Guest post by William Risch
In a December 25 interview with the magazine Foreign Policy, heavyweight world boxing champion Vitaly Klychko explained the significance of Ukraine’s Euromaidan protest movement to Belgrade-based journalist Harriet Salem: “Now people in this square [Kyiv’s Maidan] understand that they have power in their hands and the opportunity to change the situation in our country. Our country is very young, and this is a very important step, that every citizen is aware that his future depends just on him.” Klychko, true to his boxer image, advocated a knock-out blow against President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime: “We understand that to make real reforms, we must topple the whole system.”
Klychko was not the only one claiming to stand with the people. On December 15, after visits to Kyiv by European Union foreign policy commissioner Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, U.S. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy spoke to the Maidan. As reported by the Washington Post, Murphy told the crowd, “You are making history. If you are successful, the United States will stand with you every step of the way.”
I was at that rally. The senators’ voices, interpreted by former Minister of Foreign Affairs Borys Tarasiuk, were muddled. While I filmed Murphy and McCain, fellow historians with me ignored the speech. They discussed with a local resident contested 2012 parliamentary elections being rerun that very day in five districts.
Were these politicians really with the people? On December 16, I took part in a march on the Central Elections Commission. About 150-200 people protested the results of the special parliamentary elections, claiming they had been falsified. Speakers said Klychko was going to speak, but in the end, he didn’t show up. The night of December 17-18, Klychko spoke to the Maidan’s “Night Watch,” an all-night disco and political rally aimed at keeping police forces from breaking up the Maidan. He gave a stirring speech about the hard work it takes to realize one’s dreams, and then he left.
The night of December 19-20, I volunteered to watch over the Maidan’s barricades. Warming up to a makeshift bonfire in freezing temperatures, I spent the whole night talking with other guards about why they were there. One man, 38 year-old Serhiy from Poltava, said he had lost his small store to bank debts, his wife had left him, and he was unemployed. As we debated over what Serhiy should do – get a lawyer, find another job, or emigrate to to America – the Maidan’s hourly singing of the Ukrainian national anthem began. Everyone suddenly stopped arguing. They tood up and silently watched the musicians performing on the large TV screen. Across the Maidan’s barricades, others joined us in silently saluting the anthem or singing. In that moment, no foreign dignitary, no celebrity like Klychko, spoke for people like Serhiy. If anyone, it was us, the people of the Maidan, who stood with him.
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- By Sean — 5 years ago
For my article in the Nation on Russian LGBT activism, “Repression and Gay Rights in Russia,” I interviewed Polina Adrianovna, an activist with the LGBT rights organization Coming Out St. Petersburg. I though that in addition to the article, readers would like the hear my interview with Polina. Here is the interview:
An excerpt of the article:
“Our elders and atamans entrusted me to thank you for the course our country is on and for your policies,” Anton Maramygin, a Cossack youth, said to Vladimir Putin at the Seliger Youth Camp in early August. “We see what you are doing: fighting against the sodomites and not allowing them to adopt our children. We support you in every way.” The crowd of young people applauded as Putin smirked.Homophobia is state policy in Russia, a kind of new sexual sovereignty defending Orthodox Christian morality against the corrosive influence of Western decadence. Putin’s fight against the “sodomites” has spawned numerous pieces of legislation at the regional and federal level. Maramygin’s gushing gratitude referenced two: the infamous federal “anti-gay propaganda law” and the law banning foreign gay couples from adopting Russian children. Both of these laws have elicited international condemnation and calls for boycotts of Russian vodka and the Winter Olympics in Sochi. While the sudden international outcry is welcomed by Russian LGBT activists, many are pessimistic about the boycotts, even to the point of questioning their efficacy. Russian activists, after all, have been struggling against state-sponsored homophobia since 2006 and know well the state’s intransigence. In many ways the anti-gay laws have inadvertently midwifed Russia’s LGBT movement to national and international prominence.
- By Sean — 10 years ago
The BBC aren’t the only ones still sorting out South Ossetia. Mark Ames dismantles the NY Times coverage in “The Cold War that Wasn’t“. Like most American media, the Times was fully on board with the Russia = bad, Georgia = good crusade. That is until facts made it too difficult to blindly sustain that line. Even then, the Times made no overt self-criticism, and instead opted for articles showing that maybe Georgia wasn’t the glowing democracy that we all were made to believe it was. A good correction, though horribly academic when it was published two months after the conflict was over. Taking this as a cue, Ames rhetorically asks, then answers:
It’s interesting that the Times published this exactly two months after Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia–a military decision so off-the-scale idiotic that to call it a “gamble” is an insult to struggling addicts like Bill Bennett.
