Kondopogi – past and future

In the Russian political dictionary Kondopoga has emerged as a new negative concept. Over a short period we have already experienced a number of such events, and everywhere along the same lines. Mass disturbances under nationalist slogans, which stemmed from everyday conflicts, xenophobic pogroms, public calls “to clear off the blacks” – all this is Kondopoga.

In the Russian political dictionary Kondopoga has emerged as a new negative concept. Over a short period we have already experienced a number of such events, and everywhere along the same lines. Mass disturbances under nationalist slogans, which stemmed from everyday conflicts, xenophobic pogroms, public calls "to clear off the blacks" - all this is Kondopoga.

But this is only the external appearance. In order to understand the roots of such events it is worth analyzing the catalysts that provoked the national tensions in the small Karelian town of Kondopoga. Clearly play-school investigations one the subject of "who started it?" have, to say the least, a weak connection to the deep, social motives of any mass conflict. And in the case of the roots of Kondopoga we see a miniature outline of all the resulting outrages.

What happened?

The analyst M Galaida in his article "The conflict in Kondopoga and the phantom of fascism" writes: "The main core of the town's population consists of marginalized de-classed layers (...) and a petit-bourgeois layer (...) Workers in such towns form only an insignificant minority that was caught up in the conflict between the petit bourgeois and the lumpen elements, and which did not play an independent political role." The well-intentioned attempt to disassociate the sacred name of the working class from the scourge of nationalism is, of course, praiseworthy, but in the present case unfortunately it does not correspond to reality. Kondopoga is no less a working class town than any other town in the west of Russia. A third of its 32,000 population works at the biggest paper plant in Russia. There is also a major poultry factory, etc. Moreover all these enterprises are not "frozen" - they are all working. And this means there is money in the town, construction and the petty and medium sized semi-criminal activity that feeds off production. Two competing groups are engaged in this criminal racketeering: one is "truly Russian", the second is Chechen, who arrived following the outbreak of the first Chechen war. Both bands divided spheres of influence among themselves and from time to time tried not to get engaged in serious conflicts. But the truce exhausted itself.

In a restaurant with a firm criminal reputation (under Chechen "protection"), a small time figure Sergey Muzgalev from the Russian gang called "Muzga" was relaxing. Angered at the musical repertoire of the establishment he started on the barman who had links with the other gang. Since he understood the retaliation that could follow he and some other gang members drove off quickly. When the rival Chechen gang stormed the restaurant with knives and baseball bats their victims were not rival gang members but the general public in the wrong place at the wrong time. A witness explained "Muzga started a fight with the barman and left, but when he found out how everything ended up he immediately fled town... If only he had been beaten - who cares about him! Nobody would have got upset and nobody would have risen up. (The italics are mine - B.F.) But the ones who suffered were innocent!" While the butchery was taking place the local police calmly observed the scene from their nearby cars. The servants of the law didn't even help medics carry stretchers.

What happened later is well known. After rumours spread the whole of the town came onto the streets. Emissaries of the neo-Nazi DPNI (The movement against illegal immigration) arrived and skillfully directed the elemental anger for their own ends. Riots broke out, mass assemblies, property was burnt. Only after this did the security forces eventually wake up from their paralysis and react to events with their customary measure: they sent in the OMON (the anti-riot police).

Nationalism and Nationalists

The role of ultra-right provocateurs in the organization of unrest is difficult to define exactly. It is possible to suppose that subsequent "Kondopogis" were definitely to one degree or another inspired by DPNI members seeking to repeat their success in Karelia. It goes without saying that it is convenient for "official persons" to lay all the blame for such events on them. Bureaucrats are simply not able think other than in terms of "instigators" and "agitators." A strike - left infiltrators must be responsible! A national conflict - the ultra-right is behind it! As Marxists we should not repeat this reasoning, which might be nice and simple but doesn't correspond to reality in the faintest. The real situation is that the neo-nazis only helped to shape the spontaneous hatred of the local population. And, significantly, in this they proved to be useful allies of the local authorities that they helped to prop up. Journalists testify to the fact that, despite their apparent alarm, the forces of order did not attempt in the slightest to challenge the neo-nazi agitators, quite the contrary. A photograph of the leader of the DPNI, Alexander Belov, ruling it over a spontaneous street meeting, was shown throughout Russia. Kondopogi policemen were shown urgently acting out the arrest of the "provocateur." In actual fact the head of the local police was on familiar terms with Belov - and grateful to him: "if it wasn't for the neo-nazis he (the head of the local police) would have been trampled underfoot! His epaulettes would have been torn off, tomatoes would have been thrown at the Mayor's building. So he says to the bearded nazi (Belov): ‘Sasha, have a word with the people! Well, go on, speak to them, they'll listen to you!'"

