In August 2012, the magazine Russian Reporter published a long, detailed article on Valentin Urusov, a diamond miner and trade union activist from Yakutia who was sentenced to six years in prison for drug possession in 2008. I hadn’t heard of Urusov before. Few in and outside Russia have. Despite efforts over the last four years to increase international pressure to have him freed, Urusov’s plight and that of Russian political prisoners like him get overshadowed by more capitalist friendly names like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the late Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Russian police custody in 2009, or the more sensational and repackageable Pussy Riot. It’s safe to say we won’t be hearing about the US Congress sponsoring a “Urusov Law,” nor will any of his tormentors find themselves on a US State Department persona non grata list.
Many regard Urusov’s conviction, based on what they allege is planted evidence, as a prime example of the frequent collusion between Russian capital (in this case, the state-owned diamond mining giant Alrosa) and state security organs to stamp out grassroots labor activism. This activism is in any case severely handicapped by national trade union umbrella organizations like the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), a holdover from the Soviet era when trade unions were in fact an arm of the state, and its member organizations, such as Profalmaz, the company-approved local labor union that Urusov and his comrades attempted to bypass by creating their own union. As Valery Sobol, a local Communist Party leader, says at the end of the article, “In our country, the authorities and big business are intertwined in a ball. And anyone who gets in their way is crushed. Here in Yakutia, in the provinces, it’s just more clearly felt. But it’s the same thing all over the country.”
This is why Andrei Veselov’s profile of Urusov is so important. It complements the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) recent effort to get Valentin Urusov released. (In a similar vein, the Russian Confederation of Labour, the Russian LabourStart group, and the IUF, with backing from Industriall Global Union, have just nominated Urusov for the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights.) But beyond the particulars of Urusov’s case, it illuminates what Russian labor activists struggling to establish independent trade unions endure in Putin’s Russia.
-Sean Guillory & Chtodelat
A Worker’s Struggle
How an attempt to create a real labor union lands you in a penal colony
“When they drove off the road into the taiga, I hear, ‘Take out the plastic sheet so nothing gets splattered.’ That, as they say, is when I bid farewell to life, calmed down and resigned myself. I lay on the floor of the car and waited. Hands cuffed behind my back. They pulled me out, put me on my knees and fired three shots over my head. But they didn’t kill me.”
The senior officer for education at the colony listens attentively to my conversation with Valentin Urusov, a prisoner at Penal Colony No. 3 in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and former leader of the independent labor union local in the town of Udachny. After the interview, the officer comes up to me and says, “You know, maybe he is really innocent. But if five percent are wrongly convicted in America, what can you expect from us?”
“What a terrific job!”
The idea that a full-fledged rather than puppet labor union could emerge in Udachny occurred to Valentin, a rank-and-file employee at Almazenergoremont, a subsidiary of the local mining and processing plant, after the scandalous “affair of the sandblasters.” Urusov himself is a local man, although he was born in Karachay-Cherkessia: he has lived in Yakutia since he was two years old and worked here since he was sixteen, mostly at facilities run by the state-owned diamond mining company Alrosa. There are few other options here.
Udachny is a town fourteen kilometers from the Arctic Circle, and one of the three main sites, along with Mirny and Aikhal, where diamonds are mined. Among the workers involved in the mining process are the so-called abrasive blasters or, more simply, sandblasters, whose job is to work solid surfaces with an abrasive, high-pressure stream of air pumped through a hose. It is not a job that is good for the health of the worker, to say the least: pulmonary silicosis is the occupational illness. Neither a safety helmet nor a hazmat suit, like cosmonauts wear, helps.
In 2007, a team of these sandblasters demanded overtime pay, which at that time went chronically unpaid. The workers filed a lawsuit and even managed to win their case: the Labor Code was clearly on their side.