The real question, then, is why the Times waited until this late to question its own position–why wait until the war was long off the front pages, to publish an article about what everyone with an ounce of journalistic curiosity already knew–that Saakashvili was about as much a democrat as he was a military genius?
The push in the West by outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post to get a new cold war on hinged on two major fallacies: (1) that Russia invaded Georgia first, totally unprovoked, because Georgia is a “democracy”; and (2), that Georgia is a “democracy.”
Justin Raimondo over at Antiwar.com tackles the Georgia issue by focusing on the fact that Saakashvili’s little war got him a big payout in return, proving the profitability of being recognized as a Western-style democracy. The World Bank donors’ conference in Belgium has $4.5 billion in Western money coming to the rescue to rebuild the Caucasian nation’s “infrastructure.” That’s about a billion more than the World Bank’s initial target. Though not intended for the Georgian military, one only assume that much of those funds will find its way weapons purchases. In more honest times, the US and its European allies would have just given weapons to Georgia. However, in these politically correct, “humanitarian” times, militarism must be shrouded in the facade of aid. And the fact that none of this money will go to the real victims, the South Ossetians, is a no brainer. As Raimondo concludes, the donor’s money will most likely slither its way
through Saakashvili and his cronies, who would rather leave the shattered infrastructure of bombed-out Tskhinvali as it is today, a stark reminder of what may very well reoccur should the Ossetians persist in going their own way. If anyone rebuilds, it will have to be the Russians. The private sector aid will be used to buy up Georgian assets on behalf of Western corporate interests. The difference between the World Bank figure and the number announced in Brussels – nearly half a billion – will cover bribes, covert action operations carried out by Western intelligence agencies, and other incidentals.When challenged, proponents of foreign aid programs invariably reply: yes, but look at the minuscule numbers! Why, foreign aid is less than one percent of the total overseas budget, including, one supposes, military expenditures – but so what? The point is that these programs do real harm, in most cases achieving the exact opposite of their intended purpose. And in this particular case, the entire package is premised on a lie, and a freshly debunked one at that. What’s really going on here is that the West is rewarding Saakashvili for his recklessness, and inciting him to commit fresh assaults. This course guarantees war.
- By Sean — 14 years ago
“At least under the Communists I wasn’t hungry.”
—Zoya Ivanova, 73, pensioner, protester, (Moscow Times, Jan. 25, 2005)
It has been a year of colored revolutions in the former Soviet Union, and many pundits and experts are speculating whether Russia might get its own. For the last two weeks pensioners have been protesting across Russia, from St. Petersburg in the northwest to Khabarovsk in the Far East. These are the largest protests in Russia since the coal miner strikes in 1998. Vladimir Putin’s uncontested dominance over Russian politics suddenly looks like it stands on shifting sands. The issue: a new law that went into effect January 1 that stripped pensioners, servicemen, WWII veterans, victims of Stalinist repression, Chernobyl victims, and the disabled of their in-kind benefits for cash payments. In-kind benefits of free public transportation, medicine, reduced rents, and other state subsidized services were a hold out from the Soviet system. The Putin Administration decided to celebrate the New Year by removing all of these benefits in exchange for an increased monthly cash payment of 200 rubles ($6). The result: the possible emergence of Russia’s Grey Revolution.
Even in the wake of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” the protests caught everyone by surprise. After all, for the last few months experts routinely denied any such thing occurring in Russia. Putin had too much control, was too popular, and the Russian electorate was too passive. Moreover, as many Western pundits like to explain the Putin phenomenon, Russians are “naturally” tuned into the authoritarian personality. Its logic speaks to them in simple language. Despite the fact that Russia has experienced three revolutions in 100 years seems to escape most, though this is not to suggest the pensioner uprising will result in anything of the sort. Not even in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution.
Not even the most opportunistic anti-Russia pundits have jumped on the opportunity to spit venom on the Putin regime like they did in the Yushchenko affair. No Western foundations are pouring funds into any “pensioner” or youth organizations. No Western campaign strategists have arrived to coordinate the pensioner campaign. Even William Safire has yet to write a column declaring that “democracy was on the march” in Russia.
