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Mass Graves, Football, Labor, and Prisons in Russia

As regular readers can see, my blogging has been sparse over the last few weeks.  I just finished a three week teaching blitz of a Western Civilization course at Santa Monica High School.  The class was part of Santa Monica Community College’s dual enrollment program which allows high school students to take classes for college credit.  The class was everyday, 8-11 a.m.  I haven’t woken up so early since I worked in a stove factory over fifteen years ago.

Rushing through 500 years of history has never been so daunting. The class was enjoyable and the students remarkably bright.  One thing that struck me about the high school is how it resembled a prison.  I guess Gilles Deleuze was on to something when he wrote that modernity initiates,

The organization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school (“you are no longer in your family”); then the barracks (“you are no longer at school”); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminent instance of the enclosed environment. It’s the prison that serves as the analogical model: at the sight of some laborers, the heroine of Rossellini’s Europa ’51 could exclaim, “I thought I was seeing convicts.”

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So teaching was the main reason why blogging has been sparse. It will continue to be so.  On Thursday, I leave for Israel for two weeks.  I’m hoping to do so research for a few articles on the Russian diaspora there.  My big hope is to meet up with some Israeli neo-Nazis for an article for the newly relaunched eXile Online. (Yes, if you haven’t already heard, the eXile is back in virtual form. Mark has left Russia and word is the eXile is going to be less Russia focused. Look for its verbal assassins to set their sites on more victims.)  If the Israeli Nazi thing doesn’t pan out, I’m sure my travels will present a number of other topics.  So stay tuned.

Though I haven’t been keeping up with the Russian news as well as I normally do, there have been a number of interesting stories that have appeared. Some of them are directly Russia related, others are bit tangential.

First article to catch my notice was a report on the exhumation of a mass grave containing around 300 bodies in an asphalt plant in Chechnya.  The grave was discovered in 2000 but wasn’t uncovered until now.  The site dates to the Second Chechen War and according to the report “likely contains civilian victims of an attack by Russian forces.” The report of this mass grave follows the announcement a week earlier of another one found in Grozny containing an estimated 800 corpses.

Open Democracy has published several articles on Russia as part of their collaboration with Polit.ru.  Football fans should check out Lyubov Borusyak’s “Russia, Football and Patriotism.” Granted connecting football to patriotism, or what I’d rather call nationalism, is not new.  Sport is a uniting force and it is no surprise that in Russia’s so-called “age of stability” sport is making a national comeback.  Russia now appears as a winning nation to many of its citizens, and this is only reinforced by the fact that its teams have some victories under their belts.  But as Borusyak points out, its not just that Russian teams are winning.  In fact, the ultimate crown often alludes them.  This however doesn’t dampen the link between national enthusiasm and sport.  Just the opposite actually.  As she notes, “There are two kinds of patriotic rhetoric. On the one hand, our people are winning because Russia is ‘rising’. On the other, our people are losing because the whole world is against us. Until 2008,the second discourse predominated, as there were not many successes. But this year the situation changed.”

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With much of the world reeling from capital’s cyclical curse of overproduction, speculation bubbles, or to put it more kindly, “market corrections,” it begs the question of Russia’s economic prognosis.  Unlike the American economy, the Russian economy has not experienced shocks of similar magnitude. It’s banks aren’t collapsing, being bailed out or raided by the state. Corporate profits aren’t taking a hit.  Announcements of layoffs, buyouts, and wage slashing aren’t ubiquitous.  Like so often, American capitalists who love to spit on the state are the first to run to it for a handout.  It all proves once again that its socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. As Robert Borosage reminds us, Wall Street’s “losses are socialized; their profits are pocketed.”

This is not to say that Russia’s economy is all bread and circuses for the average Russian.  Inflation is a particular bugaboo that is not just being fueled by high oil prices and general global inflation in commodities. Russian inflation more comes from the fact that, as Dmitri Travin notes, “millions of people, from oligarchs to cleaners really are benefiting from oil revenues.”  Of course, the spread of petrodollars contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Especially when you consider its effects on manufacturing. Travin writes,

From the point of view of manufacturing,this wealth is a terrible curse. An expensive ruble makes the goods we manufacture more expensive by comparison with imported goods. If the Central Bank does not stop the ruble from rising, many Russian producers will lose their competitive advantage and cease to exist. And along with them, many jobs will disappear. GDP will stop growing, and parts of the country will be plunged into crisis. In the long term, the Russian people’s unexpected wealth will turn into poverty.

