A St Petersburg Tale

We travelled to the counter-summit. The first stage was a conference on the results of fifteen years of neoliberal reforms. After this came the Russian Social Forum, to which the authorities prudently allocated the Kirov Stadium – remote from the summit of the “G-8”, and in general, from any place in St Petersburg where important things might happen.

We were in luck. Unlike many of the other delegates to the Russian Social Forum, we were not taken off the train, were not arrested, and did not have our passports seized. For others, the journey proved far more dramatic. Some were prevented from leaving their native cities. Right across the country, “Operation Covering Detachment” was under way; its aim was to stop extremists from coming to disrupt the summit. Worried representatives of the forces of law and order scoured the railway stations and airports, armed with lists of these very extremists. For some reason, the lists had been copied out by hand. Who compiled them remains a mystery that is beyond the reach of present-day Russians, and that will be of no interest whatever to historians in the future. How the names on the lists were chosen, and on what basis, is no less of a mystery.

In Yekaterinburg Vasiliy Starostin, leader of the Siberian Confederation of Labour, was taken from the train. He was not to reach Russia’s “northern capital”. Ivan Ovsyannikov, an activist with the Trotskyist organization Socialist Resistance, was arrested three times, but released on each occasion. Three times he made his way into the statistics both of the police and of the human rights defenders, and then by good fortune appeared in the Kirov Stadium. Another Trotskyist, from the group Forward, was not so lucky. If we are to believe the police report, the philosophy student Aleksandr Ignatyuk from Saratov had no sooner arrived in the police station than he launched into an abusive tirade, began smashing everything about him, and attacked the officers. It was necessary to detain him for a fortnight. Instead of speaking at the forum, the young philosopher was sent to sweep the streets of Saratov. However, this did not go on for long. Even before the forum ended, Ignatyuk was released. A mistake had been discovered; as it turned out, it was someone else who had smashed up the police station.

Then there was the activist Roman Burlak, from Krasnoyarsk, who among leftists has become something of an epic hero. Burlak was detained twice, and each time the result of his encounter with the police was the disappearance of his passport. The first time this mishap occurred was on the train. The police officer asked politely for his documents, then after a few minutes returned with a puzzled expression and related that some woman had grabbed the passport from his hands and flung it out of the window. Without a passport, you cannot travel either by train or by air. And all around, you understand, was the wild Siberian forest….

Eventually, Burlak was set down at a siding, and put up in a hotel. Without a passport. By special request of the organs of law enforcement. And in any case, some mysterious substance had been found on the train – perhaps explosives, or perhaps sugar. The police went to check. But the good-natured Siberian cops immediately reassured Burlak that there was nothing to worry about. He should just sit tight and wait, not get worked up, and everything would be fine. What about food, Burlak wondered. “Well, you were going to St Petersburg, weren’t you? That means you’ve got some money, right? So take all your money and go and buy yourself some vodka.”

After the police had failed to find explosives, Burlak returned home, thought for a bit, and recalled that he still had a foreign travel passport. Armed with this passport, he set out for the airport, but here, by ill chance, miraculous events once more ensued. When the time came for him to register for Flight 669, Krasnoyarsk-St Petersburg, a police officer behind the registration desk suggested, out of the goodness of his heart, that Burlak exchange his ticket for a new one, since next to his surname the ticket was “smudged”. Over the next fifteen minutes Burlak’s ticket was exchanged, but as was explained behind the registration desk, there was a slight error with the date of the flight – July 21 instead of July 12. Burlak had once again to exchange his ticket. The procedure dragged out, and ultimately, in some strange fashion, Burlak’s foreign travel passport was lost as well.

The sad, passportless Burlak returned home, and next to the door of his apartment building found an entire delegation of people in uniforms and civilian dress. They were all crowded around a vehicle from which, for some reason, cables extended to the nearest power pole. Then it began raining heavily, and the delegation huddled in the stair-well of the “extremist”. The terrified neighbours, who had not been able to make head nor tail of the situation, suspected that a bandit raid was in progress, and tried to call the police. Meanwhile, the local media were very concerned about Burlak’s fate, and enquired about the details, but nothing was put to air. Instead of a planned interview with Burlak, the local radio ran a talk by a geographer, who related in thoroughly diverting fashion how he drew up maps of the city and of the region.

