Category Archives: interviews

Mattia Gallo: Interview with a Russian Comrade

The following interview with our comrade Ilya Matveev was made by Mattia Gallo and originally published in Italian as “La Russia ai tempi di Occupy.” Our thanks to her and Ilya for their permission to republish it in English here.

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What is the Russian Socialist Movement? When were you founded? Who are its members?

The Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) is the product of a merger between two far-left groups: Vpered (Forward) and Socialist Resistance. It was founded in March 2011. Both groups were heirs to the Trotskyist tradition. Vpered was affiliated with the Mandelist USFI. However, the RSM is not explicitly Trotskyist: it was modeled as a broad leftist force capable of uniting the non-sectarian far left into the nucleus of a future radical mass party. In part, it was modeled on the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), although obviously on a smaller scale.

Currently, we have several organizations in different Russian cities. The largest RSM groups are in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kaluga. We have a smaller presence in Novosibirsk, Samara, and other places, as well as an affiliated group in Perm. Overall, we have some two hundred to three hundred members.

The Kaluga group is probably the strongest and most coherent. There is an industrial cluster in this city, and it harbors a rare thing in Russia, an independent trade union, in this case, a local of the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (the ITUA, which is also present in Petersburg and the Petersburg area). Our members in Kaluga are union organizers, autoworkers, and radical youth. The RSM have taken part in strikes and in worker self-organization in Kaluga. In Petersburg, RSM also consists of union workers and activists, but its ranks also include radical intellectuals and artists. In Moscow, the RSM is mostly made up of intellectuals, and it has become increasingly popular in radical artistic circles.

Generally, despite some internal problems, RSM is slowly becoming a rallying point for the radical left in Russia, due to its open, non-sectarian character and strong intellectual foundations. We try and play a role in the trade union movement and various social movements, to bring radical politics into these milieux, not, however in typical sectarian “entryist” fashion, but by really working with people, talking to them, getting to know them. We are also working on developing a coherent leftist theory for our situation. Obviously, our success is limited, but at least that is what we recognize as our goal.

In today’s very difficult circumstances, the RSM is very much focused on defending political prisoners in Russia. One of them, Konstantin Lebedev, is a member of our organization. Another RSM member, Filipp Dolbunov (Galtsov), is currently seeking political asylum in Ukraine. The RSM is a driving force behind the international solidarity campaign against political persecution in Russia.

Apart from that major concern, we also work with independent unions and social movements, especially against neoliberal policies in education and health care, and in the environmental and feminist movements, as well as the anti-fascist movement. We organize various cultural activities, in part through our affiliated independent publisher, the Free Marxist Press. We publish a newspaper called the Socialist, and run a web site

When and how did Occupy Moscow begin? What things happened in Moscow? What demands did its activists make, and what difficulties did they face?

On May 6, 2012, a mass opposition rally in Moscow was brutally dispersed by riot police. The police violence was unprecedented, and in a twisted Stalinist move our government afterwards started arresting people for taking part in a “riot,” thus setting the stage for a latter political show trial. Still, after the events at the rally, a minority of the marchers, around a thousand people, refused to go home and began a game of “catch me if you can” with the police on the streets of Moscow. This group of protesters moved around the city, trying to outmaneuver the police. This lasted for two or three days. Finally, the group settled in a kind of permanent camp near the monument to the Kazakh poet Abay on a small square in downtown Moscow. People kept coming, and the police didn’t disperse the camp, probably because the new protest tactics disoriented them. That is how Occupy Moscow or Occupy Abay began.

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It should be noted that some leftist activists had tried to import Occupy tactics before these events, organizing small “assemblies.” The Spanish Indignados and the American OWS were of course important and inspiring for us. However, we didn’t really believe something like that could happen in Moscow—and yet it happened.

Occupy Abay was an OWS-style camp on a small square, with a thousand to two thousand people in attendance daily, and some fifty to a hundred people staying on site in sleeping bags overnight. It was such a fresh experience of self-organization beyond traditional leftist and social scenes! Leftists, including RSM members, and anarchists were truly energized by what was happening right before their eyes. Leftist activists grouped in a European-style “info point” on the square with literature and leaflets. We organized a series of workshops for camp participants on unions, social movements, and leftist politics. The RSM began publishing a daily Occupy Abay leaflet, which quickly became a kind of official newspaper for the camp. Other self-organized activities included a kitchen and cleaning shifts. The square was so immaculately clean that the authorities had to fabricate evidence to present the camp as a nuisance to the neighborhood. However, the most important self-organized activity was the general assembly.

From the beginning, there was tension in the camp (just as in the Russian protest movement as a whole) between rank-and-file participants and self-proclaimed “leaders.” Some established opposition personalities tried to name one person “governor” of the camp, but of course the people ignored them. The left presented an alternative—participatory democracy in the form of the general assembly. The process was very difficult in the beginning, but eventually the assembly became the real voice of the camp. The climax of this self-governing process was, perhaps, an episode during the final hours of the camp’s existence, when the police ordered people to go home. Opposition leaders asked to speak to the crowd. But they had to wait their turn in a queue, just like other regular participants. When their turn came, they made their case—to comply with police orders—but the assembly rejected their proposal. In retrospect, it was the correct decision, since the police didn’t disperse the camp for another day.

The whole history of Occupy Abay/Occupy Barrikadnaya/Occupy Arbat (the last two are subsequent names for Occupy Moscow, reflecting the sites it briefly occupied after Abay was broken up) didn’t last more than several days, but it was an incredibly rich period of improvisation, self-organization, political struggle, and agitation. It injected the ideas of participatory democracy and horizontal structures into the protest movement, which had almost completely lacked such ideas before. We are still reflecting on the political and social significance of this event.

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The major difference between Occupy Moscow and OWS, the Indignados, etc., is that the Moscow camp was not leftist as a whole. It wasn’t organized around social issues; rather, it was the temporary form that the opposition movement in Russia, mostly liberal, took in Moscow in May 2012. Therefore, the participants were not only leftists, but also liberals, even people from the far right (which was rather humble and didn’t cause trouble, being in a weak political position). However, only the left in Russia practices self-organization, self-government, and participatory democracy. Therefore, the left quickly became an essential force driving the camp and its activities.

Talking about civil liberties in Russia, the Pussy Riot case and the anti-gay laws enacted in several Russian regions and now proposed in the national parliament are emblematic in the eyes of the world. You wrote an article last November, “A Police Story (What Happened to Filipp Dolbunov),” about a Russian student abducted by the police. Can you tell us what happened? What is your analysis of civil liberties in Russia?

Well, I wrote about a specific case of police repression against one activist. Currently Filipp, who is my comrade, is seeking political asylum. He is in Ukraine, but this country isn’t safe for him, as the case of another activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, shows: Leonid was kidnapped in Kyiv by Russian security forces, tortured, and brought back to Moscow.

The situation with civil liberties in Russia is outrageous and rapidly becoming more and more catastrophic. More than twenty people are awaiting trial for taking part in the May 6 “riot” (i.e., the brutal attack on a legal, sanctioned rally by riot police). Most of them are in jail. Hundreds of detectives are working day and night to conjure a case out of nothing. One of the arrested confessed and was sent to prison for four and half years. On January 17, while facing similar charges and imminent deportation from the Netherlands back to Russia, Alexander Dolmatov took his own life.

The police have merged the May 6 “riot” case with the Sergei Udaltsov case. Udaltsov is one of the few public opposition leaders from the left. He has been charged with “organizing the unrest” on ”evidence” presented to the entire country during a special broadcast on Russian state-controlled TV. Udaltsov and two other people, one of them, Konstantin Lebedev, an RSM member, are now accused of being the “organizers” of the “riot” that took place on May 6. There is an endless chain of fabricated evidence and trumped-up charges that is directed against the Russian opposition, but mainly the left.

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I was on Bolotnaya: arrest me!

Another group that suffers disproportionately from state repression are anti-fascists. Some of them have been sentenced to prison, while others have been arrested and awaiting trial for months on end.

Please read our appeal for solidarity to learn the details about the recent crackdown in Russia. The RSM and other left groups are in desperate need of solidarity, so any actions of support are most welcome.

Another article of yours, “The ‘Welfare’ State Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This,” talks about the situation of the “welfare state,” a term that in Italian and Russian translates to the “social state.” What is your analysis in this article? What are the social and economic problems in your country?

