On the weekend of April 16 and 17, the first Russian Social Forum was held in Moscow. On the campus of the Moscow University of the Humanities, members of left, trade union, environmental, human rights and disabled organisations gathered to discuss strategy and tactics for the struggle against the policies of today’s authorities. The participants numbered more than a thousand – but reporters from the mainstream media were almost completely absent. On the evening of May 16, a demonstration to mark the opening of the forum was held on Pushkin Square.
It might of course seem that to attract a little over a thousand activists from such a vast country was no particular achievement. But with an almost complete lack of money and of access to the mass media, in circumstances where even collecting the addresses of participants in the protest action was a problem, and when the price of the cheapest train ticket might be an insurmountable barrier to making the trip to Moscow, organising such a forum was by no means a simple task. In Germany, where the left is considerably stronger, and where trade unions and antiglobalist groups are able to invest far greater resources in forums, similar events attract around five thousand people.
On the basis of the attendance, the Moscow forum can be considered a success – and this claim can also be made in a further respect. Until now, persuading various left groups to work together has been extremely difficult. In addition, the “alternative” trade unions have not always got on well with one another. The Russian Social Forum was the result of joint work by a whole series of groups and organisations whose past relations have often been far from sympathetic. Nevertheless, the forum took place. The proceedings were not without problems, but the overwhelming majority of the participants showed a readiness to work together. Indeed, they put an obvious stress on demonstrating their loyalty to one another.
Among the people present were activists of the Left Youth Front, and also of several youth groups that have remained outside that organisation. The trade union bodies represented included the All-Russian Confederation of Labour, the Siberian Confederation of Labour, and the Defence of Labour group. Also present were representatives of the Institute for the Study of Globalisation, of the Institute for the Study of Collective Actions, and of the Alternatives movement. Another category that was well represented was the alternative press, ranging from the St Petersburg art project What is to be Done? to the Tyumen Worker and the quite new Pravda-Info, the first issue of which was presented at the forum.
Unlike congresses of the Duma opposition, where bored followers are brought in to hear ritual speeches from the leaders, the Russian Social Forum was a place where people themselves organised seminars, set up discussions, and planned specific actions.
Officially, political parties were excluded from the forum, but the gathering was by no means apolitical. While parties could not put proposals to the forum, no-one prevented their supporters from participating fully.
Demands on the authorities were voiced bluntly, without sentimental references to a kindly tsar-president being surrounded by evil ministers.
At the forum were miners and artists, people with a wealth of political experience and students who had learned about the forum from the internet. They joined in singing the Internationale, debated tactics for organising street protests, and discussed the experience of strike struggles. They argued about what it means to be a leftist in the art world, and about whether it is worth encouraging people to quit old trade unions with a record of servility to the authorities. They exchanged addresses and telephone numbers.
Only the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was conspicuous for its absence. On April 16 this party was holding a meeting of the Union of Communist Parties. Instead of meeting with activists of the social protest movements, the party chiefs of the former Soviet republics preferred to talk to one another. Individual members of the KPRF were nevertheless present. In most cases, they were not well inclined to the leadership of their party. In just the same fashion, few representatives were in evidence from the “official” trade unions, members of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.
Many participants in the forum, remembering the days of perestroika, recalled the first legal meetings in the late 1980s of “informals” – that is, unofficial social groups. The atmosphere was similar, and many people were meeting one another for the first time in many years. Younger people could make comparisons only with the European social forums, at which hundreds of Russians have been present.
What lay behind the success of the Russian Social Forum? The answer, of course, is the general upsurge of social movements that has taken place in the country.
Russia-wide protests in January this year against the law on the monetisation of benefits, which substituted money payments for various benefits in kind that had been enjoyed by pensioners, showed that Russians are by no means as obedient and long-suffering as the country’s leaders would like. The liberal opposition has livened up as well.
In these circles, it has become respectable to sympathise with the rebellious pensioners who have blocked streets, and to show an indignant concern for young people who fall beneath the batons of the police. Meanwhile, most of the protesters themselves have had no faith in liberal politicians. As for the nationalist-minded figures from the KPRF and the “Homeland” bloc, the more actively they have joined in the protest actions, the more quickly these actions have died down.
The growing hostility to the authorities is combined with a pronounced lack of confidence in the opposition. After all, the Kremlin’s liberal critics share with it a free-market philosophy and a belief that the outcomes of privatisation need to be strengthened and defended. The uselessness of the Duma patriots, meanwhile, has long been obvious even to people without much experience of politics. Nostalgia is no substitute for an economic program, and arguments about the so-called special mission of Russia cannot conceal an open distaste for action. Nor can hours-long speeches about the good of the people provide a cover for antidemocratism and for a lack of interest in the real people, as opposed to a stereotyped image of them.
Meanwhile, the events of the past January have shown that a new opposition is taking shape in Russia. It is not being formed around the Duma parties, but on the basis of the developing social movements. The participants in the protest actions are trying to acquire a voice and to formulate their own demands to be placed on the authorities. As in many other countries, a social forum is now providing a meeting place for the protesters.
Unlike earlier international organisations of the left, the “new international” that is coming into being on the basis of the ideas proclaimed by the social forums – in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Florence, Paris and London – is exceptionally democratic. In terms of ideas, the initiative has come from below. For Russian political culture – in which, even on the left, an unbelievable gap has remained between passive followers and leaders bursting with self-satisfaction – the forum was simply miraculous; it featured neither honorary presidiums nor long, ceremonious speeches.
At the April 16 demonstration, the order in which the speakers addressed the participants was determined by lot; first up was Petr Zolotarev, a trade union leader from the city of Togliatti. The television and press joined in ignoring this “incorrect” gathering, but no-one was especially embittered as a result; the social movements are acquiring their own media, from websites and small newspapers to pirate radio stations and internet television. Indeed, one can speak of the “small press” only in the sense that these news sources are run on very little money. Pravda-Info, for example, has appeared in a print-run of 55,000 copies, enormous for such publications.
A new social force is coming into being before our eyes. If the authorities fail to take account of it, so much the worse for the authorities.