Not surprisingly, the participants in our conference went to St Petersburg with an unpleasant suspicion: could it be that they, too, were on the mysterious list? This was, of course, an honest feeling, but painfully unnerving nonetheless. In any case, the leader of the All-Russian Confederation of Labour Boris Kravchenko took with him prints of official photographs, taken in the Kremlin, of President Vladimir Putin welcoming trade union leaders. To tell the truth, the photographs did not make much of an impression on me. I had the sense that they were montages: in one of them, Kravchenko with a mannequin of Putin, in another, Putin with a mannequin of Kravchenko, and in a third, two mannequins.

As it turned out, we did not reach Russia’s “northern capital” without our share of adventures. This time, however, Operation Covering Detachment had nothing to do with it. After leaving Moscow on the night of July 11, we stopped somewhere near Tver. Towards morning we discovered that the whole rail line was at a standstill; four hundred metres of electrical cable had been stolen.

The last train to reach St Petersburg arrived around six in the morning. After that, everything was halted. The delegates to our conference and to the social forum were stuck in trains spread out along the whole line between St Petersburg and Moscow. “The outcome of fifteen years of neoliberal reforms,” Kravchenko remarked sadly.

The train was stopped for four hours. During that time I sensed with particular clarity what Ilya Kormiltsev had set out to express in his song Bound by a Single Chain: “Here the trains are dreary, and the distances immense.” I sent Kormiltsev a text message, and immediately received back the interested query: “Are the trains moving again?” “No,” I explained. “That’s the next part of the program.”

After standing pointlessly for four hours, the trains finally got under way. We arrived at the venue around one in the afternoon. By that time, the conference in the Leningrad Palace of Youth had already begun. In all, it began three times; with the arrival of each new group of delegates, everything had to start again from the beginning. “That looks like a record,” said Michael Brie from the German Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, which had helped organize the conference. “I’ve never seen such a thing in my life.”

In St Petersburg itself, things were not as bad as we had expected. The airport was closed, but only for a relatively short period, and traffic was flowing. Normal life was of course disrupted, but after the bitter experience of the city’s three hundredth anniversary celebrations, St Petersburg residents had expected much worse.

From time to time groups of people from the Kirov Stadium appeared in the Leningrad Palace of Youth, telling the latest stories of arrests, jailings and other unpleasantries. The anarchists had been hit particularly hard. Several people had been arrested in St Petersburg itself, including at least three foreigners. According to the official accusations, two Germans and a Swiss had urinated on cars. Then it was discovered that the Swiss had not been out on the street at the time indicated, but that he had been seen in the apartment of one of his friends. That meant he must have urinated out the window.

The punks were especially nervous, seeing beneath every bush fascists and skinheads preparing to beat up antiglobalists. Meanwhile, descriptions of the Kirov Stadium, surrounded by police and by riot troops with automatic weapons, brought to mind images of the military coup in Chile. Participants in the forum spontaneously renamed the venue the “Pinochet Stadium”, and waited for the gates to be finally locked on them.

We listened to all these stories, fed the guests and gave them coffee. Then in the evening of July 13, after completing the work of the conference, we set off for the stadium.

The spectacle we beheld there was much less dramatic than we had expected. By the barrier that surrounds the stadium, a half-dozen or so police were basking in the sun. A company of OMON riot troops languished among the trees near a sign that read “Cheburashka Zoo”. One of them, in full battle gear with helmet and camouflage uniform, and armed with a sub-machine gun, was sheltering from the heat in the shade of a kiosk. In a park, a few more people in grey police uniform sat despondently on the children’s swings, swaying back and forth with their clubs swinging in time.

In a blue tent by the gates, three young anarchists were writing out entrance passes. No one asked for passports, and the passes were not checked against people’s documents. Several times, we even exchanged accreditation cards, so that men went through under women’s names, and vice versa. No-one read anything.

