Russian Labor, Class, and Conflict

Guest: Steven Crowley on the Russian labor movement.

Mapping Russian Labor Conflict

In July, the Center for Economic and Political Reform, a think tank that monitors and studies social and economic issues in Russia, released a report on labor conflict in the second quarter of 2016. In this period, TsEPR identified 263 incidents in 65 regions in Russia, 34 more than the first quarter. Fifty-six were specifically labor protests (hunger strikes, strikes, pickets, etc).

The overwhelming majority of these incidents, 171, concerned unpaid wages. The most recent examples of workers’ efforts to fight for unpaid wages are the ongoing hunger strike of 175 miners in Rostov province under the slogan “We are not slaves” and AvtoVAZagregata autoworkers, who haven’t been paid for almost a year, blocking a federal highway. This action was in response Samara’s governor Nikolai Merkushkin cutting down a worker’s question about her back pay with, “Well, I want to say that if you speak in that tone, [it will be] never! Never!”

As this TsEPR map of labor conflict throughout Russia shows these workers fighting for their rights are hardly alone.

point-red Protests connected with labor conflicts (strikes, pickets, etc)
point-yellow Reduction of work hours
point-blue3 Withholding pay (various pay)
point-orange1 Layoffs
point-green2 Reduction of pay
point-purple Protests unconnected to labor conflicts


There Is No Other Way


Oleg Shein posted the following on his Facebook page:

Today, the State Duma adopted a law raising the minimum wage from 6200 to 7500 rubles. This is definitely a good move. In fact, it’s not so small for workers who earn pennies. In 2011, 2.3 million people earned less than a subsistence wage in the formal sector of the economy alone.

But there’s cause to compare this with other countries. 7500 rubles equals $116 at the current exchange rate. At a standard 40 hour work week totaling a 167 hour working month, this comes to 70 cents an hour. The Russian Federal State Statistics Bureau traditionally considers the ruble undervalued by about 40%, as is easily found on its website. If we assume that the ruble is not undervalued by 40%, but by 70%, then the hourly rate minimum wage would be $2.

Compare this with the minimum wage purchasing power parity of other countries. Honduras $2, Laos $2.10, Iraq $ 2.40, Thailand $2.86, Paraguay $3.57, and Turkey $5.89.

Who would have thought that 25 years ago Soviet citizens compared the incomes in the USSR with Norway and Sweden? And the reason is simple: to receive a decent wage under capitalism, you have to fight for it, form trade unions, go to protests, and go on strike. There is no other way.

Alexander Shlyapnikov: An Old Working Class Bolshevik



Barbara Allen is an associate professor of history at La Salle University where she specializes in the Russian revolutionary movement and the early Soviet regime. Her research interests include the history of working-class opposition to the Soviet Communist Party’s dictatorship. Her most recent book is Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik which was just released in paperback.


John Lennon, “Working Class Hero,” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970.

19 Million Russians

Over 19 million Russians live in poverty, according to a recent article in Dengi. But how is poverty determined in the Russian context?

For Rosstat to categorize you as in poverty, you need to have an income lower than the subsistence minimum. For the majority of Dengi readers, this level is mockingly low: 9,452 rubles ($139) a month (10,178 rubles, $150, for an able bodied person, 7,781 rubles ($115) for pensioners, and 9,197 rubles ($136) for children according to levels the government set in the fourth quarter of 2015). There are many such people (19.2 million, or 13.4 percent of the country), and they are increasing (by an additional 3.1 million people last year).

This is, of course, higher than the index the World Bank uses to determine the poverty. Since 2015 it’s at $1.90 a day, that is about 4,000 rubles a month at the current exchange rate. However, here the word “poverty” (bednost’) is a translation of the English word “poverty” which more corresponds to the Russian word “destitution” (nishcheta). But apparently there are still quite a few of these in Russia, though there aren’t any accurate or up to date estimates. Rosstat data provides the best possible approximation: 3.3 percent of the population had an income below 5,000 rubles a month in 2014.