My basic point in this article is that Russia is not a welfare state, despite the fact that it’s called a “social state” in the Constitution. It lacks a minimum wage (which is set below official subsistence level, i.e., this minimum wage is not enough to avoid dying from starvation). Strikes are almost completely prohibited. The situation with housing, education, health care, childcare, science, and cultural institutions is scandalous, and it’s getting worse day by day.

Even though we now have more than 130 dollar billionaires and one of the world’s largest money reserves, teachers and university professors in some Russian regions are paid the equivalent of 150-250 euros a month, just like doctors and other public employees. Wealth inequality, according to some sources, is the greatest in the world.

Oil and gas-driven growth has not brought prosperity or a meaningful economic future to Russia. It is a country ruled by a parasitic, uncontrollable elite. And their answer to all problems is more neoliberalism, more deregulation. They are currently implementing neoliberal reforms in education, health care, and science and culture, just like in Europe. For example, schoolteachers are forced to compete for wage bonuses, just as schools are forced to compete for pupils. This deliberate introduction of market logic in fields completely alien to it, such as education, health care, and culture, is a basic sign of neoliberalism. And the result is European-style “budget cuts” in a situation where there’s nothing to cut to begin with. The social, scientific, and cultural institutions of the Soviet state are in shambles, and now they are being terrorized yet again by this new neoliberal assault.

What are the problems of universities in Russia? Is the education system under attack by neoliberal policies undertaken by the Putin government? What are the main changes and differences between the education systems in USSR and Russia today?

University teachers have been underpaid for decades in Russia. Average wages are 200-500 euros per month even for those who have degrees. In general, the share of educational spending in the federal budget is very low both in absolute and relative terms. Education amounts to about 4.5 percent of Russian GDP, lower than the OECD average—despite the fact that it needs to be rebuilt, not just maintained.

Another problem is university bureaucracy. The institutions of collegial self-government and university autonomy do not function. Both professors and students are subjugated to the will of the administration.

Some problems, such as the lack of autonomy, are inherited from the USSR; some are new.

For example, the authorities have embarked on a program of university reform. It is basically a neoliberal policy, which identifies “ineffective” institutions of higher learning and closes them or merges them with others. Students, professors, and society as a whole have no say in this.

Still, there are some encouraging signs. The atmosphere in Russia has changed since the protests began in 2011. It is not such an apathetic, depoliticized society as before. And university staff are becoming angry, too: when the education minister blamed them, in an interview, for their incompetence (which, he said, explained their low salaries), more than a thousand professors signed a letter of protest. A new independent university teachers’ union is being created. Just a few days ago, an activist at Moscow State University, Mikhail Lobanov, successfully avoided being fired after a strong campaign of solidarity on his behalf. This might be a small success, but it inspires hope: students are becoming more aware of their potential, and professors are, too. There is an incredible amount of work to be done, but it is much easier now to believe in our eventual success.

Photos taken from the Facebook pages European Revolution, OccupyAbay, and Elena Rostunova without permission but with much gratitude.

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Filed under activism, critical thought, interviews, leftist movements, political repression, protests, Russian society, trade unions, urban movements (right to the city)

International Women’s Day Special: The Professors in the Ikea Balaclavas

March 8 marked the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the fourth in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

On February 21, 2013, the first anniversary, of Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” protest, TV Rain’s Maria Makeyeva interviewed Irina Karatsuba, an ecclesiastical historian and Ph.D. in cultural studies, and Elena Volkova, an expert on religion and artistic culture. Earlier in the day, Karatsuba and Volkova had been detained at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in balaclavas while attempting to lay flowers on the altar as way of showing their solidarity with the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. They were later released from Khamovniki police precinct after questioning.

Мaria Makeyeva: What made you, two female academics, go to Christ the Savior Cathedral? I understand that police were expecting someone to show up there on the anniversary of Pussy Riot’s protest action, but it was you, two scholars, whom they found. Was this a scholarly action or a form of research? What was it?

Elena Volkova: It was, first of all, a human action. We wanted to express our solidarity with Maria [Alyokhina] and Nadezhda [Tolokonnikova] on this day, to show them that people remember and appreciated what they did a year ago, that there are people who sympathize with them, share their views, and support the [protest] action they performed in Christ the Savior Cathedral. We went there in solidarity, support, and sympathy. As scholars, we’ve spent the past year on educating people. I ran a “Pussy Riot school” on the Web, where I tried to explain [what they did], because it seemed to me that people perceived the punk prayer so aggressively simply because they didn’t know church history, the history of resistance within the church, the history of the holy fools, Biblical prophecy, and ecclesiastical counterculture. I wanted to educate people, and so as scholars we have been actively involved in outreach the whole [past] year, and we carried balaclavas in our bags.

Makeyeva: As a historian of the church, what do you think of what Pussy Riot did a year ago?

Irina Karatsuba: I think there are several important dates in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in the twentieth century. For example, the Church Council of 1917–1918, at which the Patriarchate was restored and a reform program was drafted, but none of these reforms was carried out. This continues to haunt us today. Or Metropolitan Sergei’s 1927 declaration, in which the church bowed down before an atheist state and thanked it: this is a very important milestone in the history of our church’s apostasy from Christ. Or 1943, when Comrade Stalin allowed the Church Council to convene and elect a new patriarch. He thus bound the church firmly to the atheist state, and the church firmly attached itself to it.

Makeyeva: But what about the “punk prayer”?

Karatsuba: The “punk prayer” completes this sequence. It tries to put everything in its place: render unto God what is God’s, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And it calls on members of the church not to support Caesar, thus closing the books on a very important feature of church-state relations in the twentieth century. Moreover, the girls told the truth, and told it in such a way that everyone heard it. We experts had been writing about this for the past five years, six years, but very few people hear what experts have to say. But [Pussy Riot] were able to say it in a way that everyone heard it, and that is to their great credit.

Makeyeva: You both were expert witnesses in the Pussy Riot case.

Karatsuba: We were expert witnesses for the defense whose testimony no one wanted to hear. We sat in the stairways at the Khamovniki district court for two days along with [famous Russian novelist] Ludmila Ulitskaya, who is seventy today, God bless her, and Irina Levinskaya, who had written an expert opinion on the expert opinion [commissioned by the prosecution]. She showed how meaningless what the court-appointed experts had dashed off was.

Makeyeva: Could you say more about the balaclavas you carried in your bags for a whole year?

Volkova: We made them for an opposition rally, before the ban on covering one’s face [was introduced]. We made them from Ikea pillowcases five minutes before going to the rally.

Karatsuba: Elena came over to my house and quickly made two balaclavas from an Ikea pillowcase I had.

Volkova: Later, we put them on outside the courthouse when we went there to support the girls. And then I carried it in my bag as a talisman, as a way of maintaining my connection with the persecuted women.

Makeyeva: And where are they now?

Volkova: The guards at Christ the Savior Cathedral tore them off and didn’t give them back to us, unfortunately. The tulips they threw at our feet: we had bought brightly colored tulips by way of stylizing Pussy Riot’s bright outfits.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: And then for some reason one of the cleaning ladies began frantically removing flowers from the icons, apparently fearing we were going to take them from their vases and throw them on the altar. Then the police took us to the paddy wagon, where two strange men appeared. One of them asked why we did it. We talked about the historical role of the “punk prayer,” that Russia had changed after this, that it has had a huge impact on Russian history. To which he replied. . . It was Ira who engaged him in a dialogue from that point on.

Karatsuba: He said that it wasn’t history that had changed, but something in our brains. “That’s okay,” he said, “we treat such alterations at the Serbsky Institute [for Forensic Psychiatry].”

Makeyeva: You mean they introduced themselves as specialists from the Serbsky Institute?

Karatsuba: They didn’t introduce themselves at all. It was just a remark he made.

Makeyeva: Were they in plain clothes?

Karatsuba: Yes, we decided we were going to be taken to the Serbsky Institute for treatment, but for now we haven’t been taken there.

Makeyeva: And then what happened?

Volkova: Then we were taken to the Khamovniki police precinct, where we spoke with a young name from Center “E,” the Center for Combating Extremism, who introduced himself as Ilya. He asked me different questions. As a teacher, it takes me approximately an hour to answer a question. I gave him a lecture on the history of the church, on the history of the holy fool tradition.

Karatsuba: I stood behind the door and listened with delight. Lena expressed herself one hundred percent: it was an amazing lecture.

Volkova: He asked questions and took notes. He asked me what the symphony between church and state was, and wrote down various dates and concepts. I think he liked it. He said he was in charge of religion at Center “E.” I told him he needed to get a religious studies education and advised him to enroll at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He said, “Can you give me the names of people to talk to [there]?” And with that he gave himself away, because this was clearly the question an investigator would ask: Whom did you meet with? What is your connection? What is this faction you mentioned?

