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“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.
Let me tell you about the ‘invalids.’ The invalids are young men who ride the Moscow metro begging for change from passengers. Begging, however, is really not the right word. What they are really doing is collecting a payment. A payment of a few rubles from all the passengers who either fought in Chechnya and returned physically unscathed (though mentally, who knows) or those who were lucky enough to be a woman, too old, weren’t sent there during their two year, mandatory military service for all men over 18, or were able to pay to get out of their service. See, these men lost their limbs in the war in Chechnya. Sometimes it’s an arm (these are the lucky ones), sometimes it’s an arm and a leg. The most frequent of late have been those missing both legs. These men are only torsos. They are propped in a wheelchair or worse on a plank with wheels, which they propel themselves forward with their arms.
The sight at first glance is one of horror. But for the majority of passengers, their glance is filled with guilt. You can see it in their eyes; in how they bow their heads in shame, in how some slowly turn their heads toward the walls, or in how some act like the invalid isn’t there. Now matter now matter how much you pretend that this half-man is invisible, he’s there. His silent message is clear: For you. For security. For Russia. For, what? A tithe of a few rubles is made so maybe this former soldier can live, and perhaps if he is lucky get prosthesis. Many people give, but is it enough? Can a few rubles, even from hundreds of people, perhaps even thousands of people who fill the Moscow metro everyday, repay a man for half his body? I’ve started carrying my coin rubles so I can also pay. . .
I don’t know much about the Russian military system. I don’t know how well they take care of their soldiers. I don’t know what kind of medical care they get. But, I think that the invalids’ presence in the metro plays a function that goes beyond money for daily bread. The invalids are a reminder of a forgotten war, an invisible war that has been waged off and on for the last 12 years. I think it is simply a war to exterminate the Chechens and to mentally and physically decimate a generation of Russian men. At first, however, the war in Chechnya was to prevent the Chechens from breaking with Russia and establishing their own state. Now, Putin’s government claims the war is part of a global war on terrorism. Recall the Pushkinskaya metro bombing, the apartment bombing, Nord-Ost theater hostage crisis (where most died because the Russian Security Forces gassed the theater), the slaughter of hundreds of children (by both Chechen hostage takers and Russian Security Forces) in Beslan, the blowing up of two airliners, and the more recent bombings in the metro. Despite all this, the reality of the war is a forgotten one. The greatest irony is that while one can see images on Russian TV of American soldiers fighting house to house in Fallujah, raiding people’s homes and forcing women and children to the ground at gun point, or Iraqi civilians fleeing their homes after the U.S. bombed their neighborhood, thereby making this forgotten, American war real, similar images of Russians in Chechnya are missing. To make matters worse, the Russians seem to respond to any mention of Chechnya with a face of disgust. Not for the senseless war there, but for Chechnya itself, its people, the whole matter. I call it a disgust of apathy. This apathy, like so many other emotions and opinions, turns to guilt at the sight of an invalid. You can’t pretend anymore with an invalid in your presence. The half-man before you is a reminder that there is a war and this is what it does to your OWN youths. The future of Russia is one built on a generation of dismembered bodies.
The invalid is the living symbol for modern war. Gone are high death numbers for states like Russia and the United States. These are only reserved for their enemies and the civilians that surround them. Gone are the wars were the participating societies are devastated by destruction, death, and disease, like the so-called glorious wars, WWI and WWII (the U.S. escaped the destruction the Europeans experienced in these two wars). For Russian and the American soldiers modern war resembles pre-modern wars. Like the peasant warriors of the 16th century who had their limbs hacked off, similarly our warriors also experience a hacking of sorts to the blunt precision of road side bombs. Our boys in uniform don’t lose their lives, they lose their livelihood. They are physically marked for life. Even if they are able to expunge the psychological nightmare of war, the physical reminder will always be with them. The pre-modern frequency of amputation is the face of modern war. The invalid is a testament to this.
Americans shouldn’t view the Russian invalid as yet another opportunity to sing the praises of American society. It would be sheer blindness, if not immoral, to claim difference, let alone superiority. As of this morning, 51 American soldiers have died in Fallujah. This is only going to increase as more men are further killed in battle or die from their wounds. The American casualty numbers from Fallujah and this means not only deaths but injury in battle, are in the hundreds. So far, if I remember correctly (I don’t have exact numbers in front of me) total American deaths since the beginning of the war have probably reached the 1,200 mark. According to investigative reports in the Christian Science Monitor, total casualties fall somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000, and by some estimates even up to 17,000. How many of these are ‘invalids’? It is hard to get an exact number, reporters claim, because the military restricts access to casualty numbers, military hospitals, and military transport of soldiers from the battlefield to bases in Germany. The fact that we can’t even see the shipment of coffins because (officially) it might upset some families (unofficially: remind us of how many of our OWN are dying), makes exactness on this question more a dream than a reality.
No, we can’t claim superiority over the Russians because our media doesn’t show anything about the war either. All we get are military press releases that use the terms ‘victory,’ ‘liberated’, and ‘pacified’ it seems almost everyday. These same press releases are the ones that claim that the U.S. air strikes in Fallujah are on ‘hideouts’ and ‘safe houses’ of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I honestly believe that this man does not, and perhaps never has existed. You have to be a complete idiot, or worse immoral to continue to believe what the military and our government are telling us the truth about Iraq. I don’t profess to know the truth, but I know that the story we are getting from out government is not it.
One could say that at least we don’t have to experience the horror of the invalid. At least our boys are “taken care of.” If you ever been to a military hospital you will know the increasing falseness of this. If you know about how the government has been steadily decreasing veteran’s benefits, you have to at least wonder. Plus, recognizing the invalid through his invisibility is like lumping him with the other ‘invisibles’ in our society: the homeless, the addict, the mentally ill, and the disabled. The invalid’s invisibility might bring us comfort, but does it make us more human? Is the placebo of invisibility better than the pain of guilt, of the reality of war? Is our society any better with the invalid hiding in their homes or in the dark corners of our cities, shameful of their dismemberment? Isn’t it us who should be shamed. At least the Russians are forced to face theirs in the dismembered body of a human being, even if this guilt passes with the next metro stop.
Every time I see one of these men on the Moscow metro, I can’t help thinking that we are only two years into our war. Despite assurances, it doesn’t look like an end is in sight. This is compounded by the fact that what “we” are fighting for keeps changing. First it was “weapons of mass destruction”, then it was “to liberate the Iraqi people,” now it’s a mixture of “it’s better to fight the terrorists there than here,” and “so the Iraqis can live in freedom and hold elections.” What will the reason be in five years when our invalids begin to make their way into our daily commute? Will the discomfort they bring be assuaged with the tithing of a few dollars? More importantly, will we feel guilt because of their missing limbs or because we didn’t stop the madness that took them sooner?