Percentage of the Russian population earning less than the highest subsistence minimum

Percentage of the Russian population earning less than the highest subsistence minimum

Poverty, as the Dengi article emphasizes, is also a subjective category. A person is poor if he or she feels poor. The article cites one Dengi reader, a businessman from Moscow who, before the recession, thought that an income of $10,000 a month was poor. Now this entrepreneur’s family of four lives off of $4000 a month, a bit more than Moscow’s per capita income of 60,000 rubles ($886) a month. Not exactly poor compared to many, many Russians but certainly poorer, a condition Dengi calls the “new poor.”

Russia's regions ranked by poverty index.

Russia’s regions ranked by poverty index.

This “new poor” is arguably a bigger political problem than the 19 million Russians living under poverty. These people, after all, are the beneficiaries of Putinism—how could a guy who thought that an income less than $10,000 a month was poor not be—and having tasted the “good life”—vacations abroad, disposable income, and a decent level of conspicuous consumption—are now seeing it gradually whither under Russia’s recession. Other anecdotal evidence from Russia’s educated and skilled classes tell a similar story.

Ranking of Russia's regions by percentage of population living below the poverty level.

Ranking of Russia’s regions by percentage of population living below the poverty level.

But it’s not just “Putin’s children.” Putin’s “silent majority” are also feeling the pains of recession. The subjective sense of impoverishment is a cross class phenomenon.

Indeed, a recent Levada Center poll revealed that Russians think the three most important problems in the country are rising consumer prices (77 percent), poverty (49 percent) and growing unemployment (43 percent).

There’s also been an increase in labor and social protest. The ongoing long distance truckers’ protest is the most visible manifestation of Putin’s “silent majority” becoming more vocal. And while most of these conflicts remain small and localized, they might prove trouble for United Russia in the upcoming local and parliamentary elections.

A new project by the Center for Economic and Political Reform (TsEPR) seeks to track and map labor protests in Russia. According to their first results, there have been 132 labor conflicts in the first two months of 2016. Over half of them have been over wage arrears (as of March 1 recorded wage arrears amounted to 3.3 billion rubles or $48.7 million). Here’s a map of what the TsEPR calls the “social and economic hot spots.” The provinces with the highest number of protests include Samara, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, and Kirov regions. Interestingly, the poverty rates in these regions tend to measure below the federal average: Samara, 12.6 percent; Sverdlovsk, 8.3 percent; Chelyabinsk, 11.7 percent; and Kirov, 12.7 percent. Meaning that it’s not the impoverished who are protesting, but those trying to maintain their standard of living in rough economic times.

And this is all at a time when journalists are digging up real estate and offshore schemes linked to Vladimir Putin, his family, and circle, not to mention many others in the Russian establishment. But, sadly, Russia is no outlier here, only a symptom of a more widespread disease. It should be stressed that Putin’s people are using the very methods and institutions many of the world’s oligarchs, criminals and notables employ to secretly squirrel away their billions.

But, hey, this is all part of a Western smear campaign to discredit Russia before the elections, right?

Well, tell that to the 19 million Russians living on less than $139 a month.


Is There Life on Mars? An Interview with Elena Demidova on Men’s Choice


In January, Novaya gazeta held their annual online documentary film festival. Each film was available for online viewing for 24 hours. A Facebook friend posted a link to Elena Demidova’s Men’s Choice (Muzhskoi vybor). He had written the English subtitles for it. It looked interesting so I checked it out.

What I saw was something outsiders rarely hear about Russia—the lives of the thousands of people, mostly men, who travel extraordinary distances to Russia’s far north to work in the natural gas fields. These men work on rotations—a month of constant work on, and a month back home. This labor forces them to be separated from their families for long periods of time. Why do they do it? For money, quite simply. Working at Russia’s vast gas fields is far more lucrative than the work available in the small towns and villages many of these men hail from.

I found Men’s Choice fascinating for its human touch against the backdrop of hard labor and a harsh environment. So I reached out to the film’s director, Elena Demidova, for an interview. I originally wanted this to be a podcast, but technical issues and scheduling made it impractical. Luckily, Demidova was kind enough to answer my questions in written form. The interview is below.

Elena Demidova is currently raising funds for her next film, The Last Man. You can donate here.

Watch the trailer for Men’s Choice (English Subtitles)

Tell a bit about yourself and your filmmaking. What are some of the issues that interest you?