Would the anger of the crowd have exploded without the active participation of the DPNI? It is not difficult to see that not only benches and kiosks would have gone up in flames. The police and the local authorities would have been on the receiving end of a beating, which would have been many times more intense. For it was precisely the corrupt police that the Kondopgi pogromists hated practically more than anything else. Every dog in town knew who paid, and how much, the police for their deaf and blind inactivity. It was precisely the prostituted defenders of order who brought the situation to complete disaster. And inflamed Kondopzhtsi understood this perfectly well and did not want to take it any more. So, the local policeman calculated, it was preferable for the neo-nazis to call for the deportation of coloured people than face the anger of the crowd themselves - Sasha, have a word with the people...

Results and perspectives

If we briefly trace the outline of the Kondopogi unrest we can see the following points. Who was caught up in the national tensions? Criminal elements and traders (which in modern Russia are often inseparable.) But who suffered? As usual, ordinary working people from all nationalities, which includes Russian workers who have lost their means of livelihood now that the "Chechen" workplaces they were working at have been burnt. Who is guilty? The corrupt to the core local authorities.

It is necessary to sharpen our attention on another key issue. The class composition of the Kondopogi population is not a secondary element. For M Galaida everything is simple. In order to label the events in Karelia as routine, classical "fascism" he takes out the proletarian element without hesitation. Since it is impossible to deny that the whole town came out onto the streets, and since fascism is the ideology of lumpens and small traders, it follows that only lumpens and small traders live in the town.

But workers were on the streets too. The pogromist, anti-Chechen movement was certainly not a class movement but national: "us" against "them." But the question is why was this the case?

To answer this it is necessary once again to go back to the murderous effect of Stalinism on the political and class-consciousness of post-Soviet society. We must never lose sight of the fact that the ruthless extermination of the whole tradition of international Marxism (which Deutscher accurately characterized as "political genocide") for decades prevented the Soviet working class from a complete political programme that was not tinged with nationalism or with great power chauvinism. In a period of apathy, of "social peace," when reactionary moods are dominated by the right, and even a genuine Communist Party true to the traditions of Bolshevism would only be able to play a peripheral role, the lack of such a party is not acutely felt. On the other hand, the perspective of a new wave of class struggle is inevitable. Hopes for a brighter future are evaporating like steam, and in their place the understanding that we can't carry on living like this is gaining weight. But the elemental, semi-formed, early dawning of class instinct among the oppressed is still weak and unconscious. As a result protests against capitalism can be diverted along false, national lines, leading to hatred towards national minorities and violence. In essence the Kondopogi people were in opposition not to the domination of "the blacks," but criminal business, corruption and the indifference of the authorities. But the workers were not able to clearly define their anger, still captive to the old demons of nationalism.

What will happen in the future? As events have shown, Karelian Kondopoga will not be the last outbreak of such violence. Until life teaches the oppressed to differentiate their class enemies from their class allies, they will again and again, in blind anger, beat wide of the mark, make mistakes, attack and be attacked. It is inevitable. Moreover, the ruling class will welcome such eruptions (though not openly) as a means of letting off steam and as a lever in its competition with foreign competitors. But this still isn't fascism. There is no point in crying "wolf" everyday until the cry is no longer taken seriously. Paradoxically the threat of fascism only emerges after the working class has thrown aside the shackles of nationalism and the bourgeoisie needs to use "special" measures of struggle against the labour movement. But then the situation will be quite different from today.

Today our task is simple. Although it might seem self-evident, we, Communists, must patiently help the working class become conscious of the only correct programme of revolutionary, international Marxism. To do this we must participate in the class struggle, and with the correct analysis and perspectives, through words and deed, hammer home to the workers who their irreconcilable enemies are and how to fight against them. Perhaps this sounds too simple? But no other way has yet been found.