Despite growing repression, a new left is on the rise in Russia, says Alastair Stephens
As the Russian winter takes hold and freezes the country, the Putin regime is seeking to return the politics to a similar state of deep freeze, reversing the gains of the thaw which began a year ago. In response, just as people around the world mobilised in support Pussy Riot so a new international campaign is being launched to defend Russian activists from the increasing repression.
The regime, thrown off balance by the sudden and unexpected, emergence of the opposition movement last December, is re-stabilising itself and its system of ‘managed democracy’. It is also to trying to strangle in its cradle the opposition.
The Days of Freedom, between the disputed parliamentary election in December and Putin’s inauguration for his third Presidential term in May, saw relative toleration. Tens of thousands, even millions across the country were able to go onto the streets and protested against the elites who they run the country as if by right. Those days are now over, as the government tries to turn back the clock and restore the status quo. They intend to remind people that opposition to power can carry a heavy personal price.
Pussy Riot repressed
The best known case so far in the West is that of Pussy Riot, three of whose members were found guilty in October and sentenced to two years in prison. One was then freed on appeal, whilst the remaining two had their sentences confirmed.
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were separated and dispatched to prison camps in Perm and Mordovia respectively. Their journeys would have been familiar to generations of Russian oppositionists and dissidents before them, carried out in trains divided into caged cells, still known as Stolypin cars after a notorious Tsarist prime minister of a hundred years ago. This can last weeks during which time the transportee disappears from view.
They will be held in huge prison camps deep in the seemingly endless forests of the Taiga, hundreds of miles from anywhere. Few prisoners get visitors, mainly due to the difficulty in getting reaching such distant locations. There they will be expected to work, such as making uniforms, and will sleep in dormitories with the rest of their otryad, ‘detachment’.
Having dealt Pussy Riot an exemplary punishment the regime is now moving towards the heart of the opposition. That they were about to move was clear after the broadcast of a ‘documentary’ on 5 October by NTV ‘exposing’ opposition leaders supposedly plotting with representatives of the government of Georgia (which has had no diplomatic since it fought a short, losing, war against its giant neighbour), to cause disturbances in Russia's cities. Many of the accusations, and criminal charges against the opposition, relate to the mass demonstration of 6 May which ended in violence blamed by opposition leaders on heavy-handed policing.
The NTV channel itself had been a thorn in the side of previous administrations. Its coverage in particular bloody catastrophe of the First Chechen War proved disastrous for the popularity of then President Yeltsin. It was then bought by the leviathan energy company Gazprom, itself closely allied to the state, and has since been seen as being much more reflective of the government's views. But this is how freedom of the media works in Russia.
In grainy footage in which faces are barely visible, voices are heard plotting with the Georgian Guivi Targamadze. He is supposedly meeting with Sergei Udaltsov, the 36 year-old leader of the Left Front, one of the most prominent leaders of the opposition, Leonid Razvozhaev another left Front activist and Konstantin Lebedev, a member of the Trotskyist Russian Socialist Movement (RSD). All have now been charged with conspiring to cause mass disorder, charges which carry a sentence of up to 10 years. Udaltsov was released but is restricted to the city of Moscow.
Particualr outrage has been caused by the fate of Leoind Razvozzhayev, an adviser to Ilya Ponomarev a left-wing (genuine) opposition member of the State Duma (Parliament). Following the broadcast, Mr Razvozhayez fled to the Ukraine and was in the process of discussing political asylum when he disappeared. He reappeared days later in Moscow. He claims that he was snatched off the street in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, bundled into a van and tortured into signing a confession.
The powers that be are trying to label the opposition, through the revelation of kompromat (‘compromising material’, one of the dark arts at which the KGB was so expert), as foreign agents, to justify and legitimise the judicial repression now being carried out. This is a tactic that goes back through Soviet times to the Tsarist Okhrana and the infamous accusation that Lenin was a German agent.
Interestingly the repression so far has mostly been against the left of the movement. The radical politics of Pussy Riot, was made clear by them at the trial with their clenched fist salutes, Che Guevara t-shirts and speeches from the dock. Tolokonnikova had previously been involved involved in the left art-activism group Voina. Many of those arrested since the 6 May demonstration have been linked to left groups.
That the left is growing is evident. Udaltsov has become one of the best known faces of the movement, a counter balance to figures such as Alexei Navalny with his mix of Russian nationalism and liberalism. The existence of a left wing opposition also gives the lie to the idea that the opposition just consists of Moscow's chattering classes and Western stooges, possibly the reason the regime seems so keen to label them as foreign agents.
That a left is growing again in Russia should not be surprising. Russia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. A small group of so-called Oligarchs own much of the country's wealth and resources which they acquired during the privatisation/looting of the country in the 1990s. Many of them live abroad, London being a particularly favoured location. The running of the country they leave to a state bureaucracy that has ruled the country for decades, first under the guise of Communism, then increasingly falling back on the watchwords of the Tsarist regime: autocracy, nationality and orthodoxy. Even the deeply reactionary Orthodox church, always a creature of the state, is once again in favour.
A new workers’ movement
A genuine workers movement also seems to be emerging as the Russian working class emerge from the economic disasters of the 1990s when the economy collapsed and living standards suffered one of the greatest falls ever experienced in an industrialised country in peace time.
Genuinely Independent unions such as the Interegional Trade Union of Workers in the Motor Industry (MPRA) are emerging. Until now most unions have been the old Soviet state-run unions, who simply and confusingly rebranded themselves as ‘independent’ after the fall. Mostly they have continued to be in the pockets of the old enterprise bosses who mostly still run industry. The new unions have been involved in a number of disputes, some successful, most notably with the multinational car companies and their subsidiaries.
A new left
The biggest block on the growth of the left has been the memory of the old Soviet Union, the empire of which Russia was the core, and the Communist Party which ruled it tyrannically as a one-party state for decades.
Many of the participants in the new movements weren't even born under Communist Party rule. The Russia rather they have grown up in looks more like the world in which Marx lived, with massive inequality, robber barons and oligarchic government. It is amongst the young that left-wing ideas seem to be growing again, and drawing on a mixture of ideas, experiences and traditions, both Russian and foreign.
The new left has started using some of the symbolism of socialism, unencumbered by memories of the Communist era. The Soviet nostalgics, the organisers of often violent protests in the 1990s have now made their peace with the regime. The official Communist Party, the KPRF, may be the official opposition in Parliament but have in reality become part of the regime’s system of power, refusing to become involved in the demonstrations.
In the last decade, the regime was able to buy off discontent with rising living standards, based on raw materials exports to a booming world economy. The world economic slump has not passed the country by and this model is now in crisis. The regime is now in a new round of neo-liberal reform, with a particular flashpoint being education reform.
This is producing levels of discontent and opposition to the status quo not seen since the last years of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Figures from all parts of the political spectrum have described the country as facing a social crisis. The regime clearly fears the rise of a new movement which brings together the struggle against the gaping inequalities of society and the desire real democracy.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.