I didn’t come to the film industry right away. My first education is in engineering, and then I got a degree in History and worked as a journalist. Then almost by accident I started to study in the Internews film school in Moscow (under Marina Razbezhkina) [Internews Moscow was closed down after a raid by the Russian Interior Ministry in 2007. You can read about the incident here and here as well as the appeal to Vladimir Putin signed by over 1100 Russian journalists and filmmakers.—Sean]. It completely changed my life. I didn’t just get anew profession, I also discovered а new world and new possibilities. I’ve been working as film director since. I’ve made about 10 films. This work is interesting and important for me. Men’s Choice is my second feature-length documentary.

What inspired you to make Men’s Choice?

The Russian North and the Arctic aren’t just words to me.  I went to the North when I was a student. We skied at Northern Urals and Kola Peninsula. In addition to this, I shot one of my previous films in the train travelling from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea. I got the idea for [Men’s Choice] there. When I got on to the train at one of the northern stations, I noticed that only men were travelling in it. So I became acquainted with shift workers, who went home and went back to work a month later. And I realized that I’m really interested in how they live and work in the North and what is going on with them.

Beside this, I wanted to make this film because I lived in a Russian village for quite a long time. I know very well how men and women live there. I feel really bad for the women who must play the man’s role in family because their husbands are unemployed and drink. And I feel sorry for those men who are losing the man in themselves. And I understood that if a man must leave for a long time to support his family, he will not just earn money but he will also have problems. And so it was interesting for me to investigate this situation and these men. I generally believe that a film is always more interesting when it explores something.

And I felt so close to them because I understand their problems. I also used to live in a small town and used to have a husband who earned little money. Granted, we didn’t move to the North, but to Moscow. But it was a lot like moving to the north—there are more opportunities, but you also have to work more as well. My husband gave up; he couldn’t cope with these challenges. My characters can, however. I am interested in how these men manage it.

Your film takes place on the Yamal Peninsula 500 kilometers from the Arctic Circle on the Bovanenkovo gas field. What were you trying to capture by filming the lives of workers in such a remote place?

I wanted to understand how they live, how they work, and the environment around them. It like being on Mars. And in fact, these people go to Mars for their families, that is, out of love for them. But sometimes they lose the family as a result. Other times, they sometimes find a new family. They choose this way of life and they pay for it.

Men’s Choice focuses on three very different men: Andrei, a young man recently married; Alexei, a middle aged man in his second marriage. He met his wife at Bovanenkovo. And Dmitry, who has a wife and a young son. Why these men?

It took a long time find these characters. It was a big problem. I wanted to go to the gas field where the men I met on the train a few years before were traveling. But I could only get therewith Gazprom’s permission. Gazprom didn’t allow us to go there and they permitted us to only film at Bovanenkovo.

There were 3000 men when I got to but I didn’t find the film’s characters. Since the subject of the documentary, as I understood it, is someone who is currently making a choice, who changes, and loves and suffers in front of our eyes. And most of workers had been working in this field for a long time and all the critical moments in their lives had already past.

I met Dmitry first. I don’t like him but he gave us permission to film his wife in their hometown, and when I first saw her, I realized that there is the love and an invisible bond between her and Dmitry. That there is pain.

Dmitry led me to Alexei. I immediately liked Alexei. He’s an unusual man. All the men pump gas, but he pumps shit. All of them are pragmatic but he’s a romantic. All of them just want to make money, but he writes songs. But I had only one problem with him. His life didn’t change the whole time I was filming him and this later presented problems while editing.

And from the beginning I wanted to find a guy who was in the North for the first time and to see how it transforms him. But it turned out that such people rarely get to this gas field. Usually, they’ve previously worked in other gas fields in the North. I only met Andrei when I was on the second filming expedition. His coworkers were surprised that I wanted to film him. They thought that he wasn’t interesting. But I knew that I would film him for more than a year, that I would see the changes in his life and that he would end up in a different and interesting situation. And I was right.

Moreover I think these three stories are interlinked through parallel editing. They support, explain, and move each other forward.

How did these three men react to being filmed? They are not very talkative in the film.

They don’t come off very talkative because these people are generally not talkative. It’s because of their work and incessant tiredness. Besides, it is very hard to talk a lot in this climate.

I also think that words aren’t very important in documentary films. The camera tells a story through images–facial expressions, poses, lights, color—and we understand everything about these people without many words.