Makeyeva: Irina, did you talk with this same young man?

Karatsuba: Yes. I didn’t really want to talk to him, and so our conversation didn’t really gel. He kept pestering me with questions. If I was so devout, he asked, why didn’t I go with those girls to prison? To which I replied that it reminded me of Ivan the Terrible’s logic from the correspondence with Prince Kurbsky: if you’re so righteous, why didn’t accept a martyr’s death at the hands of me, the wicked king, and ascend to heaven?” To which he replied, “And whose side are you? Ivan the Terrible’s or Kurbsky’s?” “I’m on Gagarin’s side,” I said. He sighed and said, “Our conversation hasn’t panned out.”

Makeyeva: And with that they just let you go?

Karatsuba: [Former Pussy Riot lawyer] Violetta Volkova, God bless her, arrived and quickly set the entire Khamovniki precinct straight. The police really wanted our fingerprints, but she said we didn’t have to let them fingerprint us.

Volkova: And that we shouldn’t have talked to the man from Center “E”—we didn’t know that. But it’s okay: we educated and enlightened him a little.

Makeyeva: So Violetta Volkova helped you?

Volkova: Yes, and Mark Feygin. They heard about it on the news and came and found us themselves. Violetta Volkova was the first to arrive. She had two warrants allowing her to act as our attorney, and we followed her advice.

Karatsuba: We wrote statements saying we refused to be fingerprinted, and we were released. Things could develop in different ways: they might summon us again; they might not. We’ll see.

Makeyeva: Irina, you mentioned that both you and Elena are Orthodox. Is this an active part of your lives? Do you go to church and confess?

Volkova: Yes, it’s an active part of our lives. We’ve been in the church for many years, and besides that we are teachers. Irina taught history for many years, including church history. My specialty is the Bible, Christianity, and literature. We taught for thirty years at Moscow State University, which we recently left.

Makeyeva: Why did you leave?

Volkova: There were many reasons, including the fact that they had begun telling us whom to invite and whom not to invite, what to say and what not to say.

Makeyeva: Whom to invite where?

Volkova: To speak at the university.

Makeyeva: This had nothing to do with Pussy Riot?

Volkova: No, it was before that, in 2011. We are not just Orthodox believers, people who practice Orthodoxy. For many years, I organized the Sunday school at one church, and I taught seminarians, who came to Moscow and attended my lectures on Christianity and English poetry. I have had many priests as students, and we were very active in the church for many years. It’s another matter that in the past year we realized that the church has completely turned away from Christian principles and values. Our hopes were very slight, so we stepped up our criticism of the church. When the “punk prayer” happened, we realized that the girls had sung about what we as experts had been saying for many years. People didn’t listen to us, but they heard what [Pussy Riot] said. We were really glad that someone had finally been able to make themselves heard. So we support them by all means, and as a believer, I am certain that it was Christ who sent them to Christ the Savior Cathedral, that they are God’s children, who came from God and said what needed to be said.

Police escort university professors Yelena Volkova and Irina Karatsuba after detaining them inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow

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International Women’s Day Special: Elena Kostyuchenko on Fighting Russia’s Anti-LGBT Law

March 8 marks the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day celebrations in Russia. This is the first in a series of posts focusing on the work and plight of several different women involved in political and social activism in Russia today.

Journalist and LGBT activist Elena Kostyuchenko was interviewed by Filipp and Tikhon Dzyadko on January 24, 2013, for the TV Rain program The Dzyadko Three. The following day, January 25, the Russian State Duma passed in its first reading a law bill banning the “promotion of homosexuality” among minors. The bill will have to undergo two more readings, and then by ratified by the Federation Council and signed by the Russian president before it becomes law.

 

 

Dzyadko Three: Our guest is the LGBT activist and outstanding Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Kostyuchenko. Today, we would like to discuss the latest incredible decision our legislators are about to make or are, at least, discussing. That is, the Duma intends to pass a law banning the promotion of homosexuality among minors.

There are many details to this, which we’re going to talk about now. This week, a protest against it called the Day of Kisses took place, and our guest, Elena Kostyuchenko, was one of the organizers. Please tell us about what happened. Basically, everyone more or less knows what happened. Everyone they managed to get hold of got beat up, and that was it, right?

Elena Kostyuchenko: This was actually the second time we staged the Day of Kisses. This time, more people came out; there were about thirty people. TV Rain reported that these were members of the LGBT community, but actually, it was about fifty-fifty LGBT and heterosexuals who came out to support us. There were also people who call themselves Russian Orthodox activists, and some roughnecks itching for a fight. Two of my friends got their noses broken, and they beat up my girlfriend. They attacked people during the protest, as protesters were approaching the protest site, and when they were going back to the metro. They were waiting for most of the people to leave and then attacked those who were left.

DT: But you knew this would happen?

EK: Well, I had anticipated the possibility because they had been discussing on VKontakte [a Russian social network modeled on Facebook—trans.] about whether to take baseball bats and knuckledusters with them.

DT: What do you think of today’s demonstration? Did it come off? Was it worth it?

EK: Of course it was.

DT: Why?

EK: Because doing something is always better than sitting at home and waiting around for Duma deputies to declare you a second-class citizen.

DT: Could you describe background of this law? Discussion of most of these [legislative] initiatives has been going on for almost a year, yes?

EK: These kinds of laws were first passed in several regions, and the other regions are now rushing to pass these laws in order to kowtow to the federal center in anticipation of the law being passed nationally. For instance, they’re rushing to pass a law in Kaliningrad, but there [they’re planning to ban] the promotion of homosexuality in general. If you want to watch the film Total Eclipse and you’re from Kaliningrad, the government will take care of you. Naturally, it is the United Russia party [the ruling party in Russia—trans.] that is primarily pushing all of this through.

DT: And yet the party’s leader [former president] Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview with the big five TV channels that he doesn’t see the point of the law.

EK: We all know that his leadership is a formality. He doesn’t actually decide anything.

DT: Have you considered appealing to him?

EK: No, I haven’t considered it.

DT: Whom does it make sense to appeal to?

EK: To the public and to the people who call themselves Duma deputies. Aside from our protest action, we’ve launched a website, loveislegal.ru, where anyone can submit photographs of themselves and voice their stance against this law. Last time round, we submitted more than six hundred photographs. Tomorrow, we’ll deliver a hundred and fifty more.

DT: To where? To the Duma?

DT: Speaking of your website, here is an excerpt of a text you can read there, addressed to the Duma. “We hope that before you discuss and vote on this bill, you will familiarize yourselves with the academic literature on the subject and learn that homosexuality is not a disease and that promoting it, like promoting left-handedness, is impossible.” I read this text, and it’s right, there is just one thing I don’t understand.

EK: This text doesn’t come from the website. It’s an excerpt from one of the letters we submitted with the photographs.

DT: That you submitted to the Duma. If there are people you need to tell that homosexuality isn’t a disease and, like left-handedness, it is impossible to promote it, then besides that, you need to explain to these people they shouldn’t snort laundry detergent but use it to wash clothes, or that toothpaste isn’t dangerous if it is used correctly. These are obvious things. Can there be any hope if you have to explain these basics to people?

EK: You have to explain the basics to people because the lawmaking and rhetoric that has been going on lately in the Duma gives one the impression that the people saying these things don’t have a higher education and may not have even finished high school. When I travel and speak to vocational school students, many of them make better arguments and are more articulate in expressing their views than certain Duma deputies. Yes, there are people who don’t know that homosexuality has long since been removed from the list of diseases. They really don’t know that if a child hears the word “lesbian,” it won’t make him or her a lesbian, and so on and so forth.

DT: Let’s talk about methods a bit. Your Day of Kisses is clearly a provocative action to some extent. It’s what they call “trolling” nowadays. You’re going out to people you know for sure don’t accept you, and you know some lowlifes will show up and pour ketchup on someone, in the best-case scenario, and this will be an excuse for the press to cover it. TV Rain will broadcast a report, there will be photos on various websites, and it will generate buzz around the issue. Are you just protesting to be sensational?

EK: Absolutely not. I don’t consider our protest action provocative. We aren’t doing anything terrible. We are just going to the Duma with a mixed group of people, homosexuals, heterosexuals, couples, singles, and, for those who have them, significant others. If a person doesn’t have anyone to kiss, they just hug whoever is standing next to them. There is nothing provocative in expressing natural human feelings. We aren’t taking our feelings to the hideouts of the nationalists or the apartments of Russian Orthodox activists. We are walking through our own city and going up to a government building.