“A special commission arrived in Udachny to arbitrate the dispute directly,” explains Andrei Polyakov, an Alrosa spokesman. “The company agreed with the validity of the claims, an agreement settling all grievances was signed, and compensation was paid out. The managers who were in direct dereliction of their duties were punished.”
This happened, it is true, but later. The main scandal occurred when the dispute was still being settled: the semi-official labor union at Alrosa, Profalmaz, negotiated not on the side of the workers, but on behalf of . . . management. This provoked astonishment and outrage in Udachny.
So, on the one hand, Profalmaz’s authority was undermined. On the other, the feeling arose that one’s labor rights could be protected-moreover, in a civilized manner, through the courts and arbitration, the European way, so to speak.
“I just found it interesting. I’m a generally curious person, and that is probably why I’m in prison,” jokes Valentin. “I went online and came across Sotsprof, a trade union association that is an alternative to the FNPR (the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia). I wrote an email to its leader, who was then Sergei Khramov. He replied by sending me documents on how to create a new union.”
“But why a new one?” I ask. “Was it really impossible to make things work within the existing union?”
“All organizations belonging to Mikhail Shmakov’s FNPR, including Profalmaz, are not labor unions but appendages of personnel departments. All they do is allocate vacation vouchers. They will never oppose management.”
“Was the only problem overtime and the fact it wasn’t being paid then?”
“Of course not. There were a lot of problems! And then, you understand, this is very difficult work: you have to work night and day, and on holidays, and take someone else’s shift, whatever management says. But you get paid for an eight-hour day. And then there are the working conditions and safety. In the department where I worked, the equipment should have been scrapped twenty years ago, at best. There are a lot of accidents as a result. The ones that were made public were like a speck in a big heap of sand. I got a big piece of flesh taken out of my hand, and that was nothing. Of course, it’s hard to hush up fatal incidents. But fractures and injuries are different. There are thousands of them and nobody cares. It was a shame that the company was so wealthy, that it built five-star hotels and all kinds of business centers, but scrimped on us.”
In Moscow I met with Sergei Khramov, to whom Valentin had sent the email and who had instructed him on creating a union local.
“Add to this the aggressive water in the gully where they mine diamonds.” Khramov hands me a complaint from Udachny miners addressed to Vladimir Putin. “It’s nearly acid and it penetrates their rubber suits. Here they write, ‘We don’t know what it is we are breathing when the ventilation equipment is lubricated with used oil.’ Or there’s this one: ‘Cold, unheated air is pumped into the mine, even in winter.’ And it’s minus forty-fifty in winter there. What a terrific job!”
How to frighten a republic’s leadership
It was right at this time, in August 2008, that the so-called Siberian Social Forum was held in Irkutsk. “Free” trade unions were among the forum’s founders. Urusov’s new acquaintances invited him there, too. In fact, it was a small event, attended by no more than two hundred people, but it made a strong impression on Valentin.
“Renowned Civil rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was later murdered in Moscow, lectured on legal issues. He was a very competent, energetic, lively man-it’s a shame what happened to him. He talked about how to act in this or that situation so as not to set oneself up and achieve your goals at the same time. And then the call came. Problems with pay had begun at the second motor depot, and the guys had decided to organize a strike.”
Events unfolded rapidly. In a small suburban home outside of Udachny, Urusov met with motor depot drivers and mechanics in an almost conspiratorial atmosphere and began persuading them to join the union. Armed with new knowledge, Urusov tried to prove to his comrades that if a strike began they would immediately be fired for trumped-up excuses, and there would be no one left to work on getting them reinstated. During the second “conspiratorial” meeting, sixty-two people joined Urusov’s union local.
There were two options as to how to proceed. First, a classic strike. But the Udachny miners had no experience with strikes, and therefore they could easily have been fired for “absenteeism.” And even if they had managed to get fired workers reinstated, they would have lost the initiative, and the remaining workers would have been demoralized. The second option was a hunger strike. Everyone goes to work; there is no downtime and, therefore, nothing for management to complain about. But demands are loudly declared and, basically, a scandal erupts. They chose the second option.
