Don’t Step on that Rake Again!

A Leftist Russian Perspective

The public mood is changing.

Even before the elections, on the streets of Moscow and Petersburg, in the major cities’ (and even some of the provincial ones’) classrooms and among school teachers, people had begun talking about politics, albeit a politics which does exist as of yet. After the election farce, it was not just the usual attendees of the right-wing “Marches of the Discontented” and left-wing protests taking to the streets of Moscow and Petersburg, but even those who were previously apolitical. And this is important.

It would be wrong to claim that these elections were fundamentally more fraudulent than previous ones or even the 1996 elections in which Zyuganov conceded to Yeltsin. But this time the now-traditional vote rigging was crasser than usual and occurred under different circumstances. In order to understand what precisely those circumstances are, we have to remember who the current powers that be in Russia are. Too many people have managed to forget this, and the new generation (thanks to the liberals’ successful demolition of our education system) never knew.

20 years of pillage

The USSR was dissolved by the party nomenklatura, who then undertook to seize (“privatize”) all state property while also attempting to maintain power. The current regime is merely an extension of the Yeltsin government. During the course of the 1990s everything inherited from the Soviet Union was torn asunder — a vicious process that continued throughout the decade, engendering countless local wars, widespread crime, impoverishment, marginalization, and death. As a result, an intense feeling of hatred took hold over the vast majority of the country’s population. Various scams and tricks allowed this process to continue all the way up to the economic catastrophe of 1998 — and even for a little while after that. But then the jig was up and it was time to change the signs.

The ideological project known as “Putin” was created at the end of the 90s in order to preserve Yeltsin’s oligarchic system, but with a new face (the very same system that is being exposed in London now as the court battle between Berezovsky and Abramovich unfolds). The project’s purpose was supposedly to counteract the consequences of the “roaring 90s,” which entailed rehabilitating certain elements of the Soviet past. The old Soviet hymn was brought back, having been rewritten for the fourth time by the very same author Sergei Mikhalkov, along with red flags for Victory Day and the mass production and distribution of “St. George ribbons” [trans. note: the St. George Medal was a medal of honor given to Soviet soldiers during WWII, itself an attempt by the Stalin regime to revive Russian patriotism]. They “discovered” some positive aspects of Soviet history such as the “strong state” and the “effective manager” comrade Stalin. But in the country’s social structure and economy nothing changed fundamentally: the capitalist oligarchic system was preserved and even reinforced, even if the crew at the helm changed a little bit. The bureaucracy and big capital merged into a single class, but not everyone made it. Khodorkovskii, for instance, went to jail (as he made a wrong move in the clan war). In the 2000s, the process of class formation came to an end. The ruling class crystallized and achieved a kind of semi-permanence. The division of spoils came to an end, but this new ruling class was not capable of anything, except cannibalizing the remains of the old Soviet economic and scientific achievements.

Nevertheless, a good many people took Putin seriously, although we won’t delve into this story of public deception here, the success of which was largely facilitated by rising prices for raw materials. Throughout the Putin decade the strip mining of the Soviet inheritance continued, which resulted in its virtual destruction in all spheres: the economy, education, the sciences. Scientists emigrated or died prematurely, education and the health care system were successfully and consciously laid to waste under the pretext of “reform”, and the strategic sectors of manufacturing were dismantled by consensus between foreign competitors and our home-grown parasites. If social inequality somewhat lessened during this period, it was largely due to a certain “bounce back” after the monstrous impoverishment of the population in the 90s. Russia definitively entered the ranks of the dependent countries of the “third world”, albeit one with nuclear “red button” inherited from the Soviet Union. The “middle class” — all the necessary qualifications of this term aside – did grow in size a bit during the 00s in the largest cities, but only thanks to the expansion of the ranks of managers and servants serving the ruling class, just as you would expect in a country of peripheral capitalism.