DT: But this action is aimed at causing conflict from the outset. You know that these people are against you, and that the Duma is going to pass this anti-gay law. You know that the Duma deputies are against you, and you read VKontake and see that the Orthodox activists are planning to go there and try and beat you up.

EK: Listen. If you’re afraid of bullies, you shouldn’t go anywhere. The scumbags go after us when we stand outside with placards; they follow us when we go to make a television appearance. Yesterday, after the taping on Kontr TV there was a whole group of them waiting outside for me.

DT: But when you protest like this, you’re the one provoking them.

EK: No. I am completely convinced I am not provoking them. For example, at protest action that took place on Tuesday, the Day of Kisses, the [Orthodox] activists showed up twenty minutes before it was supposed to start to take their places. Then the journalists showed up early as well to check out the scene, figure out where they should stand. But the activists were so eager to fight that even before the gay people came, they started attacking the journalists. Were the journalists provoking them by standing outside the State Duma with their cameras? No. These people just wanted to beat someone up. And by the way, I want to warn all the journalists who will be attending tomorrow’s protest. [The Orthodox activists] have been writing on their forums that they will be attacking journalists first and foremost in order to prevent them from filming the beatings and fights. They want to make the journalists know that they can’t come there and film the protests.

DT: […] What kinds of protest tactics are available today and how effective are they? What do you think will work? […] How else can you demonstrate that homosexuality is normal?

EK: Well, everyone does what he or she can. I am not the center of LGBT activism in Russia. I actually don’t do that much activism: I have a lot of other work. It’s just that I’ve been focusing on it this past week because I know that my life specifically will be severely affected for a long time, as will the lives of millions of gays and lesbians in Russia. We created this website because we have a guy who knows how to make websites. Some people in Petersburg, a group of specialists, doctors and psychologists, put together a thorough analysis of this legislative bill, an analytic report for Duma deputies, where they write about how homosexuality is not a disease and cannot be promoted. Some people go into the street with placards and do one-man pickets. Some people campaign for international support. Some try to get other governments involved in this issue. Everyone does what he or she can. That is why when people tell me that I’m doing this wrong, I say, “Do it yourself, you have the means.” It’s just that right now there is a week left. I think the majority of your audience has more than reasonable ideas on this issue. Homosexuals don’t feel like they need to hide from you, and the majority of you have gay and lesbian friends. If you don’t want these people to be officially declared second-class citizens within a week, if you don’t want them to be subject to fines for no reason or have to pay fifty thousand rubles [approximately 1,250 euros—trans.] every time they go out on the street, you should do something about it. There is not much time left. We are doing what we can. If you are concerned, you should also do what you can.

DT: If and when this law is passed, what threat does it actually pose to homosexuals?

EK: The problem is that “promotion” is not at all defined in the legislation. We know why this is: it is difficult to describe a phenomenon that doesn’t exist. Apparently, the deputies lack the literary skills to define it.

DT: Or they lack the imagination.

EK: Yes. In an explanatory note to the law, it says any reference to homosexuality as normal or same-sex relationships as being equal to heterosexual relationships is deemed “promotion.” Thus, this program we’re taping today will a month from now be deemed “flagrant promotion of homosexuality,” as they put it, and your channel will be fined half a million rubles [approximately 12,500 euros—trans.]. In a month, a show like this will be impossible. In addition, because it is the [Russian federal] administrative offenses code that is being amended, it will be up to the police to enforce the law. Thus, the police department of, say, the city of Bryansk, which knows full well who is gay in their precincts, may see a couple holding hands, approach them, and make some money off them [through fines]. Especially since the gay community, like the Russian population at large, is rather illiterate when it comes to legal matters.

DT: When we were putting together the issue of Bolshoi Gorod about homosexuality, back when they were passing this law in Petersburg, a number of experts told us that the main problem is that many young people who are homosexuals will [after passage of the law] have all the more reason to be closeted, which leads to a large number of suicides. In the end, we will be left without any means for dealing with this huge problem.

EK: Unfortunately, we have very little data on suicide in general, even though Russia has among the highest number of teen suicides in the world. In fact, there are no statistics about the LGBT community in Russia. None. But there are American statistics. In the US, LGBT teenagers kill themselves three times or three and half times more often than their heterosexual peers. These are the official numbers from the US Department of Health [and Human Services]. It’s because even in America, there’s such a thing as harassment. I don’t even want to think about what goes on in Russian cities. I grew up in the relatively cultured and affluent town of Yaroslavl, but I know homosexuals from many different parts of the country. When they tell me about their school days, it’s scary. I mean, my God, last time we had a protest outside the Duma, a sixteen-year-old boy came out and showed the journalists his passport. He said, “I’m sixteen. These people think that they are protecting me and my morality. Meanwhile, when I was walking here from the metro, these Orthodox fanatics punched me in the jaw—twice.” These children go to our schools, they’re part of our society, and yet they’re constantly hearing that gays are degenerates, gays are scumbags. If today they can go online and see that is not true, once this law passes, when it actually goes into effect, they won’t have access to this information. Right now, there’s a hotline for the LGBT community where people, no matter their age, can get legal and psychological support. This hotline will be shut down. The LGBT organizations currently working in the provinces will be shut down. Whether legally or illegally, these organizations have been holding support group meetings, monitoring legal cases, and providing people with lawyers.

DT: Are the consequences after the law goes into effect and what people will have to do being discussed?

EK: They will have to go deep underground or risk being fined every day. There are also a large number of people who are same-sex couples with children. There really are a lot of them, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. There aren’t statistics on this, but when these laws are enacted, imagine the effect they will have on the lives of the children of same-sex couples. Every day, their parents could be fined fifty thousand rubles.

DT: This question comes up every time people take to the streets. Can you explain why, if, as you say, your demonstration went off rather well, there were only thirty people there? The problem with children alone or the problem of teenage suicide affects everyone, especially members of the LGBT community. And yet, only thirty people came out to kiss outside the State Duma.

EK: I am proud of every one of those thirty people. Why so few? Well, are you yourselves going to come to the protest tomorrow? It doesn’t occur to some people that they need to go protest. Others don’t have the time. Some people are actually scared—not of the fists of Orthodox activists, although as someone who has gotten hit in the head I can tell you it’s an unpleasant feeling. What people are more afraid of is that they’ll be found out at work or that mutual acquaintances will find out. Very few LGBT people feel safe being out.

DT: But this is a contradiction. On the one hand, they are afraid of being out, and on the other hand, they want to be treated decently.

EK: The problem is that LGBT activists believe in a gay superman who will suddenly appear in our country and instantly solve all of these problems. That Harvey Milk will be reincarnated and everything will be great. Let’s be more realistic. Harvey Milk isn’t going to be resurrected. He’s dead, he was murdered, and on top of that, he wasn’t even a Russian citizen. I also didn’t go out into the streets for a long time. For a long time, I thought that this situation didn’t affect me since my life was basically good, theoretically. Then I acknowledged that there was no one who could [protest for me]. So I went out and a few people followed me. Yes, it’s not very many people, but no one is stopping you from joining us if you truly believe this is an issue that deserves attention.

DT: If homosexuals are, for the most part, afraid to be open, then the law isn’t really going to change anything for them. Another issue is that it is well known that there are a large number of members of the LGBT community in the Russian government. Well, not a large number, but the same number as in any other segment of society. And yet, some of them are the very people signing off on this legislation or at least not getting in the way of it. Why don’t you appeal to them directly?

EK: Well, you know, it’s not like we have some kind of secret gay telephone number where we can dial them up.

DT: Instead of holding a protest where, as you said, your girlfriend got beat up, why don’t you try and take a constructive route?

EK: Like what?

DT: Dialoguing with the authorities.

EK: Listen, tons of petitions have been sent. And tons of appeals. There were round tables in Petersburg.

DT: To whom were the appeals addressed?

EK: To Duma deputies, to bureaucrats, to the government. There are different LGBT organizations. Before the law was heard in the first reading, tons of letters, tons of petitions were sent. I’m not saying that it’s not important to do that. I’m just saying that protesting is also effective. There are four hundred fifty deputies in the Duma—

DT: Are any of them openly gay?

EK: No, but according to statistics, twenty to twenty-five of them should be. These people do not speak openly about their orientation.

DT: Who do you suspect is gay? Who could you get the most effective response from?

