On the morning of November 16, a column of more than a dozen cars invaded the square outside the Smolny [Petersburg city hall], their drivers honking their horns in a deafening manner. Simultaneously, people bearing placards and banners began converging on the pedestrian island in the center of the square. Many of them wore the orange helmets and bright-colored vests of construction workers. Journalists bolted towards them, joined by the stunned policemen who guard the residence of bourgeois dictatorship on Dictatorship of the Proletariat Square. With the support of activists from the Center for Workers Mutual Aid (TsVR), members of Rubezh (“Stand” or “Border”), a union of garage owners, and residents of Petersburg dormitories protested against the lawlessness of business structures and the corrupt city bureaucracy.
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Parnassus and the Celestials
The garage owners and dorm residents decided to act in concert because the problems they face are quite similar: both groups are being robbed and deprived of what little they have — rooms in dorms and garages in a garage co-op. And this is being done by major corporations that possess gigantic resources and official protection.
Just like Khimki outside of Moscow, the outlying Petersburg quarter of Parnas (“Parnassus”) has become a hotspot on the map of the city in recent months. This is not a metaphor: a war really has flared up there, with battles, barricades, and marauders. Everything began in 2007, when the administration of the city’s Vyborgsky District sold the land where garage co-ops Parnas-1 and Parnas-2 are located to Glavstroi, a construction corporation owned by the well-known oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The land was sold without encumbrances − that is, as if the marsh that had been there before the garages were built were still there. However, in fact there were nine thousand garages located there. While the district administration did not extend its rental contract with the co-ops, which are legal entities, this decision did not take into account the property of physical persons, the garage owners, who naturally sought compensation payments in the courts. The courts turned them down. That was when the garage owners formed Rubezh, which in 2009 fended off an attack on Parnas-4, and has carried out several vociferous mass actions in 2010.
The Last Stand
In late October, the conflict grew into a full-fledged confrontation. Despite promises of a “moratorium” by the authorities, unfree immigrant laborers torn down Parnas-1, aided and guarded by police, OMON riot police, and mafia thugs. Heavy construction equipment was used to destroy the garages, along with the cars and other belongings inside them. The things that survived this attack were openly stolen. Here is how one witness described this bacchanalia:
After using police and the OMON to disperse the garage owners, the district administration tried to keep aloof and gave the co-op over to wholesale pillage. No fewer than a thousand immigrant workers are laboring there round the clock to haul away the scrap metal. They cut up the metal, load it onto carts, and then haul it away in banged-up GAZelle trucks. At night, they work with headlamps attached to their heads… The gates are guarded by immigrant mafia toughs, who admit people onto the grounds of the co-op for a bribe of 5,000 rubles [approx. 117 euros]. [Ethnic] Russian marauders who arrived were beaten up and had the tires on their GAZelle slashed. A garage owner who got onto the grounds of the co-op and tried to drive marauders away from the remains of his garage was also beaten up. In these conditions, where the authorities are invulnerable, people’s rage is directed against immigrants… Both the inevitability of conflict and its utter senselessness and pointlessness are obvious… The actions of the Vyborgsky District administration have led to an exacerbation of ethnic hatred and the risk of inter-ethnic clashes.
At present, the battle for Parnas-2 continues. On November 8, the garage owners built barricades and managed to repel the first attack. People’s despair is growing, however. The situation has been pushed to the limit, and spokespeople for Rubezh confess that it might get out of control at any moment. The inaction of the authorities, especially Governor Matviyenko, becomes more of a provocation with every passing day.
Norms for Dorms
Residents of former industry-sponsored and institutional dormitories are one of the most disadvantaged categories of laborers in Russia. When the organizations that used these dorms became private firms in the nineties, these residential spaces were privatized along with them, despite a ban on this procedure. For a long time people had no idea that their dwellings, which had turned from temporary to permanent, belonged not to the city, but to their capitalist owners. However, after the term during which they could have legally challenged these privatization deals ran out, dorm residents were subjected to blackmail and terror on the part of the new owners, who, stopping at nothing, began forcing residents to sign one-sided rental agreements. Those who either did not want to pay or could not pay were told to hit the streets.
Not everyone evacuated the dorms with bundles and suitcases in hand, however. Many people took to the streets with placards and banners. At present, a pressure group that unites residents of several Petersburg dorms (including the dorms located at Ilyushina, 15; Peterhof Highway, 73; Pilotov, 13; Podvoiskogo, 46 and 48; and on Garkavogo Street and in Pionerstroi. These people demand that residents not be evicted unless they are provided with alternative housing that meets the social norms for Petersburg and the Leningrad Region; that a permanent commission consisting of city officials, dorm resident pressure groups, and dorm owners be formed to solve the problem; and that a program for defending the housing rights of citizens residing in dorms be adopted. On November 8, as the garage owners were building their barricades at Parnas, the dorm residents picketed the city’s housing committee. Several days later, at an assembly of TsVR activists, these two groups decided to unite their efforts.
The Struggle Continues
Insofar as Petersburg authorities systematically violate freedom of assembly, having practically closed the greater part of the city center to demonstrations and pickets, the protest action outside the Smolny took the form of a flashmob. Aside from garage owners and dorm residents, it was planned and carried out by activists from TsVR and such leftist organizations as Socialist Resistance, DSPA, and RKRP (Russian Communist Workers Party). As usual, the protesters were supported by independent local legislative deputy Vladimir Fyodorov, thanks to whose intervention (and, possibly, Allah’s, insofar as significant numbers of police had been dispatched to monitor celebrations of Eid al-Adah (Kurban Bayram), which took place the same day) arrests were avoided. Despite the fact that the protest was almost spontaneous and for obvious reasons had been planned in secret, it was covered by journalists from Petersburg TV-100 and other media outlets. The authorities have reacted to the protest with their trademark cynicism. Commenting on the conflict at Parnas, Dmitry Kurakin, chair of the city’s state property committee, said, “Citizens, the owners of the garages, should bear the expenses for disassembling and disposing of their own garages. We are not going to free them from these costs. There are no plans to compensate them monetarily.” We should memorize this quotation. This is the answer that laborers will give to the Deripaskas and Prokhorovs when the red banner is raised over the Smolny and the oligarchs began to crowd outside, demanding the return of their nationalized business empires. The struggle continues.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Comrade M. for bringing the inserted video and this article to our attention. Photo courtesy of Socialist Resistance.