Why do they do this type of work where they work a month at a time without time off and in some cases 2000-3000 kilometers from their families?

They have chosen this type of work because there is no regularly paid word in those places where they live. In some small towns in European Russia up to 70% of inhabitants work in this way. They either go to the North or to Moscow.

The alternative to this is to either become a bureaucrat, but not everybody can get such a job, or to earn very little money and live in poverty. But this situation is also very bad for the families. So the choice before a person is actually to separate from their family but earn good money or to live together in poverty.

The film briefly shows women working at Bovanenkovo and Alexei’s wife worked there are well. What do the women do and what are the relations between them and the men?

Alexei’s wife is the woman in film shown in the trailer with Alexei at Bovanenkovo. He talks about how he came there to earn money for his first family, but met her, left his family and now they travel [to Bovanenkovo] together. She’s a cook. I think it’s not that he met her but more like she met him. I think she had come to the North looking for a man. And she found him. This is one of dangers of rotation work.

Many of the shots in the film show the daily life of these workers—As Alexei says in their habitat. Why did you focus on this?

I focused on this because we will never see this anywhere else. The majority of the audience had never been to such a place and they never will. Many people believe that this is easy money, but in fact this money is earned by the very hard work and it was important for me to show it. It was also important to show that the living conditions there are almost like living on Mars.

Also there are many shots just showing the environment—the cold, the darkness, the tundra. Why did you show so much of the landscape?

I don’t think that I show too much of landscape. I actually think the opposite that I don’t show this enough. Showing the people was more important for me so I show landscape mostly through them. I only have four frames that show nature without humans. I think this impression is because nature is perceived as brighter and stronger when you show it through a person. We cannot just see images of nature; we can actually feel how a person feels it. Whether he is cold or warm, whether the wind blows in his face or snow flies. Film for me first and foremost about people.

Given that oil and gas are Russia’s lifeblood, in what ways do the lives of these men, their work, and their families symbolize Russia as a whole?

I wouldn’t make such a generalization.  In fact, life in Russia is much more diverse. The lives of the government and the oligarchs depend on oil and gas pipelines.  But ordinary people earn their living in different ways. In the southern part of European Russia, where black soil is rich, a lot of people work in agriculture. The main source of life in the taiga is the forest. People’s lives in cities are very similar to people’s lives life in cities around the world. In the poor areas (outside the Black Earth zone) to the north of Moscow, (But not in the Arctic, where, yes, oil and gas are the main sources for life), people are very poor, agriculture is destroyed, everyone survives however they can. But even here people aren’t dependent on oil and gas. It’s just poverty. But of course, gas and oil indirectly affects the lives of many, many people working in rotation, and they are a considerable portion of the population.

What is your next project?

I’m currently working on several projects. The first is a co-production with France. It’s called Paris 1986. It’s a story about a mother and her adult son. Pavel is forty years old and Anna Grigoryevna is seventy. Paul isn’t married, has no children, and no steady job. He and his mother are very different, live different lives, have different dreams, and different daily routines. They hurt each other, argue and make up, but they have to live together in the same apartment. This is their only home.

Ever since Pavel found strange old photos in a closet, he’s been constantly occupied with digitizing them on his computer. These are the photos his mother took during a trip to Paris in 1986: three frames in one, poorly focused, with strange angles… At the time, he and his father decided that the photos weren’t any good and didn’t want print them. But now Pavel believes that they’re very interesting and wants to arrange an exhibition for his mother. What if he succeeds?

His mother dreamt about that trip to Paris for thirty years. The trip was almost unreal for a Soviet woman, but this dream came true, and not the dream for grandchildren or a successful life for her son. The son feels guilty and hopes to apologize by getting her back to Paris, at least with the help of a photo exhibition.

I film both of them together and individually to try to find the answers to the eternal questions: How do you learn to understand and accept a loved one? Why does the mother need to feel happy, and how could her son not to feel guilty in front of her? Moreover, I’m very interested if the exhibition will take place.

The film is currently in postproduction.

The other film was shot practically without any money. Just with help of volunteers. The main protagonist—Lesha—is the last man in his village. The other men have died or left. The village was burned down during the terrible fires of 2010. But Lesha doesn’t want to leave. He’s looking for a wife but instead a female director periodically comes to him. He’s looking for love but I’m trying to make a film.