EK: Look, if a person, out of considerations of party discipline, service to the state, and all that nonsense is going to support homophobic rhetoric and put seven million people just like him deep underground, I don’t think if I say, “Come on, dude, save us,” he’s going to do it.

DT: No, I don’t mean that. Whom do you consider—

EK: Who do I think is gay? My Lord, no one.

DT: I mean sympathetic to your cause in the State Duma, someone you can discuss this with and get results.

EK: I don’t know. The only Duma deputies I know, because the last time we did a demonstration, they came out of the Duma to watch, are Ilya Ponomarev [a well-known leftist currently a member of A Just Russia party] and [former heavyweight boxer and United Russia party member] Nikolai Valuev. You know what they look like. Ponomarev is slightly taller than me, and Valuev is Valuev. Valuev stood off to one side and watched these guys battering young men and women five on one, while Ponomarev ran to try to break the fights up. I don’t think this has anything to do with sexual orientation. I just think it has to do with someone’s personal orientation.

DT: Thank you. This will probably be the last question. Can you explain why all of this is going on? These same deputies were fine without this law against the promotion of homosexuality.

EK: This is part of a general trend going on in our country. Right now the government, all of the government’s rhetoric, Putin’s rhetoric, is about the Russian Orthodox Church, sovereignty, and nationalism. A year ago, women’s rights to abortions were seriously limited. Then the Pussy Riot case happened. Now, they are also trying to pass a law against insulting the feelings of religious believers. There are a lot of initiatives along these lines, including ones in the field of education, about teaching Russian Orthodoxy in schools. This is just another link in that chain. Of course, LGBT activists played a role in the voter fraud demonstrations and in the overall protest movement that has been going on for over a year now. I also think this law is a first trial balloon for implementing censorship in the media. […] I also personally believe that this is a tentative attempt to see how the journalist community will respond and whether it will be possible to bankrupt publications with million-ruble fines.

DT: Do you think sports and culture celebrities should get involved, write angry letters, saying “I’m gay, there’s nothing wrong with me, this is not a disease,” and so on?

EK: Anyone can get involved. I am personally calling all of you to get involved while you still can.

Translated by Bela Shayevich, with assistance from Chtodelat News

_____

loveislegal-emy

A letter and photo posted on loveislegal.ru:

My love is a great happiness. It gives me strength and the desire to change for the better, to move ahead and realize my dreams. It just so happens that my beloved is a woman. It just so happens that my relatives consider this a disease and a great misfortune. Ignorance, aggression and unmotivated malice: that is what Article 6.13.1 [the proposed amendment to the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code] will legalize. Be bigger than that. Amy, Kaliningrad.

2 Comments

Filed under feminism, gay rights, film and video, interviews, protests, racism, nationalism, fascism, Russian society

Nineteen, in Kyiv, and in Danger: An Interview with Filipp Dolbunov

publicpost.ru

February 23, 2013

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
— Yegor Letov, “We’re Getting Stronger”

Until recently, the habit that young left-wing activists have of dreaming up conspiratorial nicknames for themselves seemed mere child’s play, a tribute to a red romanticism long out of fashion. I spoke with Filipp Dolbunov, better known as Filipp Galtsov and whom I’m used to calling just plain Filippok, the day before the latest pogrom-like police search took place in his Moscow apartment. He is nineteen years old, in Kyiv, and in danger. The Russian government wants to put him in jail. He is a revolutionary.

galtcov600

Filipp Dolbunov

 

— First of all, I wanted to ask whether you’re safe.

No, I’m not safe now. I’m experiencing unhealthy attention from the Russian and Ukrainian security services. In particular, as I’ve learned, I’ve secretly been put on the wanted list in Russia. My parents are visited once a week by the police, people from Center “E”, and perhaps the FSB. In Ukraine, I am being followed by the SBU.

I also don’t feel safe because the UNHCR does not respond to my requests for asylum.

— Are you afraid you could be deported?

Yes, that possibility exists. After Leonid Razvozzhayev’s abduction in Kyiv and considering that the Ukraine’s statistics for deporting refugees are high, it’s quite possible. And knowing what close friends the SBU are with the FSB and Center “E”, I would raise the likelihood of this several times.

— You say you’re being followed. What does that look like?

On February 6, for example, I was followed from the building of the Ukraine Migration Service right to the place where I’m staying. Three men bearing a strong resemblance to police investigators followed me at a distance of forty meters. They periodically stopped and pretended to talk. In the subway, they got into the car next to mine and glared at me the whole way. They got out at the same station as I did and took the same street as I did. Only when we were approaching the house did I shake them. I saw one of them running after me, but I managed to escape. Kyiv police officers are now periodically staked out near the house.

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“Honor the UN convention on the rights of refugees”

— Why do you think the security services are so interested in you?

I think the security services are now paying special attention to people with leftist views. If a person defends his position not only in theory but also in practice, this interest often leads to something unhealthy from their point of view. The economic situation in Russia is now rather dodgy. The government is cutting spending on education, health care and other social needs. Unlike the liberals, who are enthusiastic only about “Russia without Putin,” the left speak loudly about these problems. The authorities are most afraid of a societal explosion. Hence the persecution, crackdowns, and intimidation on the part of the security services.

— What did you personally do to annoy them?

Lately I’ve been active in social movements, for example, the defense of the Khimki and Tsagovsky forests, support for workers’ dormitory residents [facing eviction] in Moscow, and the movement for fair elections. I have also been involved in some unsanctioned protest actions, but of course I didn’t do what they’re charging me with.

— What was your real role in the events of May 6, and what are you accused of doing?

As the lawyers and civil rights advocates tell me, I might be facing the charge of “organizing a riot.” The investigation is seriously basing itself on Leonid Razvozzhayev’s confession of guilt [whose authenticity has been disputed, first of all by Razvozzhayev himself], where I was identified as someone who allegedly led a column of anarchists. In fact, that day I marched in the column of the Russian Socialist Movement, of which I’m a member. I used no violence against police officers, all the more so because there was no “rioting” on Bolotnaya Square.

— You were a witness in the case of another person charged in the Bolotnaya Square case, Stepan Zimin? Have you been pressured in this connection?

Yes, I volunteered to be a witness in Stepan’s case. On October 25, I was abducted from my home by several Center “E” officers, who tried to force me into testifying against Konstantin Lebedev, Razvozzhayev and Sergei Udaltsov [during an interrogation] at the Investigative Committee. My apartment was searched. The same day I was released, with them telling me my procedural status was not clear. That is, it was difficult to understand whether I was a witness or a suspect. A week later, I finally received a [legal, written] summons from Investigator Marukyan. In my testimony, I said that Stepan had not thrown stones, had not used violence against police officers, and had not taken part in any rioting. During the questioning, Markuyan threatened to send me to the army if I didn’t, to borrow his expression, “stop talking nonsense.”

— Why did you decide to leave Russia right at this moment?

They had begun pressuring my relatives — my mother, grandmother, and grandfather. During the October 25 search, the eshniki [Center “E” officers] threatened that if my relatives continued to interfere with their “work,” they would be sent to the Investigative Committee for questioning. I left because too many facts had piled up that pointed to the possibility of my being arrested. From November to early January, people from Center “E” and the FSB came to my house once a week: they would ask where I was and threaten and intimidate my relatives. And recently, on February 12, they dragged my grandmother, who is seventy years old, in for questioning.

— How did you become a leftist? What influenced you?

I once was at a Grazhdanskaya Oborona concert, where I met really interesting people who were wearing hammer and sickle or anarchy patches. Then I gradually started reading, following the news, and looking at what was happening around me, and I realized that it was not even the country that had to be changed, but the whole world, the [entire] system of economic, human and spiritual relations.

— What’s your favorite Yegor Letov song?

Well, I have two favorites: “Sing, Revolution” and “We’re Getting Stronger.”

— You are applying for refugee status? How are things going?

At the moment I’m looking to be resettled in a third country, because I absolutely don’t feel safe here. Things are going badly, because the UNHCR does not react to reports of persecution on the part of the Ukrainian authorities. I don’t know how to explain this. The head of the local UNHCR office has said in the press that Ukraine is not a safe country for refugees. But considering the circumstances that I and other political refugees from Russia find ourselves in, I cannot understand why they can’t provide us with additional protection.

Besides me, Other Russia activist Alexei Devyatkin, journalist Jenny Kurpen, and Solidarity activist Mikhail Maglov are in Ukraine [applying for political asylum]. You can help us in this situation, first of all, by drawing attention to the problem of Russian refugees, especially at the international level.