Meanwhile, advertising the forum was strictly forbidden. From time to time young people on roller skates – usually, the local park and the stadium were used for this purpose – approached the police and tried to find out what was going on. The people in grey replied that they had no idea either. Sometimes they said that “classes” were being held. Once they explained that “anyone who comes in here will never go abroad for the rest of their life.” I pondered at length on the meaning of this last phrase, since exit visas had been abolished while the USSR still existed. Then I realized that the police had been talking about an international list of “rioters”, arrested for acts of violence during demonstrations. Such a list really does exist in the computers of the main European security services. Now the Russian experts would be able to add to it. I felt sorry for Roman Burlak.

A group of young men on roller skates approached the blue tent, and after working out what was happening, drew their own conclusions. “By and large I don’t like left-wing ideas,” one of them summed up his views. Then, glancing at the people in the grey uniforms, he added, “But it’s true, I like their ugly mugs even less.”

Finally entering the stadium, we found a vast field with a dozen or so tents huddled around the perimeter. Here and there were banners with stirring slogans: “Rights aren’t granted – rights have to be seized!”, or “Anarchy is the mother of order!” Holding sway over all of them was a huge, rusty coat of arms bearing the two-headed Russian eagle.

“Marvellous! Fantastic!” the video-artist Dmitry Vilensky exclaimed. “Everything’s fouled up, everything’s in the wrong place! It’s pure Bertolt Brecht!”

The great British theatre director Peter Brook once observed that “nothing affects an audience so strongly as an empty expanse of stage.” On this occasion, the empty expanse was oppressive. True, toward evening on July 13 a bus full of Ukrainians arrived. Immediately, food appeared in the stadium. Everyone was waiting for the football match between Russia and Ukraine. Andrey Konoval from Izhevsk promptly sent the Ukrainians to the blue tent to replace the anarchists, who had finally wilted in the heat.

Within a few minutes the editor of the website kommunist.ru, Viktor Shapinov, also appeared, and announced cheerfully to the Ukrainian comrades that the Federal Migration Service would now be coming to take all their names.

“What right do they have?” objected the Kiev commentator Andrey Marchuk. “We’re allowed to stay for ninety days without registration!”

“What, don’t you realize where you are?” Shapinov enquired.

“And don’t the laws mean anything in Russia?” Manchuk continued angrily.

“You’re not in Russia,” Shapinov cut him off. “You’re in the city of St Petersburg.” Manchuk fell silent, and went to get his documents.

It should be pointed out that the Ukrainians proved to be the only significant foreign delegation at the forum. Numerous Western correspondents rushed about the stadium, trying to find antiglobalists from France, Germany, Britain or the Scandinavian countries, but none were present. Canadian journalists searched for even a single compatriot, but found no-one. The lack of international solidarity was one of the problems which the events in St Petersburg threw into sharp relief. However great the difficulties faced by the Russian organizers of the counter-summit, whatever mistakes they made, and however Operation Covering Detachment turned out, a mass influx of activists from European countries would have sharply altered the picture. For any international undertaking, Russia is a difficult country. To get in you need a visa, and everything here is mysterious and expensive for foreigners. It will be far easier to stage protests at the next G-8 summit in the German city of Rostock, where I’m prepared to bet we will again see massive demonstrations. All the same, it would have been enough to spend 5 per cent of the time and money spent on the forum in Athens in order to fundamentally change the situation in St Petersburg. Almost no-one was interested in doing this. Apart from a few anarchist groups, no-one organized a serious mobilization of activists to attend the St Petersburg gathering. Among European leftists, Russia is out of fashion. No-one receives grants for work on Russia; it is neither Africa, dying of hunger, nor Latin America, aflame with popular anger. To the organizers of international forums, Russian leftists are of interest only as representatives of yet another, very large country, as people able to add colour to another thousands-strong demonstration in one or another Western capital. There is no need to develop a movement for this purpose; it is enough to bring a few dozen people over the borders of Western Europe in a bus.