Watch Lesha (English Subtitles)

This is a very personal projector me. I met Lesha in the summer 2010 when the entire European part of Russia was on fire. The village where Lesha lived burned down. I came there with volunteers. We brought humanitarian aid. We went with him on the only village street where his house was and where his cat and dog lived. He had to feed them. We walked and talked. About the fire, but not only. At the time, I thought I would shoot episode of film about the volunteers. But when I looked at the material, I realized that this hour walk was a film in and of itself. This movie was released in 2011, it was simply called Lesha. But during the hour we spent together in that burnt village, something happened that caused me to come to him again and again, first with volunteers and then by myself and to shoot new big film. I came into his life, and he became a part of mine. Once the movie is over it is also be important how.

And I have other plans and dreams. I really hope they will all come true—just like my dream has come true to make a film about male rotation workers in the North.


2015: The Year of the Downward Spiral


Recent reports in Vedomosti and RBK dovetail nicely with the editorial I’ve translated below from the folks at Vedomosti predicts that in 2016 Russia’s economy will only worsen—the price of oil will be cheaper, inflation higher, incomes lower, and the ruble weaker. Along these lines, RBK evaluates the growth of social protests in 2015 and suggests that the trend will only continue after the new year. These social actions are a different animal from the protests of 2011-2012. Then Putin could simply wait out angry urbanites with only yielding to a few minor, and mostly cosmetic, concessions. The subsequent tightening the screws effectively neutralized the more radical remnants.

But Putin did something else in 2012 that was no less important to neutralize the threat from the streets. He shifted his constituency away from the cosmopolitan urban classes to the so-called “silent majority” of the working classes in the provinces. This Nixonian move incorporated heavy doses of populism, patriotism and conservative identity politics. Putin’s “populist turn” never contradicted elite rapaciousness. It was never meant to. Elite acquiesces was the other side of coin, and in many ways only continued, not contradicted, the tenor of his first two terms. And until recently, this unity of opposites worked.

As the editors of write below, the social protests of 2015 symbolize the potential fracturing of the “Putin consensus.” It is this splintering of “national unity” that poses the greatest threat to the system. This is not to say that the Putin system is teetering on the precipice as many would like to imagine. Rather it looks to face challenges that expose one of the “third term’s” inherent weaknesses—the system’s lack of political and economic flexibility and dynamism. One of Putin’ successes has been his ability to sell “stability” as legitimization for his continued rule. Now legitimacy is under pressure as “stability” slides into ossification. As the editors suggest, in the context of the economic downward slide, attenuating those pressures might require pitting the two inherently contradictory elements of the “Putin consensus” against each other.

2015: The Year of the Downward Spiral

Editors, 25 December 2015
Summing up the past year

The system Putin built wants to appear unchanging: it is based on “stability”, that is, the illusion that there is no alternative to its policies and authority. Analysts’ numerous apocalyptic prophecies signaling the impending collapse are the flipside to “stability.” This past year has witnessed the end to “stability,” but the collapse has not occurred. Instead, a third option between stasis and disaster has prevailed: The quickening oscillation of a downward spiral.

The main elements of the Putin system remain in place, but it’s clearly obvious this very system cannot cope with the deep and extensive crisis. It’s a crisis of incomes of the population (their unprecedented fall since the 1990’s); the crisis of the social sphere (the authorities’ rousing populist statements are not able to conceal their deadly policies of austerity: pervasive “optimization”, budget cuts and the increased pressure on the public sector, and the freezing of pensions); the crisis of regional budgets, upon which the federal center unloaded the main burden of social spending; and the crisis of the Putin economy and its inability to find new engines of growth.

In the context of contracting incomes Putin’s politico-economic system can no longer conceal its predatory nature. The novelty of the past year has been the attempts to resolve budget shortfalls while at the same time filling the pockets of officials and businessmen close to the government with the help of new taxes and fees. It’s not just the Platon system, which provoked the most significant social protests this year, but also tax increases on small businesses, the introduction of paid parking, and additional charges for utilities. The population will pay, that is those who still have something to pay with, for the crisis and so that state corporations and Putin’s friends will have “a very large amount of money.”  The conflict is unequivocal: the minority of haves are against the majority of have-nots.