— What would you wish or advise your comrades in Russia? Both those who are free and those already in prison.

I would like to wish my comrades success in the struggle. I wish a speedy release for the prisoners. You guys are such a big help. I really miss you and hope to see you soon.

— Probably somewhere in Switzerland.

No, in Russia.

Interview prepared by Ivan Ovsyannikov

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Filed under interviews, leftist movements, political repression, protests, Russian society

Dear Mandela, or, The Politic of Human Dignity

www.dearmandela.com

When their shantytowns are threatened with mass eviction, three ‘young lions’ of South Africa’s new generation rise from the shacks and take their government to the highest court in the land, putting the promises of democracy to the test.

UPCOMING SCREENINGS

23 November 2012 – Wuppertal, GERMANY
19:00 – Autonomes Zentrum,
Markomannenstr. 3, 42105 Wuppertal
*Q&A with Abahlali members
TJ Ngongoma & Mzwakhe Mdlalose

26 November 2012 – Gothenburg, GERMANY
15:00. University of Gothenburg, School of Global Studies (organized by the Gothenburg Centre of Globalization and Development)
*Q&A with Abahlali members
TJ Ngongoma & Mzwakhe Mdlalose

26 November 2012 – Gothenburg, GERMANY
18:30. Hammarkullen Folkets Hus, Gothenburg
(organized by the Centre for Urban Studies at University of Gothenburg and Folkets Hus)
*Q&A with Abahlali members
TJ Ngongoma & Mzwakhe Mdlalose

27 November 2012 – Gothenburg, GERMANY
18:00 at Vårvindens Youth Centre in Biskopsgården, Daggdroppegatan 3, Gothenburg
*Q&A with Abahlali members
TJ Ngongoma & Mzwakhe Mdlalose

5 December, 2012 – New Jersey, USA
12:00pm – 3:00pm. Rutgers University
*Q&A with filmmaker Dara Kell & Omotayo Jolaosho
http://ruevents.rutgers.edu/events/displayEvent.html?eventId=74042

TAKE ACTION

5 things you can do right now:

1. SIGN AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL’S PETITION TO STOP FORCED EVICTIONS IN AFRICA: http://www.amnesty.org/en/end-forced-evictions

2. HOST A SCREENING OF DEAR MANDELA
To request a community screening kit, please contact us at sleepinggiantfilms@gmail.com.

3. LEARN MORE ABOUT ABAHLALI BASEMJONDOLO
Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Shack Dwellers Movement of South Africa, has a fantastic website with a rich library of articles and readings. Please visit them at http://abahlali.org/

4. DOCUMENT EVICTIONS
Our partner WITNESS empowers people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change. They have created guides for video advocacy—learn more and get involved with their work here: http://www.witness.org/training

5. BUILD THE MOVEMENT IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD
Dear Mandela is about a social movement in South Africa, but there are similar movements all around the world. Here are just a few of the organizations in our network that you can get involved with or support:

IN THE UNITED STATES:

THE CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change. http://ccrjustice.org/

POVERTY INITIATIVE at Union Theological Seminary:
The Poverty Initiative’s mission is to raise up generations of religious and community leaders committed to building a movement to end poverty, led by the poor. http://www.povertyinitiative.org/

PICTURE THE HOMELESS is an organization founded on the principle that in order to end homelessness, people who are homeless must become an organized, effective voice for systemic change. We have a track record of developing leadership among homeless people to impact policies and systems that affect their lives and our efforts have created space for homeless people, and their agenda, within the broader social justice movement. http://picturethehomeless.org/

The Media Mobilizing Project (MMP) exists to build the media and communications infrastructure for a movement to end poverty, led by poor and working people, united across color lines. http://mediamobilizing.org/

NATIONAL ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL RIGHTS INITIATIVE:
In partnership with communities, NESRI works to build a broad movement for economic & social rights, including health, housing, education and work with dignity. Based on the principle that fundamental human needs create human rights obligations on the part of government and the private sector, NESRI advocates for public policies that guarantee the universal and equitable fulfillment of these rights in the United States. http://nesri.org/

IN SOUTH AFRICA:

SOCIO-ECONOMIC RIGHTS INSTITUTE OF SOUTH AFRICA (SERI) is a non-profit organization providing professional, dedicated and expert socio-economic rights assistance to individuals, communities and social movements in South Africa. SERI conducts research, engages with government, advocates for policy and legal reform, facilitates civil society coordination and mobilization, and litigates in the public interest. http://seri-sa.org/index.php

IN THE UNITED KINGDOM:

WAR ON WANT is a brilliant voice for ending forced evictions and fighting poverty. They work in partnership with grassroots organizations around the world, and have for years supported Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa. To get involved, visit http://www.waronwant.org/

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL:
Amnesty International has a campaign dedicated to ending forced evictions in Africa. Learn more at: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=11180#map

_____

The Politic of Human Dignity
Presented by Lindela Figlan at the Anarchist Bookfair, London, 24 October 2012

The meaning of dignity is often misunderstood. Many people only think of dignity in relation to the economic status of those who are better off. This is understood to mean that a person with no money is taken as a person whose life and voice does not count and is therefore a person with no dignity. It is also understood that a person with money does count and is therefore a person with dignity. But no amount of money can buy dignity.

Money can buy many things. With money you can live in a house that will not be demolished without warning, that does not leak in the rain, that has water, toilets and electricity. With money you can even give your children their own rooms. With money you can buy your children education and know that if they fall sick or meet with an accident they well be well looked after.

But money does not buy dignity because to be a person with dignity you must recognise the dignity of others. No person is a complete person on their own, that is without others. In isiZulu we say “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu”. This means that a person is a person because of other people. Rich people are always demanding that other people show respect to them just because they are rich. They are always forcing us to show respect to them. The politicians are the same. But there is no dignity in forcing other people to show respect to you. There is dignity in respecting the humanity of others and in being respected back.

As poor people we do not live in dignified conditions. In fact when it rains we live like pigs in the mud. Our shacks are always burning. We do not have toilets. We are disrespected by politicians and, when we have work, we are disrespected at work. Security guards and domestic workers are often treated as if we are not fully human. Sometimes we are also disrespected by NGOs, academics and other people that think that they have a right to lead the struggles of the poor and who get very angry when we explain that for us solidarity must be based on talking to us and not for us and thinking and deciding with us and not for us.

But poor as we are we achieve our own dignity. Some people achieve dignity in their churches. Some achieve dignity through culture, in something like a choir. And we achieve dignity in the togetherness of our struggle. Our struggle is a space of dignity. Here we can express our suffering, we can think together and we can support each other. Our struggle is also a tool to fight for a world in which our dignity, and the dignity of all people, is recognised. Our struggle gives us dignity now and it also aims to create a work in which land, wealth and political power are shared amongst the people.

S’bu Zikode first called this a living communism, a communism that is fully in the hands of the people. Therefore our struggle is based on the idea that defending our dignity now is the best way to create a world that respects everyone’s dignity in the future.

Our struggle is a living politic. It is a politic that everyone can understand and which is owned and shaped by the people. It is rooted in our lives as we live them everyday. We do not see politics as something that should be left to political experts or dominated by political experts.

Before Abahlali baseMjondolo was formed the shack dwellers in South Africa were considered by government and some other people in our society, people in NGOs, universities and the media, to be the undeserving poor. This claim came as the result of the perception that the poor are lazy, uneducated and people who do not think and therefore do not count the same as other human beings.

The general public, civil society and the media could not defend the poor against this indignity. The media had little or nothing to report on anything that surrounds shack dwellers, be it good or bad, that considered us as human beings or citizens. We were mostly seen as a threat to society – as a problem to be controlled. When shacks were on fire radios and televisions would not air or broadcast this. On the other side the state would refuse any provision of basic services to the shack settlements or to engage us as citizens. We were always considered as people who cannot think for ourselves. Someone from somewhere else would always be hired and paid to think for us, to represent us and to take decisions on our behalf. This was the state mentality towards the poor. It was also the mentality of most NGOs and of most of civil society. It has also been the mentality of what we have called the regressive left – that part of the left that thinks that its job is to think for the poor rather than with the poor and that tries by all means, including calling us criminals and supporting state propaganda and repression, to ruin what it cannot rule.

The rights that we have on paper were always refused in reality. This included our rights as citizens, our rights to the cities and our rights to respect and dignity. Whenever we asked for our rights to be respected, for our humanity to be recognised, we were presented as troublemakers, as people that were being used by others, or as criminals. Our request to participate in the discussions about our own lives was taken as a threat. It is important that everyone understands that in this regard civil society and the left was often no different to the state.