“At first, management demonstratively paid no attention to us. Then they see we aren’t going to back down. That is when they began dropping by,” Urusov laughs. “People came from the police, from plant security, from the company itself, trying to talk us out of it. In exchange for setting up a conciliation commission, we suspended the hunger strike.”
However, the commission was unable to achieve a compromise. Management made no concessions.
“We decided to hold an open union meeting right on the town’s central square. It wasn’t a protest rally, and by law we weren’t required to notify anyone. On the first day, all the motor depot workers came, plus another two hundred people. The director of the plant came and tried to say something. But he couldn’t answer a single question and left. And right there on the square, people began joining the union. By the end of the day something like three hundred people had joined. We decided to repeat the meeting. The second time, more than eight hundred people gathered. There was no rioting and no laws were broken. We didn’t even have a loudspeaker. By evening, I remember it even now, 1,012 people had joined the union.”
We have to remember that Udachny is a very small town with a population of slightly over ten thousand, and such developments outright scared both the local authorities and certain people in high places. The situation was headed towards a citywide strike and a potential stoppage of diamond mining in the Udachnaya kimberlite pipe-the largest in the world, by the way.
“We have enormous enterprises in our country. Often they monopolize their regions, and so a strike or simply a large industrial action could freeze an entire industry,” explains Alexander Zakharin, Urusov’s friend and colleague, and chair of the Sotsprof local in Surgut. “And if you organize such an action, you risk running into a brutal response. From the owners and from the authorities. But it happens that milder measures don’t work. Then you need to choose: take a risk or keep your mouth shut.”
At Alrosa itself, the union’s activities in Udachny are seen primarily as an attempt at self-promotion.
“A media effect-promoting awareness of Sotsprof and the number of times it got mentioned in the press-was probably the main objective for some of its executives,” argues company spokesman Polyakov.
As during the dispute in 2007, Profalmaz adopted a peculiar position in the new confrontation. Its leader, Il Tumen (Sakha Republic State Assembly) deputy Pavel Tretyakov, not only failed to help the workers, but also asked the republic’s leaders to reason with the “rebels.” Profalmaz’s executive committee sent an appeal to the President of Yakutia, Vyacheslav Shtyrov, and FNPR head Mikhail Shmakov asking them to prevent “incitement of a conflict.”
Tretyakov later, in a similar vein, told Vasily Gabyshev, the Mirny town prosecutor, “It’s surprising that law enforcement authorities didn’t respond to attempts by various persons to artificially incite conflicts, to calls for illegal hunger strikes and labor strikes.”
The Yakutia presidential administration composed a panicked memo on the basis of Tretyakov’s appeals. The President instructed law enforcement agencies to figure out what was happening. (Russian Reporter has all these documents in its possession.) What exactly Shtyrov wanted from the security services is still unclear, but the local office of the FSKN (the Federal Drug Control Service) reacted to the situation, let’s say, in an extremely original way.
“Then what happened? Then the third of September came. I was leaving my place. I heard a car door open. I instinctively turned around. It was a simple UAZ[-452], a “Pill” [i.e., a van] with tinted windows. Out came three guys in leather jackets and jeans with shaved heads. I didn’t know them. I immediately knew something was wrong and ran. They caught up to me and knocked me down.”
“Did they show you any identification?”
“Absolutely nothing. They restrained me and brought me to the van. First they handcuffed me with my hands in front. Later, in the van, they tried to cuff me with my hands behind my back. I clasped my hands and held on. They pulled and pulled, broke my finger, and finally handcuffed my hands behind my back. They threw me to the floor and one of them sat on top of me. We drove for a long time.”
It subsequently emerged that Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Rudov, the head of drug control in the Mirny District, had personally led this “operation.” In order to apprehend Urusov, he and his subordinates had driven six hundred kilometers to Udachny: his “Hunter” [i.e., jeep] was waiting for the “Pill” on the outskirts of the town. In court, Rudov claimed to have had “operational information” that Urusov was involved in selling drugs.
