions are occurring at present, but the situation remains tense and even explosive.

The most exotic act of protest this year was organised in Yekaterinburg on February 2 by the group You Cannot Remain Silent. Under the slogan “Don’t stop Detroit”, three picketers demonstrated in support of the city of Detroit, which has fallen into depression.

Socially significant protests in Siberia have included a demonstration in defence of Lake Baykal, an action in Omsk against the building of a gas pipeline, a picket against rises in the price of public transport in Novosibirsk, and a picket by former workers of the bankrupt firm Omsk-Polimer demanding the payment of wages owed to them since the autumn of 2012.

There was also a picket in Novosibirsk against charges of pedophilia brought against teacher N.N. Yakub, and a picket in Omsk protesting at the state of roads and other infrastructure problems in the city. In Rubtsovsk there were protests against increased charges for pre-schools, and in Novosibirsk on February 9 an action took place demanding “decent medical care.” Protests by owners of garages against possible demolition might also be noted, as well as pickets against increases in petrol prices. Overall, the outlook for protest activity in the Siberian Federal District is stormy.

Social tension

In most of the Russian regions in the early months of 2013 there was thus a degree of social tension, bursting forth in protest actions. The diversity of the local protests and the mixed nature of the social and political forces engaging in protest activity do not favour the formation of a unified, dynamically developing field of protest. Nevertheless, the pointers to such a development, in the condition of the social area, in the quality of life and in the state of social and labour rights, are quite clearly apparent both in the objective situation of the region and in protest activity. But while it is possible to identify the objective factors responsible for the social tension, it is difficult for the present to name a social subject able to express this tension adequately and to transform it into consistent protest activity.

The struggle unfolding around the policy of commercialising health care and culture has not yet expanded into protest on a national scale. In the area of education a number of centres have been established for coordinating resistance, but the level of protest activity in health care cannot be called high, and the resoluteness and organising abilities of the defenders of Hospital No. 31 in St Petersburg have so far been the exception rather than the rule. But of all the various sectors of the social area, it is precisely health care that now has the greatest potential for consistent social protest. It is here that three trends of development of social conflict are gathering strength, and as these trends converge, they will be capable of setting off determined protest activism. We can expect sharply focused social protest, with local campaigns aimed at defending one or another health care institution or at annulling some particular decision of the bureaucrats. There will be professional protest by medical personnel against organisational decisions tied up with a shift to insured medicine, against unrealistic norms imposed by the Health Ministry, and against low wage levels. Finally, there will be conscious, more or less organised protest against the new principles on which health care is to be organised.

The early days of February showed that for the moment, the atomised nature of the protest actions, the lack of organisation and consistency, are preventing health care from becoming the nodal point for social activism and protest movements.

No revolutionary outburst soon

All in all, the protest activity of the early months of 2013 does not hold out the promise of a revolutionary outburst any time soon. But neither is the social and political situation in Russia serene and untroubled. The way in which symbolic, declarative political actions are arrayed alongside specific local protests is very striking, and lends the protest picture in January a fragmentary, mosaic-like character. It includes hints of conservative, anti-democratic tendencies, and there is also a touch of theatricality. But together with this is the clear expression of a real, objectively conditioned social tension.

Failing for the present to reach the level of all-national demands, social protest in Russia is creating an inconvenience mainly for the regional and local authorities. But this in itself is presenting a political problem, since it leads to splits within the bureaucracy. At the local and grassroots level, state functionaries are coming to understand that neoliberal social policies, including the commercialisation of the social sphere, strike first of all at them. The intensification of specific protest actions, with precisely aimed demands, will evoke a large-scale crisis in the regional and local bureaucracies, and will oblige the local officials to resist neoliberal reforms especially in the social area. But it seems less likely that powerful and consistent social protests directly targeting the federal authorities will arise.

Left developments

Meanwhile the left movement, with its goal of becoming a force able to express the demands of social protest in political form, remains locked in a crisis that results on the one hand from the forming by the leaders of the Left Front of an excessively open bloc with the liberals, and on the other, from the unabashed transformation of the official Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) into part of the pro-Kremlin bloc in the State Duma.

The crisis in the Left Front has led to the setting up within this organisation of a Left Platform that is supported by most of the regional structures. Following an unconcealed clash between the Platform and Left Front coordinator Sergey Udaltsov, the latter was forced to yield control over the front’ s website to his opponents, and his wife Anastasiya was sacked from her post as the front’s press secretary. The ideologue of the right-wing Aleksey Sakhnin heaped scorn on his opponents via the pages of the Ukrainian internet journal Liva, since in Russia he failed to find a single left publication willing to provide him with a rostrum. (Rabkor did not object to publishing Sakhnin’s positions, but on the condition that his opponents could put their views as well.) Things did not, however, proceed to an open split, and the liberal media continue to describe Udaltsov and Sakhnin as leaders of the Left Front.

The ranks of the KPRF have continued to be depleted by mass expulsions and resignations, which at the congress held on February 23 and 24 served merely to strengthen the positions of Gennady Zyuganov. A new version of the party statutes was adopted, providing effectively for a dictatorial regime within the party and officially removing any control over its leadership even within the traditional formal framework of Soviet-style “democratic centralism”.

The Inter-Regional Organisation of Communists (MOK), to which opponents of Zyuganov have departed in a rush, has not made any especially noticeable political impact. A degree of hope was aroused by the registration of the ROT-Front party (Russian Labour Front). The trouble here is that the basis for ROT-Front is provided by the Stalinist Russian Communist Workers Party (RKRP), which holds scant attraction for activists of the new generation or for members of the free trade unions (significantly, even members of the RKRP who are active in the union movement oppose the party leadership). A few leaders of ROT-Front such as Aleksandr Batov or Ilya Ferberov stress the openness of the new party, arguing that it will become a broad “class coalition”. How realistic such hopes are we shall see in the near future.

For its part, the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movements is continuing its efforts to unify the forces of the left and to affirm the democratic principles of collaboration between activists and organisations. IGSO works with the left wing of the Left Front, with the MOK and with ROT-Front, while also collaborating with the Confederation of Labour of Russia. The Council of the KTR has adopted a resolution on joining with IGSO and grass-roots activists in preparing an alternative social program, which could serve as a basis for consolidating protest activity.

[Boris Kagarlitsky was a deputy to the Moscow city soviet between 1990 and '93 and is  director of the Institute of Globalisation and Social Movements in Moscow.]