Perhaps “democracy” isn’t on the march according to Western pundits because pensioners are doing exactly what their brethren in the U.S. should be doing: flooding the streets against the Bush Administration’s swindle of social security privatization. Yet, we Americans are the more democratic nation, while the Russians are perfectly comfortable living with what their government dishes out. But the silence from the American Right is understandable. The whole pensioners’ revolt probably has their pro-market and anti-Russia personalities waging their own subconscious civil war. But, they are not the only ones that seem dumbfounded. These protests seem abnormal even to well intentioned journalists, like Fred Weir. “What’s astonishing,” he wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “is that this is the generation that grew up under Stalin. The idea that someone who fought on the Russian and Polish fronts during World War II would now confront the Russian police is remarkable. You expect the post-Soviet generation, like the students in the Ukraine, to behave this way. But this is the first time we’ve seen such widespread demonstrations in the Putin era, and I certainly didn’t expect to see pensioners to be leading it.” Apparently, such actions are unfathomable to the pre-Soviet generation, who were thoroughly atomized by Soviet totalitarianism.
Many instances during the Soviet period could be cited to the contrary, but I will only point to one. These protests are not so remarkable if you consider the historical phenomena of “babi bunty.” In 1930, civil war loomed over the Russian countryside. The violence of collectivization was met with peasant uprisings, rumors of apocalypse, bands of peasants slaughtering any Communist they could find, and something called “babi bunty”, or “women’s riots.” In many cases, special military detachments of the NKVD (the then secret police) were sent to quell the uprisings. According to Historian Lynne Viola, in an article published almost twenty years ago, “babi bunty” were when women “physically blocked the carrying away of requisitioned grain or the entrances to huts of peasants scheduled to be exiled as kulaks, and forcibly took back seed and livestock, and led assaults on officials.” “Babi bunty” were tactical masterpieces because they played on the regimes own prejudices toward peasants. Since these “riots” were led by women, Soviet officials viewed them as expressions of the “dark masses” and tended to let them run out of steam rather than crush them with violence. Peasant men, knowing they would be thoroughly crushed if they participated from the get go, could join the protests by claiming they were “protecting” their wives and daughters. So much for that totalitarian atomization.
One can’t help view the current protests of the elderly as a contemporary echo of the “babi bunty.” Pensioners around Russia have spontaneously blocked intersections in the towns of Penza, Vladimir, Samara among others. In the Moscow suburb of Khimki, they stopped commuter traffic on the Leningrad Highway for two hours. Russian TV news show images of old people chastising local politicians and crowd the entrances of government buildings only to be held back by walls of police. (Ironically, the police themselves also lost their transportation benefits at the start of the year.) Veterans in Petersburg greet the year of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of the Nazis with signs that read: “Putin is worse than Hitler!” and “No to Genocide!” For people who survived WWII and the 900 day blockade of Leningrad, not only can these actions punch holes in Putin omnipotence, it shows that they aren’t going to be deterred with idle threats or cheated with verbal promises.
To free market reformers, the monetization of benefits was a long time coming. The in-kind benefits were yet another moribund legacy of the former system. Monetization would give the government flexibility that marketization had longed for: cash payments, unlike their in-kind variant, can be streamlined, more closely monitored in the government books, and slowly whittled down. Nothing indicates this more than the fact that the Kremlin only allocated $6 billion to cover $18 billion in benefits. Moreover, the center has shifted the majority of the pension payment to its provinces. As the law went into effect, two-thirds of Russia’s provinces could not afford to make the cash payments. Some opted out of implementing the law altogether, citing a provision that allowed cash strapped provincial governments to do so.
The unpopularity of the monetization law was well known before January 1, yet the Putin government decided to strip all in-kind benefits in one fail swoop. Some 40 million Russians (out of a population of 144 million) were affected. In St. Petersburg, where 15,000 protested, one out of four residents are pensioners. Interestingly, Moscow residents are exempt from the law. Pensioners in the capital retain full in-kind benefits. Perhaps this “exemption” is the reason why the Putin government is still standing.