“We asked the court to confirm or refute Rudov’s testimony, and requested written confirmation that the ‘operational information’ had been registered in the police operational ledger,” says Urusov’s attorney Yevgeny Chernousov, a former police colonel who specializes in narcotics cases. “We didn’t demand that this information itself or its source be revealed. We just wanted to confirm that the information had existed. The court did not fulfill our request. There is thus no evidence of its existence. In light of this, Rudov’s unwarranted trip to Udachny and back seems more than suspicious.”
Valentin says that Rudov was on the phone with a certain Alexei Yurevich or Yuri Alexeyevich the whole time, reporting to him that they had “taken” Urusov and wanting to know what to do next. After one of these conversations, the van pulled off into the taiga. There the narcotics officers spread out plastic sheeting and fired a few shots over Urusov’s head, recounts Urusov.
“They were shooting the whole time,” says Valentin. “They shot at birds, and at trees. Apparently, they wanted to frighten me. We had already driven far from town, and basically they could have done whatever they wanted with me.”
At a fork in the Udachny-Aikhal-Mirny road, the car of Grigory Pustovetov, head of security at the Aikhal mining and processing plant, drove up to Rudov’s group “entirely by accident.” Only then did the police decide to search Urusov for drugs. Pustovetov and his driver acted as official witnesses. The search was a complete success: sixty-six grams of hashish oil were found in the union activist’s pocket.
“A number of questions arise,” says an outraged Chernousov. “First, when the arrest happens in one place, but the official search with witnesses happens dozens of kilometers away, it’s a clear sign that the drugs could have been planted. Second, if the head of one of a company’s security units serves as a witness when an employee in a labor dispute with that company is being searched, it also gives rise to the most unpleasant thoughts.”
Urusov himself claims the hashish was planted on him in the car after the fake execution. He says that hash oil was specially applied to his hands so that traces of the drug would later be detected when his hands were swabbed.
“When we were organizing the miners’ union in Neryungri (a major industrial center in Yakutia), I was reminded of this story,” says Valery Sobol, first secretary of the Neryungri Communist Party City Committee. “I won’t name the names of the persons involved because I live there. Employees of the so-called organs [i.e., the security services] invited me to a pub. We hung out there for a while. Then at another place, and then another. I myself didn’t drink, but they drank a lot. And, as if it was an afterthought, though they had summoned me there to deliver just this message, one of them says, ‘You remember that thing with Urusov? You also better not be naughty. If anything happens, we’ll plant a gun on you or whatever.’ And then he laughed. Like it was a joke.”
Several months ago, Sobol nearly won the election for the head of the Neryungri District. He came in second by only a small margin. And if a potential district head can be threatened almost openly, then the kidnapping of a simple working stiff like Urusov, who has no political backing at all, does not seem farfetched.
Sobol and I sat in the kitchen of Sergei Yurkov, an engineer, businessman, and leader of an organization called the Russian Community of Yakutia. He met Urusov in a pre-trial detention facility. I ask him how he had ended up there.
“My story is simple. Transneft were building a pipeline here. They didn’t want to pay normal wages to the locals. So when the locals balked, they brought in rural Chinese willing to work for peanuts and live in barracks. When we organized a rally and put up flyers saying this wasn’t how things were done, I was arrested under Article 282 of the Criminal Code for ‘incitement of interethnic hatred.’ What does ‘incitement’ have to do with it? I was sentenced to two years in prison.”
Drugs via the Special Courier Service?
It must be said that the theme of drugs, with which they decided to shut Urusov up, did not arise by accident. Drug use is a local scourge. And this makes sense. There are few other ways to have fun in small towns and villages in the North. That is why on the surface Urusov’s prosecution under a drug statute was meant to have appeared more or less plausible.