This conflict is becoming more pronounced. It’s not just about the truckers’ protests. The number of labor protests is rapidly growing. According the Center for Social and Labor Rights (TsSTP), the number of protests has increased by more than a third, 37percent, compared to last year, and more than half, 53 percent, to previous years (2008 – 2013). Petr Biziukov, an analyst at TsSTP, concludes that the quantity of protests has transformed into quality. “Physicians’ protests across the country, as well as the truckers’ protests comprised dozens of regions, and showed that the new kind of protests will be connected by a network rather than by local actions. Interregional, multisectoral and even intraregional actions arise more often. It seems that in this instance, the transition from local (isolated) protests emerging in disparate industries to networked actions uniting workers and organizations from different industries, cities and regions under the same slogans is a qualitative shift in the Russian protest movement.”


The “patriotic” consolidation over the last two years, the only purpose of which has been to mask the fundamental conflict of Russian society—the minority haves against the majority have-nots—has stopped working. The “Crimean Consensus” presaged this rift. Surveys show a decline in the public’s confidence in the media which throughout the “third term” has played a major role in maintaining the illusion of national unity against numerous internal and external enemies.

Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the perpetual “Bolotnaya Case” has completely demoralized the urban White Ribbon movement. However, though today’s urban middle classes are forcibly denied political rights, it doesn’t mean that they will not try to go back into the streets. This return, however, won’t be a simple replay of 2011-2012 but will be tied to the current crisis. Only time will tell what form it will take: part of a broader social coalition against austerity or an attempt to mobilize around the 2016-2018 election cycle.

The “Putin majority’s” potential collapse contributes amazingly to Russia’s cynical and unprincipled foreign policy which experts prudently call “the predominance of tactics over strategy.” Faced with a deadlock in the Donbas, Russia “has shifted the theater of war” and rushed into Syria to restore relations with the West. For the Kremlin, the bombing of Syria is a trump card in the “Great Game”, but it is by no means a game for Syrians: it’s a horrific civil war, the end of which Russia’s participation only delays, and whose bombing results in civilian deaths. Russia’s bombs are no less deadly than those of the United States, England, and France.

It’s unknown how much longer the authorities will be able to spin their adventurous imperialism for “restoring Russia’s place in the world.” To keep its own citizens eyes on the illusion that the Syrian adventure is “a war without consequences,” the ruling elite has resorted to regularly falsifying the numbers of military casualties. Another glaring example of this information strategy was the two weeks of deliberate deception about the true cause of the passenger deaths in the A321 Russian airliner over Sinai. In Russia itself, the mass production of external enemies has acquired the traits of a petty and despicable farce. The harassment of Turkish citizens in the last weeks of the year are an especially disgraceful page in this history.

The accelerating economic and social crisis exposes the existing regime’s limited room for maneuver and its stunning lack of flexibility. At the present moment it is practically incapable of reforming itself, or at least, significantly restraining the elite’s appetites. The regime with the country in tow can only barrel downward and bitterly defend “their own” from public criticism, intensify repression, defiantly refuse to make concessions to demands from below, and cut off any possibility for unauthorized political participation from above.

The country enters a new year fearful of the still hidden future, but the “grapes of wrath” are clearly ripening.

The Payback for Work

Photo: Natalia Fomina / Novaya gazeta

Photo: Natalia Fomina / Novaya gazeta

For all intents and purposes, Russia’s official unemployment rate remains quite low for an economy in recession. The Russian Statistical Agency reports that the official unemployment rate in October-November went from 5.5 percent to 5.8 percent. This is still a far from the rate in February 2009 when official unemployment hit a high of 9.4 percent. The recession of 2008-2010, when GDP in Russia fell from 2.65 percent in January 2008 to -3.53 percent in April 2009, continues to overshadow Russia’s current economic woes. The crucial difference between then and now is that there’s no rebound of global oil prices in sight, sanctions constrict borrowing Western capital, and the Russian government has chosen austerity as a means to climb out of the doldrums.

Despite the low numbers, unemployment in Russia is subject to a myriad of concealments. There’s the standard measurement problem where unemployment figures only record people registered as unemployed. Many people in Russia, like in the US, slip through the statistical cracks.

Nor does the federal unemployment rate reveal the variation of regional unemployment where the variation can range from a low of 1.4 percent in St. Petersburg to a high of 30.7 percent in Ingushetia.