In the Putin decade feelings of disappointment and discontent slowly accumulated amongst the masses. At the beginning of the 2000s politically naïve voters had completely different hopes: an end to the widespread thievery at the top and the destruction of the economy and the return of some kind — any kind — of social justice. But what happened was the opposite. Now these frustrations and feelings of discontent are rising to the fore. The crisis that began in 2008 and continues to this day sowed seeds of uncertainty amongst the people and detonated their hopes of “stability” (and stability, after all, was the mantra of the Putin project!).

The powers that be have gotten so lazy and so caught up with their own personal enrichment that they have become completely deprofessionalized, having lost their last competent members long ago. Even in the realm of propaganda! Take for instance the recent pseudo-exposé about “Golos” [trans. note: a Russian liberal NGO doing independent election monitoring], which supposedly is carrying out orders from the American and Swedish intelligence services to destabilize Russia and recruit young students as spies. It was the most unbelievable garbage one could imagine. By comparison, the anti-dissident propaganda films of the Andropov era, which in their own time were considered quite sloppy, seem like cinematographic masterpieces on the level of Bergman and Fillini! And so it goes everywhere and with everything now in Russia. Our GLONASS satellites and Fobos-Grunt probes are falling out of the sky, our Bulava missiles do not fly, our orphanages and nursing homes are burning down, our Bulgaria river cruise ships are sinking and our Sayano-Shushenskii hydroelectric stations are crumbling. The ruling class simply does not know how to do anything anymore; except rob, cheat and steal and then divvy up the loot.

“Elections,” “Parties,” and “Leaders”

Elections in Russia have been rigged ever since the attack on the Supreme Council in 1993 and the new constitution was passed. But before that, elections to the legislature were marked by low turnout, with just about 25% of registered voters casting a ballot. For that reason, the first act of voting fraud began with inflating the number of voters, so that the elections were not ruled void. Then, with the same purpose, they removed the “Against all” option from the ballots.

During previous elections they were already resorting to audacious acts of fraud. In fact the fraud and kleptocratic politics of the powers that be evoked protests those times too. But we need to remember how they ended.

After the attack on the parliament in 1993, all its leaders — Rutskoy, Khasbulatov and others [trans. note: parliamentary opposition leaders at that time] — managed to insinuate themselves into the new political system wonderfully well. While they were in fact the losers in that battle, they were simply the losing faction and thus occupied not first, but second place in the new system. They apparently were not worried at all about all those who died in Moscow on those fateful October days in 1993.

In 1996 Yeltsin’s victory in the presidential election was facilitated by the consolidation of the ruling class. Zyuganov, who had won the first run-off, voluntarily conceded to Yeltsin. Despite its platform and all the protests that the Communist Party (CPRF) seemingly supported, this supposedly communist party simply conceded to the powers that be — and did so as soon as it could.

The protests against monetization of state benefits and the commercialization of education are some of the most recent, yet already forgotten examples of mass public actions. In 2005-2006 these protests — far larger than the ones we see today [trans. note: this article was written before the mass actions on Saturday, 10 December] in 550 cities and towns, each with participation of tens of thousands of people. What was the upshot of these protests? Some small concessions, mostly on the local level; in other words a complete flop. This was the inevitable result because the ruling class would have had to make available a significant amount of funds to the erstwhile recipients of those state benefits — funds that they already had their dirty paws on. With today’s protests, though, the government will likely gladly allow for some repeat elections in this or that contested district, as such a concession will have no effect on anything of consequence.

Right now none of the parties — not the CPRF, not Just Russia, and certainly not the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) — are willing to declare the elections completely fraudulent. We are already hearing from their representatives things like: “it would be absolutely silly to give up the opportunities that increased Duma representation will offer (CPRF);” that they will create a federal “election violation investigation committee” to “make inquiries” and that “we do not recognize the results for certain districts, but there were districts where there was no vote rigging at all (Just Russia).” These are pathetic excuses made for the sake of maintaining their Duma salaries and kickbacks. They have been making these excuses their entire parliamentary career. Certainly none of these parties has raised doubts about the prevailing political system or state of social relations. Nor have any of them promised to abolish or at least substantially amend the existing constitution, alter property relations or punish those who are guilty for the ruling class’ crimes.