“It’s a big problem here, as is drinking,” says Maxim Mestnikov, a Sotsprof spokesman in Yakutia. “When Friday comes, hang onto your head: there is a deluge of knife wounds and head injuries.”
But Urusov, in fact, never had the reputation of a mischievous drug addict. In his youth, at the beginning of the 2000s, he and a few friends created an organization called Youth for an Athletic Movement-North, whose activists patrolled the city monitoring places where drugs were sold. Eventually, the mayor of Udachny even suggested that they create a branch of City Without Drugs on the line of Yevgeny Roizman’s controversial anti-drugs organization.
The relationship between certain local Alrosa subcontractors and drug dealers, however, may require a separate investigation. Russian Reporter has in its possession an official memo written by Sergei Denisov, predecessor of Grigory Pustovetov (the man who acted as a witness during the police search of Urusov) as head of security at the Aikhal mining and processing plant.
The memo is addressed to Yuri Ionov, former vice-president for security at Alrosa, and it deals with the overall crime situation in the area. Among many others, the memo contains the following passage: “It is impossible to ignore the fact that a drug trafficking network has developed in the village. According to operational information from the Mirny office of the FSB, the delivery of drugs is carried out by the Federal Special Courier Service, with which Alrosa has a contractual relationship for the transportation of diamonds.” Moreover, the memo shows that confidential and friendly relations exist between certain high-ranking Alrosa executives, law enforcement officers, and outright criminals.
“I’ll say this: the criminal world is generally in first place here,” Sotsprof’s Mestnikov says with conviction. “In this respect it is still the nineties here. Something needs to be done so you go to them and they handle it. And this could also have happened with Valentin. Perhaps it was better that they sicked the cops on him and not the wise guys.”
After he presented the memo to Ionov, Denisov was forced to resign and move to Novosibirsk.
“No decision was taken on my report. Ionov showed me the door and said he didn’t need any unnecessary problems. As for Urusov, I can say that it’s a pure frame-up,” Denisov says.
In May 2010, Lieutenant Colonel Rudov was sentenced to three years probation for fraud and abuse of authority. According to Urusov’s other lawyer Inga Reitenbakh, “He was charged with receiving 2.5 million rubles from Alrosa for the purchase of an apartment in Mirny.” The investigators and Rudov himself categorically denied any connection between this case and the Urusov case. Nevertheless, the funds were allocated to Rudov shortly after Urusov’s arrest. According to Russian Reporter’s source, Rudov now works as a procurements specialist in the repair and construction office at the Mirny mining and processing plant.
“He shoots before he thinks”
Urusov was also unlucky in that he had set about creating a Sotsprof local in Udachny exactly when the union’s leadership had entered the complex process of building relations with the Kremlin.
“Beginning in 2007, people from the Russian Presidential Administration began to pressure us very actively,” says Sergei Khramov. “We were strongly recommended to name Sergei Vostretsov from the United Russia party as our new leader. I had good reason to believe that if we didn’t, we would simply be destroyed. And I figured, the heck with him, let Vostretsov be leader and do public relations, while I, as Sotsprof’s general labor inspector, will do the day-to-day work.”
The first outcome of this “castling” move was that the formerly oppositional Sotsprof supported Dmitry Medvedev in the 2008 presidential elections.
“And when they began pressuring Valentin, Vostretsov told me not to make any unnecessary noise, because he would fix everything anyway. I knew that the Vostretsov family-his younger brother was the youngest FSB colonel in the country-was very close to General Alexander Mikhailov, the then-director of the Federal Drug Control Service. I thought that Valentin’s case would be decided with a single phone call.”
For the sake of fairness, we should note that complicated events were underway at the Federal Drug Control Service at the time. Viktor Ivanov had replaced Viktor Cherkesov, who had famously publicized the existence of a war within the security services in an article entitled “We Can’t Let Warriors Turn into Traders”. In October, General Mikhailov left the FSKN as well. There was simply no one left to make that “single phone call.”