The outrage over the law goes beyond the fact that compensation does not cover the costs of lost benefits. For residents of Moscow’s environs, free public transportation allowed many to travel to the capital to earn extra money. The entrances to the Moscow Metro are frequently occupied by old women selling trinkets, fruits, vegetables, nuts, clothing, and prepared salads to earn a few extra rubles. Now with the costs of transportation added to their expenses, whatever is earned is quickly siphoned away. Cash payments only cover about 20 one-way trips a month. To make matters worse a Metro ticket in Moscow was increased from 10 to 13 rubles ($.50) and a bus ticket from 10 to 11 rubles ($.30) on the New Year. Not only has Putin alienated the pensioners, who were a large portion of his political support, the law also strips servicemen of free travel. Reports indicate that the rank and file have been grumbling increasing concern that the soldiers might join the elderly.
Protesting old women plus angry soldiers makes the specter of February 1917, not to mention Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” haunt Russian pundits’ analysis and predictions. The more outlandish experts predict (or perhaps hope for) Putin’s demise before his presidency ends in 2008. Others, especially those tied to the liberal Yabloko Party, hope that this will spur the creation of a much desired “civil society.” While still others issue idle threats such as that from Duma Deputy Andrei Isayev, who promised harsh punishment to “those who seek to carry the orange illness to Russia.”
Such threats have done nothing to deter the elderly and the forces that now support them. There have been reports of the elderly attacking bus and train conductors. An anti-Putin student group called Marching Without Putin (a play on the pro-Putin group Marching Together) has emerged in St. Petersburg to protest not only the abolition of benefits, but also the Chechen War and the government’s plan to eliminate student exemptions from military service. A dozen WWII veterans who participated in the Khimki protest are to be prosecuted. The Christian Science Monitor reports that some pensioners claim the police have used dogs and beat them.
Even Russia’s political opposition of Communists, Nationalists, and Liberals has decided to step into the fray, as they did after the protests took down the Tsar in February 1917. Unfortunately, Marx’s remark that history occurs the “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” rings true in this situation. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s attempt to wrest control of the protests has only injected it with hyperbole that is usually reserved for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zyuganov declared on radio station Echo Moskvy: “We demand that this government be sacked, it couldn’t cope with Beslan, it still hasn’t managed to cope with it, and now it has created a quiet social Beslan here, in a country in which citizens are dying by the million, now they are putting this plastic bag over the heads of all the veterans.” The Communists are also collecting support to hold a no confidence vote in the Duma. Not to be outdone, five members of the Motherland Party, who until now supported Putin, have declared a hunger strike. All the opposition parties, who ironically formed an anti-Putin coalition a few weeks ago, are vowing to stage a day of mass protest in February.
Putin has made the typical response: blame subordinates and make compromises to defuse the situation. After coming out of silence last week, he immediately blamed the provincial governments and his lower functionaries for not implementing the law correctly. He also declared an increase in payments from the measly $3.57 scheduled for April, to an equally measly $7.14 now to begin in March. Also pensions would be pegged to inflation two months earlier.
The Putin government has since bended further. Free transportation has been reinstated, though only for those pensioners on the federal list. Although this is a great victory, the central government has stated it will only finance 30% of the costs, once again leaving the provinces in yet another bind. The Kremlin also announced it will fund any pension short fall with oil receipts from the recently nationalized Yukos. The government has also backed away from plans to eliminate student exemptions from military service, fearing that students might join the pensioners. Finally, the Russian Minster of Finance, Aleksei Kudrin, has assured citizens that the benefit payments would be pegged above inflation and all disbursement mistakes would be solved by the end of the month. Regional governments in Liptesk and Omsk, for example, have paid the cash payments and reinstated the majority of benefits. Despite these concessions pensioners persist, knowing full well that what the Russian government says and what it does are always two different things.
Should we be even surprised that the Russian government has made some compromises? Not really. No, because even Stalin compromised. Most historians recognize Stalin’s March 1930 speech “Dizziness with Success” as a retreat from full throttle collectivization. Collectivization remained but not without some permanent compromises: peasants were allowed private plots, domestic livestock, and limited direct access to markets. Viola argues that “babi bunty” played an important role in forcing these compromises. Peasant women didn’t back down from Stalin, so there is no reason to think Russian pensioners would let Putin run roughshod over them. One therefore shouldn’t be surprised by pensioners’ willingness to take to the streets or success in gaining some victories. For all we know, some of these pensioners’ mothers could have been participants in “babi bunty” or maybe they grew up with the folklore that now surrounds them. If not, they survived WWII, and anyone who thinks these people are going to let the State push them around, let alone the Russian police, then you haven’t been to Russia.