Abahlali has been organising and mobilising to build the power of the poor from below. We do not organise people. We organise ourselves. When people want to join our movement we explain that they must organise ourselves and that we will struggle with them and not for them. We ask them to think about this seriously, to discuss it with their neighbours and, if they accept that we will only struggle with them and not for them, then we welcome them into the movement. It can take a long time to join our movement. You must understand it well and you must be serious.

We do not support any political parties or vote in elections. Politicians are always using the people’s suffering and struggles as ladders to build their own power. We have therefore decided that we will not keep on giving our power away. We build our own power in our communities and encourage people to also build their own power where they work, study and pray. Where possible we govern our own communities ourselves.

Our struggle started when we rejected the authority of the ward councillors and decided to represent ourselves. Today a new struggle is starting as workers on the mines reject the authority of the trade unions and represent themselves. We are hoping that the struggles in the shacks and on the mines and in other work places can come together. But struggle is very dangerous. As the poor, in the shacks and working in the mines, we are not allowed to think and act for ourselves. It is seen as criminal, even as treason.

We have learnt that this order is one that cannot respect our humanity. In fact this order is based on our exploitation and exclusion. This order is designed to oppress us. Therefore we have understood that, as Mnikelo Ndabankulu first said, it is good to be out of order. We are not loyal to this order. We are loyal to our human dignity and to the human dignity of others and when that requires us to be out of order we are prepared to be out of order.

We have dedicated a lot of our energy in building a University of Abahlali where we can discuss and learn together. Here we educate ourselves to refuse to be co-opted into a system that promotes the indignity of others. We educate ourselves to refuse to be shaken by the politic of fear created by the political parties and the police. In 2009 our movement was attacked in Kennedy Road and in Pemary Ridge. Many of us lost everything and had to flee. Some of us had to go underground. This attack was aimed at destroying our movement. A senior politician by the name of Willes Mchunu said that a decision had been taken to ‘disband’ our movement. However we are still here. We continue to exist and to struggle in the province where warlordism and assassination is the order of the day. We continue to try to make sure that the poor remain permanently organised and strong. This has helped us to build a strong voice for the movement. As a result of the power that we have built from the ground up we have been able to speak for ourselves in many spaces that were previously barred to us. For us it is important that, just as we occupy land in the cities, we must also occupy our own space in all discussions. This is the only way that we can take our struggle out of the shacks and into spaces from which the poor have been excluded. Of course this requires us to break the protocols that maintain power in certain circles by depriving others an equal chance to participate in these circles.

Today, as a result of our struggle and the struggles of other poor people, we see a slow shift away from seeing shack settlements as something to be bulldozed without any sense that there are human lives in these places. There is now recognition that there are human lives in the shacks. We have stopped evictions in many settlements. In some settlements we have won agreements to upgrade these settlements with proper services and houses instead of forcibly removing people to the human dumping grounds called transit camps. Basic services such as water and sanitation, refuse collection, road access, electricity etc which were being denied to us are now being rolled out. In Durban the eThekwini Municipality long had a policy that forbids electrification of any shack settlement in the city. The result of this is constant fires. Today this killer electricity policy is under review and a pilot project to roll electricity in some four settlements has begun. To survive day by day these services are needed and they are important steps on the road to winning material conditions that accord with human dignity. To talk about an equal and a just society without land, houses and services for all is bizarre. This progress has come through the years of struggle and the power of the organized poor. Of course we still have a very long road to go. And with state repression getting worse all the time that road is a dangerous one.

As repression gets worse solidarity becomes more and more important. We see the role of NGOs and progressive forces being to support and strengthen the work of what we call our amabhuto and the NGOs call social movements – to work with our movements in a way that respects our autonomy. We urge the NGOs to be responsive and to learn from those who are struggling about the best way to support them without assuming that we need to be given political direction or creating the dependency syndrome. In order to do so you will have to familiarise with the practices of the movements. War on Want and the Church Land Programme are some of the very few organisations that have demonstrated this culture over years. They have had to revisit their strategic planning and to remove the red tape that prevented them from being able to offer effective support when comrades are in jail and in need of lawyers, bail money or facing death threats and in need of safe homes. They have not wasted our time with donor requirements and protocols that sometimes undermine and compromise our struggles. They have never tried to impose their own agendas on our struggles. They have understood that the struggle for human dignity is often criminalised. They have understood that they oppressed have every right to lead their own struggles.

We know that here in Britain the working class and the poor are being made to pay the price for the greed of the rich. We know that you are under attack from a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. We know that you are resisting. We are in solidarity with you and with your struggles. If there are ways that we can support you please let us know. You are all welcome to visit us in South Africa. There are some ways in which are struggles are very different. But we face a common enemy in the form of the system that is known as capitalism.

http://www.abahlali.org

Sekwanele!
No House! No Land! No Vote!
Everyone Counts

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More than a decade after apartheid ended millions of South Africans still live in basic home-made shacks. We hear from the inhabitants as they eloquently argue their case for real citizenship rights. 

The shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, began in 2005. Their slogan is ‘Talk to us, not about us.’ ‘It’s not that people like to live in shacks. No one will ever want to live in these conditions but they need to be close to their work’ explains S’bu Zikode, Abahlali’s elected leader. However, the group has not been welcomed by the ANC. They’ve been met with aggression rather than with negotiations. Police shot Mariet Kikine with six rubber bullets at a peaceful demonstration. ‘I’m not stopping to fight the government for my rights. Now they’ve made me brave.’ In the build-up to the 2010 soccer World Cup, Durban shack dwellers fear they will be bulldozed out of the city, or arrested. ‘This new legislation makes it a crime to build shacks or resist demolition and eviction.’ But the shack dwellers are determined not to give up.

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Editor’s Note. Thanks to the Reclaiming Spaces mailing list and Mute Magazine for the heads-up, links to the videos, and the text of Mr. Figlan’s speech.

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Maria Alyokhina: “Our protest has raised the issue of the fusion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the security services”

Zoya Svetova
Maria Alyokhina to The New Times: “Our protest has raised the issue of the fusion of the Russian Orthodox Church and the security services”
newtimes.ru

The three defendants in the Pussy Riot case have been held more than five months at Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6, near Pechatniki metro station. The prison is dubbed the “Yellow House” [in Russian, a synonym for an insane asylum] because of the color of the towers in which it is situated. This past weekend, a New Times correspondent was able to talk with [three of] its prisoners—Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

24-year-old Masha Alyokhina sits on an iron bunk dressed in the same brown polka-dot dress in which she goes to court. On her feet are flip-flops that are clearly too large. She is preparing for an hour-long walk: the guards have promised to take her outside, as they are supposed to after lunch. She answers our questions in detail and good-naturedly. She chooses her words carefully so that she is properly understood.

During the trial, you filed an appeal over the torturous conditions of your transportation to court. What did you mean?

We have been taken to court every day since July 20. We are given no breakfast. We drink tea while waiting for the paddy wagon. We are returned to the jail very late and managed to sleep four hours or so, no more. I am horribly exhausted. Before we’re put in the paddy wagon, our blood pressure is measured. The last few days my blood pressure has been ninety over sixty, while it is usually one twenty over eighty. As a rule, the trip to the Khamovnichesky District Court takes thirty minutes to an hour, depending on the traffic jams. We’re transported differently every time—now in big vans, now in little ones. We are taken to the court building, where we spend twelve hours a day. The judge orders a lunch break—half an hour. Two times a day we’re taken to the toilet for five minutes. We have no complaints with the jail, only with the judge. Judge Syrova doesn’t give us a normal break either for lunch or dinner. I demand that the break last an hour. According to the Criminal Procedural Code, a court hearing cannot last more than eight hours [a day], but in our case all the norms in the code are being violated. I don’t even have time to eat the dry cereal that I pour boiling water over in the escort guards’ room. We spend all day in court, and I don’t have the chance to take a shower, although I’ve paid for the paid shower. The bursar has the receipts, but he is incapable of sending them to the prison’s administrative office. It is very hot in the paddy wagon, like in a microwave. It can take us several hours to drive from the courthouse to the jail. We don’t drive directly to our prison, but stop by Moscow City Court and Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where we drop off prisoners, and we arrive in Pechatniki quite late. So sometimes we’re riding around for three or four hours.

A Rottweiler accompanies you everywhere. It is even present during the court hearings. Aren’t you afraid of it?