But unemployment is also increasingly hidden by long term unpaid mandatory furloughs. Workers are technically employed. They are just not working. Or getting paid. As Moskovskii komsomolets explains:

Hidden unemployment is one of the most important indicators. In a crisis, many businesses are compelled to place employees on long-term unpaid leave and save money for employee severance. While such official reductions of staff do not impact the unemployment level, it actually only makes the situation is worse. Because they are not technically laid off, it is impossible [for workers] to register as unemployed and receive any state assistance. The artificial creation of positive unemployment data helps maintain the authorities’ approval ratings. Currently, the number of people in unemployed limbo is much greater than last year.

Another problem plaguing workers is wage arrears. As this chart shows wage arrears have almost doubled in 2015:



As the article below shows, all this talk of dry statistics are the stuff of a cold-hearted social scientist. The fetishism of figures elide the humanism of Tatiana’s story as a furloughed worker from the AvtoVAZagregat parts factory in Togliatti and the effort by her fellow workers to recoup 52.5 million rubles ($743,200) in back pay from their employer.

The Payback for Work

How people on unpaid furloughs spend their time.
By Natalia Fomina
Special Correspondent for Novaya gazeta in Samara

You can talk to a PhD of whatever social science and hear all about economic instability, the financial crisis, the fall of the ruble, the GDP and government spending. And you can meet people who find themselves on six months of unpaid leave. Only they will talking about something else . . .

Until recently, AvtoVAZagregat was one of the largest parts supply factories in Togliatti. At the beginning of July 2015, AvtoVAZagregat stopped production. Since June, two and a half thousand of the company’s employees have not been paid a salary. On September 15, this fact provoked a criminal case under Article 2, Section 145.1 of the Criminal Code (The failure to pay full wages for more than two months out of self-serving or other personal interests).

Tatiana is one of those who has not been paid. She’s 52 years old. She’s worked at the AvtoVAZagregat plant as a quality inspector since 1995, that is for 20 years. She’s worked the last twelve in the assembly shop. It’s in the assembly shop where the car seats we’re accustomed to take shape. They undergo pre-cutting work, packaging, handling, palleting, assembly, sealing, inspection and labeling. Tatiana worked as an inspector. Until they stopped paying her. No, she still went to work for another month, and would have gone longer but they started to remove equipment from the factory and there was nothing left to inspect.

We meet on Revolution Square in Samara behind the Lenin monument where you can see the historic building of the regional court where the young Vladimir Ulyanov served as a lawyer. We go to the awful, but cheap café Zhili-Byli, where it smells of wet floors, cheap perfume and cabbage.

“Oh, good it’s warm!” Tatiana says and refuses to order food. “I don’t spend my own money,” I say decisively speaks. “It’s a business expense!”

Tatiana smiles. She decides to eat a hamburger patty and drink tea. As we wait for our order she says:

“I think things could have been different if we still lived in a house. With my husband and mother. I would have really worked the garden. You can not only live well from it but you can also regularly earn a living from a vegetable garden. We have women who breed ducks, this is also an option. And then I wouldn’t care for this factory and its manager. But our house burned down more than ten years ago,” she continues after a measured pause, “I buried my mother, I lost my husband.”

I’m silent. When we agreed to meet, Tatiana sent her picture. There she stood just near the once-upon-a-time-gingerbread house that is now lopsided on both sides. Sitting next to the elegant elderly lady is a tall man in a vest.

“And . . your husband . . . too?” I ask hesitantly: it’s awkward to specify such things. “I lost him.” This could mean anything.

“Not exactly,” Tatiana reassures me, “It’s not you. My husband’s in prison.”

The tea arrives. And the burger cutlets. Tatiana saws off a piece with her fork and continues: “We celebrated the New Year . . . my mother lived with us then, where could she go with a fractured hip, she slept in the kitchen. We sat, drank, I put out hors d’oeuvres. Well, we sat and sat, mother on crutches, it was a good thing she held her tongue, but when she opened her mouth, it was the same over and over: you cock sucking bastards, you cock sucking bastards. I don’t even know who she’s going on about. Then we went for a walk with her, there were firecrackers and everything. We hung around for a long time, like frozen icicles, and drank more vodka to warm up in the fresh air. We heard the fire engine sirens. Who knew it was for us. Of course, at first, we didn’t think it was our house burning. On the contrary, I thought there was some bonfire through the passageway. We came back and our house was gone, a horrible stench of smoke rose from the ruins and a crowd of people—neighbors, firefighters, and police. Not a single cup or spoon. Or blankets. It all burned.”