You have to understand something. These clowns in parliament are corrupt to the core. They sit in parliament for ten and half years doing absolutely nothing. And they do not plan to do anything. They are all just factions of a single ruling class, utilized for the management of public perception. In no way do they fundamentally differ from One Russia, except maybe in their greater degree of civility. If you believe them for even a second (having been deceived, perhaps, by their high-profile visits to opposition protests, whereby they are simply trying to accumulate political capital for future sell-outs), they will just betray you again — just like they did ten times before.

But what about the leaders of the so-called “extraparliamentary opposition?” Can we trust them? Let’s take a look:

Boris Nemtsov — formerly a close member of the oligarchic Yeltsin “family,” and one of the architects of the 1998 default and personally responsible for that economic catastrophe.1

Ilya Yashin — former leader of Yabloko’s youth faction, who organized MGLU student protests in 2003 against tuition hikes and later recruited students to participate in his party’s protests for a modest sum of money (in 2003 it was about 200 rubles, but later 500).

Aleksei Naval’ny — by his own admission, a “Russian nationalist,” was expelled from Yabloko for nationalism, is aligned with DPNI (Movement against Illegal Immigration [trans. note: a nativist group whose politics are akin to those of the U.S. “minuteman” groups]), is a regular participant in the fascist “Russian marches,” yet despite these well-known facts, is hailed by the Russian liberal press [trans. note: and the Western media as well2 ]. He is warmly received at the U.S. State Department (and here is one case where the dullards in Putin’s propaganda team are not lying). Let’s be very clear: fascists and nationalist populists have never defended the interests of the working class — they simply exploit them.

And now voicing their support for the protests are the former Putin PR rep Marat Gel’man and Chubais and Gaidar’s old pal from the privatization team Alfred Koch (and the assassin of Gusinskii’s old NTV station). All of these characters are from the same group of 90s-era parasites.

None of these people will hesitate at any moment to sell the protesters out for their own economic interests or for the sake of political capital. Once again, they are just a fraction of the ruling class. A fraction — but nothing more than that. Their struggle is one between clans. That is not ours!

Elections, elections…

What is their program? Under which slogans are they calling people into the streets? A protest under the slogan “I’m for honest elections” — such a protest constitutes an a priori defeat. Any election presided over by these forces simply cannot be “honest”. Any federal level election these days is a farce. Therefore, they will only result in the usual fraud. The only exit from this impasse is to create an extra-systemic opposition. It is pointless to hold “honest elections” or support the corrupt politicians from CPRF, Just Russia, LDPR or Yabloko. It is imperative that we begin to engage in some do-it-yourself politics, outside the pre-drawn lines of the powers that be and in direct contradiction of parliamentary cretinism.

“Honest elections” according to prevailing constitutional and electoral rules will only lead to replacing Putin with a Zhirinovskii [trans. note: the literally clownish leader of LDPR] or Sobyanin [trans. note: current mayor of Moscow and Putin protégé] or the half-fascist Naval’ny. How are they better? There will be no radical concessions on the part of the powers that be. These are people who have stolen billions of dollars, all stored away in foreign banks, and built palatial estates on the Black Sea Coast (as both Putin and the Patriarch have done).3 They have no intention of giving up these things.

“Honest elections” will in no way solve the most pressing problems of the country. They will not change Russia’s position as a raw material-supplying appendage of the West. They will not revive our devastated and thoroughly stripped manufacturing sector — not to mention our high-tech industries (robotics, electronics, aviation, biotech, etc) because we already lack the human resources necessary for it. They won’t resurrect those millions of our countrymen and women who went to an early grave, driven there by the ruling class.4

They will not repair our now thoroughly broken health care system and will not make it once again free and universal. “Honest elections” will not resuscitate our de facto destroyed and utterly profaned education system. They will not eliminate mass alcoholism and drug addiction or our AIDS and hepatitis epidemics. They will not undo the country’s monstrous, shameful social inequality, as a result of which some people are already killing themselves and children out of hunger (just read the news!5 ), whereas others are buying islands, mansions, yachts and soccer clubs for millions of dollars. Those “honest elections” will not change anything except to replace one set of snouts in the offices with another – and yet all exactly the same.