I am afraid. The dogs are constantly changed. On Friday, a very nasty, aggressive dog, a mentally unbalanced dog, guarded us. The dog is also with us in the guards’ room at the courthouse. For example, I ask to be taken from the cell to the toilet: the dog almost jumps its leash, and the dog handler has to make a huge effort to restraint it. You can imagine that if the dog handler didn’t restrain it, it could easily rip me to shreds. The guards explained to us that the dog can tell from the color of our clothes and our scent that we’re prisoners, and so it is particularly aggressive towards us.

How do you feel about what is happening in the trial?

The judge tosses out all our appeals and ignores our requests. She allows herself gibes that demean our honor and dignity. We are not given confidential meetings with our lawyers. This is done to prevent us from working out a joint defense. On the morning of July 27 we were brought to the Khamovnichesky District Court, [where] we signed a document: Judge Marina Syrova had permitted us to meet with our lawyers. But instead of taking us back to the jail to meet with our lawyers, we were first held in the guards’ room at the courthouse, and then for some reason taken to Moscow City Court. We ended up at Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6 only at 4:30 p.m. This was a Friday, and so there short visiting hours at the jail. Lawyer Mark Feygin was there and was able to talk with Nadya Tolokonnikova for literally twenty minutes. But neither Katya Samutsevich nor I was able to meet with our lawyers.

Maria Alyokhina on trial, August 6, Moscow. Drawing by Victoria Lomasko

During the trial you asked the injured parties whether they forgive you. Why is this so important to you?

A few months ago I wrote a conciliatory letter, in which I stated that I wanted a dialogue. I wrote that our performance was not directed against the Christian faith. Through our lawyers I asked that a priest come visit me in prison. I would really like to talk with Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev, who, for example, in an interview with Novaya Gazeta said some people from the Kremlin had commissioned our action. This really got to me. I would like to explain to him that we are not people who have been “commissioned.” This is an action that comes from the grassroots.

Is your punk prayer, which lasted a little longer than five minutes, worth five months of imprisonment in jail and separation from loved ones?

Yes, I think it’s worth it. It seems to me that the power vertical system in each institution has to be disclosed and have light shed on it publicly. And it’s very important that each stage of our case is analyzed in detail, because it gives people an idea of how the prisons, the courts and transparency [glasnost] work. It becomes clear whether civil society can influence the authorities.

The situation we created with our protest action helps people understand more precisely for themselves the fusion of the institution of the [Russian Orthodox] Church and the security services, of the Church and the authorities, of the Church and Putin. It has all come to the surface.

Can civil society influence the verdict?

I don’t know.

Is this a political trial, in your view?

Yes, but the political aspect is deliberately hushed up at the trial. The judge and the prosecutor have a very violent reaction any time the surname “Putin” is uttered. Although questions about Putin have a direct bearing on the case, because all our group’s actions were political.

A witness named Motilda Ivashchenko was supposed to testify during the trial. At the last minute, before she was summoned into the courtroom, she got frightened and ran way. Do you know her?

I don’t know her very well. We have two mutual acquaintances. I was really offended that she told the investigation that, allegedly, I don’t take care of my son Filipp. In the case files there is testimony by kindergarten workers that I pick[ed] up my son every evening myself.

What do you think the verdict will be?

I am counting on the reasonableness of the authorities, the court and the Russian Orthodox Church, which is obliged to react to our criminal prosecution. The fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is silent [on this point] is a blow to its authority. Christ’s first commandment, after all, is to love your neighbor as yourself. If the priests who signed letters in our defense would testify at the trial, that would be very important.

What message would you like to send to your supporters?

Thank you for your support. Mutual understanding is quite important: one needs to pursue constructive things. Cooperation is vitally important. Look at our example: it shows that a few people can raise an issue that is then widely discussed in society. And this discussion is much more important than the tons of filth that have been poured on us. We are accused of misleading people. But the people who accuse of this are themselves involved in misleading people. The Russian Orthodox Church has a monopoly on talking about God and any dissent is criminalized.

What will you do when you get out of prison?

When I get out, I’ll have a story to tell. And if I’m sent to prison for a long time, I’ll also have a story to tell. It’s very important to tell this whole story.

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Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I have a tremendous urge to feel”

Oksana Baulina
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: “I have a tremendous urge to feel”
www.colta.ru
August 1, 2012

The most famous member of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot at the moment of their arrest, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has already spent five months in Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6 in Moscow’s Pechatniki district. The outer walls of the three-storey prison building, on Shosseinaya Street, are windowless: the cell windows face the courtyard, thus ruling out even visual contact with the outside world. This has earned No. 6 the nickname “the Bastille.” When a few weeks ago I sent questions for Nadya, bypassing the Federal Penitentiary Service’s censored correspondence system, I was not sure that I would get a reply. A reply came, however, literally on the eve of the scandalous trial in the Khamovnichesky District Court.

— What reactions, actions and opinions surrounding your case have surprised you (both positively and negatively)?

— It hurts that there are still a good number of sincere, decent Orthodox people who believe we did something awful with our prayer in the temple. There are such people even amongst those who are firmly opposed to our arrest. Although we have been explaining for five months what this was about, it is painful that there are smart, decent people who see something in what we did that is not there and could not have been there.

I am glad that the greater part of thinking society has rallied around our cause, from the letter signed by two hundred cultural figures in our defense and the desperate hunger strikes of the Occupy the Court activists to the fantastic gestures of support from Faith No More, Franz Ferdinand and Red Hot Chili Peppers. We are extremely grateful to everyone, and I’m sorry we cannot say an individual thank you to everyone due to the cell bars between us. Thanks to all of you, life in a Russian prison is not so bitter!

— What have you learned about yourself, about society, about the state during your time in jail? Have you changed?

— The state and society behave like in a textbook on leftist theory: the state punishes and represses, while society resists and changes. Behind bars you see theory coming to life. All that remains is the desire to be, to grow and to give, to share. I want prison ecstasies, epiphanies and revelations about freedom, the lack of freedom and which of these a person needs more for his or her development. I have a tremendous urge to think and feel: in the absence of external stimuli, one’s inner life develops at a furious pace.

— Who are you? How do you define yourself—as a political activist, an artist, a prisoner of conscience, a feminist, a musician?

— A person should be described from various perspectives, but it is his task to escape this description by expanding and redefining the terms used to define him. Hardly anyone expected that feminism in Russia—and even in the world to some extent—would be associated in 2012 with balaclavas, bright clothes and punk music.

— Why, in your view, does the patriarchal model, the vertical model enjoy support in society?

— Man is by nature conservative, and it is more convenient for him to cling desperately to the familiar. Very few people are ready to break and remake what exists in order to change reality. People fear the unknown, and if a woman sees herself as nothing but an appendage to a man, it is quite hard for her to imagine another world and a different relationship.

— How does feminism benefit society? How do you imagine the ideal social order?

— As a Scandinavian social democracy with minimal government interference in the lives of those who want to shield themselves from the state and, simultaneously, strong social support for those who need it and are willing to cooperate with the state. As a society that cares about issues of gender equality, where a male government minister can go on paternity leave, as law enforcement ministers love to do in Finland, for example. There is nothing more natural than feminism. Feminism begins in the third grade, when you realize that all textbooks and clever books are written by boys for boys.

— How do you explain the clericalization of society?

— There is no clericalization. There is Putin, who allows law enforcement authorities to trample all conceivable legal norms and reference fourth-century church councils that forbade taking baths and communicating with Jews. And there is Vsevolod Chaplin, who with the patriarch’s blessing makes shocking, artistic statements and admires the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is no clericalization at all beyond the actions and speeches of these two characters. What clericalization can there be in a society where twenty years ago “scientific atheism” was a compulsory subject in universities?

— What events that have happened since you’ve been in jail do you especially regret not being able to witness and participate in?

— May 6 on Bolotnaya Square and Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge, of course! Then it became clear that in Russia and Moscow there are many thousands of people who are willing to fiercely defend their lives and their future, even if this means directly clashing with the savage riot police.

It was sad to watch stories about May 6 on TV and, even worse, to realize that society does not have the strength to defend the people unlawfully arrested because of these events. Society is still weak, and it’s very, very sad, and so the authorities are not afraid to continue the arrests.

— What do you regret?

— The fact that the books sent to us by our friends end up in the prison warehouse, not in our cells, because of the maliciousness of the authorities at Pre-Trial Detention Facility No. 6. So you end up reading the Bible and Russian revolutionary classics—Tolstoy’s current affairs pieces and Alexander Herzen. But I also want books from the twentieth century!

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