A manager sits at the next table with office workers. Young people dressed in suits discuss their annual bonus. A 100,000 rubles to some, 200,000 to others. Tatiana listens, furrows her brow, and continues the story: “Well, mom was burned alive then. She didn’t have time to get out of the house and open the door. Her aluminum crutches were far from her, they were found in the kitchen, she crawled to them but didn’t make it. And there aren’t any bars on all the first floor windows.”

The waitress asks, do you want anything else? Tatiana looks at me inquisitively. I ask for a brandy. Tatiana raises an eyebrow. Waitress quickly bangs down a decanter and two glasses on the table.. The oily brandy splashes around in the decanter kind of like crude oil.

“Well, then the firemen said: “It was arson.” I still don’t believe it was my husband. So, he always disliked mother. But to do this! ”

Tatiana falls silent. Then she says: “I wouldn’t have pulled through it if I hadn’t been working. It was in 2003 and things were very good at the factory. You probably don’t remember, we just adopted a new quality standard, the ISO 9000, it was nearly the first time in Russia. We won a Swiss medal. “For impeccable business reputation.” We received the “Russian National Olympics” award in all areas. I won’t lie, they paid us well then. And not just during working time! A standardized working day takes up time. There’s the morning when you go out to the factory. Then there’s a lunch break, when you eat soup and a main course in the canteen. There’s the evening when you go past the guard’s desk, through the shops and back. All the same people are on the minibus, since day in and day out we always take longer shifts, especially me, why me? I don’t have a home or family, I lived in a in a dorm and in public housing, and only after seven years I finally got the insurance money [from the fire] and was able to buy an apartment. And now I live alone in an apartment. When you have nowhere to go and nowhere to come back to in the evening, it’s hardly anything. It’s not even a new life, it’s no life whatsoever.

In October, the Samara Regional Arbitration Court will consider six companies’ requests to be included in AvtoVAZagregat’s bankruptcy. Between July and October over fifty lawsuits worth more than 340 million rubles have been filed against the company.

“My husband still has three years left on his sentence. Yeah, I visit him, as it should be. They give relatives long term visitation. We’re not divorced. I’ve told you that I don’t believe that it was him, right? Tatiana twirls an empty glass in her hands.

I nod as Tatiana speaks.

“I don’t know what happened to me back then. Reactive psychosis, says the doctor at the psychiatric hospital. Thankfully, everything is alright now. I’m as healthy as a bull. In September, I got a job in a florist shop arranging bouquets. I should say it’s awful work. The shop is cold because the flowers love it. There’s ice water in the planters. Look at my fingers!”

Tatiana shows me her hands. Red fingers jump out from under the wooden table. Her nails are cut at the roots. There’s a watch with a leather strap on her left wrist. She takes the glass and empties it in a single gulp.

“Honestly, I don’t think they’ll pay us our back pay. There are women at VAZ trying to but it’s not likely. Our women trying to rebuild at VAZ, but it’s not likely. There’s nowhere for them to go and next year they’ll start a four day work week.” she says between sips of watery tea.

An hour later I close Tatiana’s taxi door for her ride from Samara to Togliatti. It’s 300 rubles a person and you need to wait for four before leaving. On closer inspection, the driver is Tatiana’s former co-worker—a mechanic in the AvtoVAZagregat welding shop and has been out of work for six months. “A welder for life,” he says and promises to drive Tatiana for free. As one of his own.

According to the latest figures, AvtoVAZagregat owes more than 1,400 employees a total of 52.5 million rubles. As of today, the prosecutor’s office has filed over 905 lawsuits on behalf of employees. “As the work proceeds, about twenty claims go to court a day. By the organization’s count, 16.5 million rubles have been given out to employees. In addition, there are126 more enforcement proceedings at the bailiff,” reports the regional prosecutor’s press service. In early September, there were repeated rallies in support of the workers in Togliatti and Samara.


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