Subsequently, Vostretsov pushed Khramov out of Sotsprof altogether, and the organization became completely loyal to the Kremlin.
In December 2008, the Mirny District Court sentenced Valentin Urusov to six years in prison for drug possession. Vostretsov tried to fight it, but more from behind the scenes: he met with officials from the Yakutia administration and officials of the security services, and even, allegedly, raised the issue of Urusov with Medvedev. It was no use.
Khramov, in contrast, acted publicly. It was he who got the famous lawyer Chernousov to take the case. Chernousov convinced the Yakutia Supreme Court to overturn the verdict (on procedural grounds: the judge had not retired to chambers while considering a motion to dismiss), after which the case was retried.
“I had absolutely no illusions,” Valentin smiles. “After the Supreme Court decision, many people thought I would be exonerated. I was certain of the opposite, that now I would be ‘shut down’ for sure. This was evident from the faces of those in the courtroom at the second trial. After the first hearing, I gathered my belongings, put on the track suit I’d been wearing while traveling between pre-trial detention facilities and prisons, and from then on I went to hearings in this outfit.”
In Udachny, there is a small newspaper with the humorous name of Gorodok [“The Burg”], edited by a local journalist named Alla Demidova. After Urusov was released, she published a short article. Immediately, the very same day, she got a call from Maxim Dobarkin, one of the police investigators who had participated in Urusov’s “arrest.”
“Dobarkin called me at home,” says Demidova. “Drunk. He told me how many bullets he would put in me, said that ‘he shoots before he thinks,’ that he knows where I live, and that he would ‘get’ me ‘whether in Udachny or in Sochi.’”
“What did you do?”
“I filed a complaint with the FSB.”
“Did they respond?”
“They responded by sending me a one-line answer: ‘There is no threat.’”
Dobarkin, however, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and together with Rudov took command of the Federal Drug Control Service’s interdistrict department in Mirny.
Another Yakutia journalist, Aitalina Nikiforova, was also threatened for covering Urusov’s case.
“I reported on every hearing during the trial from the courtroom. Rudov called me over during one of the hearings and said word for word, ‘Your oldest daughter is fifteen. It would be interesting to see how you’ll defend Urusov after some old drug dealers drug her up and pass her around.’ This definitely sounded like a threat. At the time I was working as editor-in-chief at the only independent newspaper in Mirny, Moya gazeta. The only printing plant in town refused to print us. Local Federal Drug Control Service agents began coming to my house, allegedly because of anonymous tips that I also used and dealt drugs. Some of the agents were insolent and rude; others were ashamed, because the last visits took place when I was six to seven months pregnant with my third child.”
After that Nikiforova decided it would be safer to leave her hometown and move to Yakutsk.
In June 2009, the Mirny District Court delivered a new verdict in the Urusov case that completely upheld the previous verdict, but in September the Yakutia Supreme Court lightened Urusov’s prison sentence by one year. The Sotsprof local in Udachny had been crushed. The second motor depot has been completely shut down. The company has had no more problems with the workforce in this town.
“Valentin, whom do you tend to blame for what happened to you?” I finally asked.
“Alrosa is a state-run company. It is owned by the government, by the state, so . . . you understand.”
“Our government is fascist,” Yurkov, the leader of the Russian Community of Yakutia, suddenly declares, and it sounds quite equivocal.
Sobol, the man who missed becoming head of the Neryungri District by a heartbeat, turns and stops smoking next to the window.
“We have to be precise with our terms: neither Nazi nor nationalist, but precisely fascist as it is understood in Mussolini’s theory of the corporate state, as Franco, Salazar and even Pinochet understood it. In our country, the authorities and big business are intertwined in a ball. And anyone who gets in their way is crushed. Here in Yakutia, in the provinces, it’s just more clearly felt. But it’s the same thing all over the country.”
Lead Photo by Alexei Maishev for the Russian Reporter.