For that matter, the organizers of our forum themselves helped ensure its failure. Forums, after all, are not simply organized for their own sake, but in order to draw the attention of society to social problems, to arouse sympathy and to encourage people to struggle for their rights. This means that a forum must not simply be a review of the strengths of a few radical groups, but an open meeting, aimed at developing a mass movement. Almost everyone I encountered during the counter-summit spoke of manipulation and of a lack of openness in the taking of decisions. Contact with the press became an end in itself – and indeed, there were hordes of journalists. But somehow or other, no particular thought was given to working with the Russian left’s own social base.

It is easy to see why the authorities did everything they could to isolate the forum. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that many of the forum’s organizers did exactly the same. Where is the value in issuing press statements to the effect that mounting unsanctioned actions is an obligation? If you have already decided to organize such actions, why proclaim it at every chance you get?

This aspect of the forum repelled not only “ordinary people”, but also many sympathizers. For example, many leaders of the free trade unions, having seen how the forum preparations were going, refused outright to mobilize their activists to take part. Aleksey Yetmanov, the highly-regarded leader of the trade union at the Ford plant, declared that he could not see the slightest point in such a gathering. Boris Kravchenko was more tactful. “People will face clubs, even bullets, if they understand what it’s for. But what’s it for in this case? To provide an opportunity to preen yourself in front of journalists?”

Important discussions took place during the forum, and the most important and useful of them addressed the question of why the movement had started to get bogged down, and what needed to be changed in the movement itself. The fact that a crisis had arisen was starkly evident from the forum. Around fifteen hundred people, including the press, registered at the Kirov stadium. But there were never more than three hundred participants present at any one time. People came, and immediately left.

The promised skirmish took place all the same. On July 15 around two hundred people tried to break out of the stadium, but could not get through the barrier. For some time the stadium was actually blockaded, before people were again allowed to leave. At a meeting organized by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, with the participation of the “united opposition” (from “Yabloko” to the National Bolshevik Party), about thirty people tried to stage a “breakthrough”. The result was as usual – some were beaten up, and others were arrested. As always, the people who were arrested included a certain number who had nothing whatever to do with the “breakthrough”. Why was this “breakthrough” necessary? For the sake of a few lines in a newspaper?

Naturally, the organizers of such “breakthroughs” are oriented to Western experience, or more precisely, to the image transmitted by Russian television from Seattle, Prague, Genoa or Paris. It is this image which the people who set up these actions try conscientiously to imitate. The real meaning of what is occurring, however, is quite different.

In the first place, there is a very simple question – where are you breaking through to, and for what purpose? In Seattle and Prague the demonstrators set themselves the specific task of blockading official meetings to prevent them from going ahead. This goal was achieved. But where people were trying to break through to in St Petersburg, and why, not even the organizers of the action could have told you intelligently.

Secondly, the breakthroughs in Prague and Seattle were successful because thousands of people, sometimes tens of thousands, took part in them. In other words, there was a mass movement, just like the movement against the monetization of welfare benefits in Russia in 2005. Thirdly, the demonstrators enjoyed the support of a significant sector of society, if not of the overwhelming majority (it is enough to recall the example of France a few months back). In the “ordinary citizen”, these movements did not arouse horror or incomprehension, but sympathy.

The G-8 summit in St Petersburg could hardly be called a success. The protocol on the entry of Russia to the World Trade Organization was not signed, differences on energy questions were not overcome, and no amount of smiling and joking at the press conference could conceal the glaring contradictions between the positions of the Kremlin and the White House. Meanwhile, if the actions of the protesters in Seattle and Prague drew public attention to the failure of the official meetings, in St Petersburg the situation was reversed. The effective failure of the counter-summit overshadowed the problems of the G-8.

Political and economic changes are impossible without the understanding and support of society. A movement which is unwilling or unable to understand this is incapable of changing anything. It can exist only for itself, or for a press that is hungry for sensations.

It must be hoped that the victims of Operation Covering Detachment will return to normal life in the near future. In some cases, the organs of law enforcement will have to answer to court suits from the people they have ill-treated. Where the people arrested in St Petersburg are concerned, everything possible must be done to ensure that they quickly return home.

Meanwhile, Russian leftists need to draw lessons, and very serious ones, from the experience of St Petersburg. Only mass movements make history. Unless we understand this, we will not so much make history as fall into it.

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