What is to be done?

The problem, of course, is not with the elections, but with capitalism. If some fools still think that all our woes stem from the fact that we do not have the kind of capitalism they have abroad (ours is the “wrong capitalism” or “underdeveloped capitalism”), just let them have a look at what is going on abroad: an economic crisis, the collapse of the financial system, declining production, mass unemployment, riots in the streets, three million families have been tossed out of their homes in the U.S. alone (and this the richest capitalist country), and the impending meltdown of the Eurozone. The peripheral countries are being hit even worse by all this.

Political rejects like Yashin, Navalny, Nemtsov, Limonov [trans. note: leader of the National Bolshevik movement, a “left-leaning” nationalist group] and others are all hoping to ride atop this wave of spontaneous and so far ideologically formless protests into the political “big leagues” (just like Zhirinovski and his ilk managed to do 20 years ago right before the collapse of the USSR). Why help them in this endeavor? A repeat of 1991 (and 1993 and 1996 and 2005) — this is the same damn rake. The country’s economy will not withstand a second 1991; there is no Soviet material reserve left to tap. It has already been devoured and pillaged. Our entrance into the WTO is literally on the horizon, which assumes, by the way, a second edition of “shock therapy” — and right now would be a great time from the ruling class’s perspective to have an occasion to tighten the screws even further.

The substantial uptick — even under the conditions of vote rigging — in the share of votes for the CPRF and Just Russia speaks to the fact that socio-economic issues are important to the voters. And it’s precisely socio-economic issues that should be in the slogans of the protesters: against joining WTO; against capitation financing of schools;6 against the demolition of health care and education. But so far there is not even a call for progressive taxation of the rich [trans. note: Russia has a flat tax of 13 percent]! And the current “leaders” of the “opposition” are keen on keeping even this modest demand under wraps. Therefore there is no point in following them.

If you want change — do not bother to choose between Putin and Zhirinovski, Medvedev and Navalny or Zyuganov and Nemtsov. Do not entrust your fate once again to another new, wonderful “daddy.” Instead work to create structures that reflect your own social interests. Certain comrades on the left have already claimed that the current events are a “revolution”, an “uprising”, a “revolt” and see in them the specter of a Russian Tahrir Square. This rrr-revolutionism and exaggerated self-ascribed importance is not only laughable, but shameful even. It is inexcusable to mislead the youth (who are still not all that politicized) with talk of easy fixes. In Moscow there are eleven million people, but only about seven thousand took to the streets, whereas those in the provinces remained mostly passive and indifferent.

The only thing that could save Russia (or any other country occupying the periphery of the capitalist world system) from further degradation, decay and decomposition is the overthrow of the capitalist system itself, in other words: socialist revolution. That is a worthy cause for which to live and struggle. Socialist revolution, however, will not take place by the will of some petty provocateurs like Naval’ny or Yashin, who, please note, do not strive for revolution – they actually fear it. They simply want to amalgamate themselves with the same class to which Putin, Medvedev, Abramovich, Deripaska and the like belong and join them in robbing and oppressing you. Do you really need this?

If you really want to go to protests, go with your own slogans and signs — ones that reflect your own interests, not the interests of opportunists like Naval’ny and Yashin. May we suggest some?

“Give us universal, equal and free education and let the oligarchs and bureaucrats pay for it!”

“Give us universally accessible and free health care and let the oligarchs and bureaucrats pay for it!”