What God giveth, God (might) taketh away. Again, the inevitability of overproduction is a real bitch to tame.

The losses of global economic crisis are not equal. There are winners and losers.  Take General Motors, for example.  GM executives plan to make some “difficult decisions” in regard to its American workforce.  This includes, according to the New York Times, “a 20 percent reduction in payroll for salaried workers, elimination of health care for older white-collar retirees, and suspension of G.M.’s annual stock dividend of $1 a share.” GM, like most car companies, are reeling from the slide in the American market.  No one wants their big gas guzzling SUVs and two-ton trucks anymore.  As a result, GM plans to make $10 billion in cost cuts.  And where will these cuts come from?  Why labor and benefits of course.

At the same time GM is slashing labor costs in the United States, it’s looking to expand in Russia. GM is currently in negotiations to up its production in Russia, where its market share has increased by 2 percent over the last year.  Given that Russia has a skilled, cheap workforce it’s ripe for exploitation.  The average wage for a Russian autoworker is about $1000 a month with few, if any, benefits.  An American autoworker makes an average of $5000 a month and that’s if you don’t include benefits. With GM sales rising coupled with the benefit of slashing labor costs, its no surprise that they and many other automakers can’t get to Russia fast enough.

Russian and American autoworkers know the score. Class war is heating up in both countries.  In the States, auto union are fighting against the “two-tier wage system” which looks to slash staring wages by half. In Russia, autoworkers are increasingly understanding their labor power and are putting collective pressure on automakers. This pressure is expected to grow.  As Aleksey Etmanov, the leader of a Ford auto union in St. Petersburg, said in a recent interview,

The creation of trade unions will increase. Even now there is simply a wave of new trade unions appearing. Today in our trade union there are approximately 1000 people, this is half of the workers of plant. In Taganrog the works manager hides in order not to obtain information about the creation of the trade union. Certainly, the pressure everywhere is being stepped up, and repression from the side of employers is increasing, they are sacking activists. Nowhere do the employers want to live according to the law (including Russia) but we are fighting back. In Toyota in the Petersburg area the manager, who, by the way, went there from “Ford”, is himself putting the workers in such conditions that we are confident, that very soon there will a trade union there too.

We are actively participating in the setting up of new trade unions in other factories of our industry, and we are developing inter-district unions of the Russian automobile industry, which, according to our plans, will be linked up as members of an organization covering all the car factories of the country, and we think we can do this towards the middle of next year. The Ford trade unionists are the most experienced elements in this association, and without us, probably the association would not have appeared. But all over the world the car workers trade unions are the strongest. The joint-combine committee draws nearer…

It is clear that the strength of the union is not only in the individual enterprise but is also in all the surrounding workplaces. Therefore we want to be combined with other trade unions, both with the Russian and in other countries. In particular, we closely collaborate with the international association of metalworkers. Now our interests can also be represented abroad. For example, when we struck, our American friends came to examine the headquarters of company “Ford” in Detroit…

I highly recommend reading all of Etmanov’s interview on In Defense of Marxism.

Finally, its not just Russian autoworkers who are organizing.  So are Russian prisoners.  ON July 6 over 100 former Russian political prisoners gathered for the First Congress of Political Prisoners in Moscow. The result was the formation of the Union of Prisoners, which in the words of Edward Limonov, “will gather, not only political prisoners, but will defend the rights of all prisoners and ex-prisoners.” Limonov also proposes the creation of A Day of Prisoners for September 14.  He also plans on turning his National Bolshevik Party toward organizing prisoners.  Limonov clearly knows his history.  Prison is indeed a transformative revolutionary experience.  Any bonafide Old Bolshevik did a stint in prison or exile.  Prison hardened the Bolshevik soul and spirit.  Apparently many of Limonov’s young charges are undergoing the same process. As Limonov says of Aleksei Makarov, who was recently released from prison. “Aleksei wasn’t yet 18 when he was arrested two years ago. He grew greatly in prison.”

If the Natsbol’s slogan is indeed “Yes, to death!” then nothing will harden that political will more than prison.

Russian prisons are of course nightmares.  They always have been and continue to be so.  For a run down on the conditions in prisons and the treatment of prisoners in Russia, I recommend checking out Robert Amsterdam’s excellent coverage of the issue. In particular, check out Grigory Pasko’s three part series “Life Behind Bars.”

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