“Down with the ruling class funded trade unions of FNPR! Give us free and independent trade unions!”7

“Down with the pro-capitalist new Labor Code! Bring back the Soviet-era KZoT!”8

“Down with the political police! Abolish the OPONs and the “E” Center!”9

“Down with clericalization of the state and schools! We demand full separation of church and state!”10

“Give us student stipends that will allow us to actually study full-time, not part-time and let the oligarchs and bureaucrats pay for it!”

“Hail to the new, democratic constitution! Power to the people, not the oligarchs and bureaucrats!”

And demand that they give you the opportunity to pronounce those slogans. If they do not, you will be taken advantage of again by the opportunists and parasites.

Do not rely on elections or career politicians to solve your problems. Career politicians are professional con-men and flimflammers. If you wish to defend your rights and your interests, create blocks of resistance to oligarchic and bureaucratic caprice at your places of work, study and residence. Fight against the introduction and/or increase of tuition and medical fees; against the closing of hospitals, schools and daycare centers; against the demolition of parks for the more churches; against the imposition of religion and obscurantism in schools; against low salaries, speed-ups and overtime; against the thievery of the utilities companies. Begin with these small things as there is no other choice!

Letting off steam and venting your frustrations at protests will not change your situation one bit. The bureaucrats and capitalists couldn’t give a damn about your angry shouts on the street. They will not lower the exorbitant utility fees, they will not increase the paltry salaries and pensions, they will not resolve the housing problem, they will not abolish the OPK11 or the university entrance exam, they will not reinstate free universal health care. We need to engage in concrete battles for very concrete things.

The choice is this: class struggle or replacing one set of parasites with another. No other choice is available.

The process whereby one realizes his or her interests and fights for them is not an instantaneous one. It is not just attending one or several protests. In our country the people have for too long stopped thinking and acting in line with their own interests. But this here is the only chance to actually change things for real. Do not let yourself step on the rake again!

  • Article originally published in Russian on December 9, 2011 at Skepsis. It is an appeal to the Russian people to not to be fooled into thinking their problems can be solved by elections.
    1. Anatolii Lantov, “‘Stoprotsentnaya lozh’ Borisa Nemtsova,” Politoline, December 27, 2010. []
    2. Foreign Policy magazine named Navalny one its “Top 100 Global Thinkers” for 2011. See “The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers,” Foreign Policy, December 2011. The New York Times also featured a rather laudatory article about Navalny, although to its credit, it did include a disclaimer about his politics: “Five years ago, [Navalny] quit the liberal party Yabloko, frustrated with the liberals’ infighting and isolation from mainstream Russian opinion. Liberals, meanwhile, have deep reservations about him, because he espouses Russian nationalist views. He has appeared as a speaker alongside neo-Nazis and skinheads, and once starred in a video that compares dark-skinned Caucasus militants to cockroaches. While cockroaches can be killed with a slipper, he says that in the case of humans, ‘I recommend a pistol.’ See Ellen Barry, “Rousing Russia with a Phrase,” New York Times, December 9 2011. []
    3. For some pictures of his palatial estate on the Black Sea shore. Putin’s personal wealth is estimated at $40 billion. See “Sostoyanie Putina mozhet dostigat’ 40 milliardov dollarov,” Novy Region 2, November 16, 2007. []
    4. In his study on Russian mortality in the 90s, epidemiologist Neil Bennet stated that “the Russian mortality crisis of 1990-95 represents the most precipitous decline in national life expectancy ever recorded in the absence of war, oppression, famine, or major disease.” He estimated that between 1990-1995 there were 1.36 to 1.57 million premature deaths, with approximately 70% occurring amongst men. This calamitous drop coincided with the economic reforms of that same period. See N. Bennet et al., “Demographic Implications of the Russian Mortality Crisis,” World Development, 26.11 (1998): p. 1921. Boris Kagarlitskii likewise notes that, “During the Civil War, from 1918 to 1920, the Russian population fell by 2.8 million. During the years of Yeltsin’s ‘first presidency’ alone, the decline was 3.4 million.” See Boris Kagarlitskii, Russia under Yeltsin and Putin: Neoliberal Autocracy, London: Pluto Press, 2000, p. 3. []
    5. In January 2010, a women who had been laid off and couldn’t afford to buy food suffocated her children and then hanged herself. See Irina Gollay, “V Chelyabinske zhenschina zadushila detey iz-za bednost”, Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 25, 2010, . []
    6. The capitation financing scheme is explained by a local teacher and activist of the Communist Party K. Ladogin thusly: “The term “capitation financing of educational institutions” means that every middle school student in the country will get an equal amount of funding. This money will go to the school where the individual student is studying. The schools must now actively promote themselves to attract more students. The school principal should therefore become a financial manager and the vice principal a “representative of the government within the school – in other words a commissar and should “insinuate himself into the teacher collective”. He is also charged with conducting monthly testing of the students and send the results up the ladder.” See K. Ladogin, “Uchitelya dolzhny otgovarivat shkolnikov ot postupleniya v vuzy,” Skepsis, September 17, 2007, . []
    7. In a recent article for the Russian Analytical Digest, Irina Olimpieva provides this useful summary of the current labor union structure of Russia:

      Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Russian labor movement has been divided into two continuously warring camps—the “official” unions, affiliated with the Soviet-legacy Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FNPR) and the so-called “free” or “alternative” labor unions. Free labor unions differ from official unions in many respects, including their militant nature and conflict-based ideology, grass-roots methods of labor mobilization and organization, the economic resources that they use, and their forms of membership and leadership. Today two different modes of labor interest representation exist at the same time: the distributional mode employed mainly by the official unions and the protest mode, which is more typical for free labor unions. While official labor unions continue to dominate the organized labor scene, in recent years they have faced growing competition from their alternative counterparts. Overall, the dominance of the distributive
      system, based on cooperation between the employer and union, over the protest model signifies the preservation of the strength of management in labor relations, squeezing unions to the sidelines in serving workers. Accordingly, labor relations based on market mechanisms have not replaced the previous administrative system as many observers had once anticipated.

      See Irina Olimpieva, “‘Free’ and ‘Official’ Labor Unions in Russia: Different Modes of Labor Interest Representation,” Russian Analytical Digest 104 (October 27 2011), p. 2. []

    8. The new Russian Labor Code, passed in 2002 eliminated many rights long held by Russian workers and their unions (the old code was inherited from the USSR) such as overtime compensation for working over 40 hours. After the passage of the law, respected legal specialist and pro-labor activist Vladimir Mironov was moved to comment that “The practical meaning of the new labor code is that it gives the employer the legal right to force his employees to work as long as he wants. The worker gets nothing in exchange – not even token compensation.” See V. Mironov, Uzdechka dlya trudyashchikhsya, VMN, (11.01.2002), which can be read here: . See also Aleksandr Yelagin, “New Russian Labor Code Allows Employers to Gut Workers’ Rights,” Socialist Action (July 2000). []
    9. OPON (formerly OMON) is more or less the Russian equivalent of the U.S.’s SWAT team and is frequently deployed to break up demonstrations and/or intimidate protesters. Center “E” is the Russian Interior Ministry’s notorious “Center for Extremism Prevention,” which Amnesty International has accused of stifling dissent from journalists and activists under charges of extremist activity and using torture to extract confessions from criminal suspects. For a recently published evaluation of Center E’s performance over the last three years, see Pyoter Sarukhanov, “‘Eshnikov’ bez raboty ne ostavyat,” Novaya Gazeta, October 10, 2011. []
    10. In 2007 a course on Russian Orthodoxy was introduced in public schools. See Clifford J. Levy, “Welcome or Not, Orthodoxy Is Back in Russia’s Public Schools,” New York Times, September 23, 2007. See also “Otkrtoe pismo nauchnykh sotrudnikov protiv vvedeniya OPK v shkolakh i teologii v universitetakh i VAK,” Alternativy, April 4, 2008. []
    11. OPK stands for Fundamentals of Russian Orthodoxy Culture, a new course that has been introduced into the Russian public school curriculum. []

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