Russia in Turmoil, an Eyewitness Report

An analysis of the current situation in Russia, based on Alan Woods' discussions with trade unionists, left wingers, Communist Party members, and others during his recent trip to Russia. A first hand account of the debates in the Russian left and the beginning of the recovery of the labour movement.

May Day in Moscow. A mass of red flags in brilliant sunshine. The demonstrators - mainly members of the Communist Party (CPRF), numbering about 50,000, made quite an impressive showing as they streamed across the river Moscow up to the ancient walls of the Kremlin. The entrance to Red Square was blocked by a row of burly policemen. Yeltsin does not want the Square used for demonstrations - at least, not anti-government ones. The meeting is held outside the walls, next to the onion-shaped Byzantine domes of the Cathedral of Saint Basil and a huge poster announcing that "Christ is Risen".

There were several May Day demos, of which the two most important ones were called (separately) by the CPRF and the "official" trade unions (FNPR). The tactic of splitting up the demos was clearly intended to pour cold water on the mood. On the day of action on March 27th, there were big demos all over Russia. Now I estimate there were about 50,000 on the CP demo, and from what I hear about the same with the unions. It also seems that relations between the CP leaders and those of the FNPR are bad. The majority are old or middle aged, with only a sprinkling of youth, which reflects the composition of the Party. The mood is strangely subdued. Apart from snatches of old Civil War songs, the demonstration proceeds in silence. The same atmosphere prevails at the mass meeting at the end. Only one of the orators succeeds in arousing the crowd, when he calls out the slogans "Factories to the Workers! Land to the Tillers! Peace to the Peoples! All Power to the Soviets!" The last phrase is taken up by the demonstrators and echoed repeatedly. This detail is more significant than it may appear at first sight. There have been many reports of the setting up of "Committees of Salvation" in the Kuzbass and other areas.

What is the CPRF?

The old CPSU, as we always explained, was not a party at all but an arm of the bureaucratic-totalitarian state, which was made up mainly of spies, toadies and informers. The same was largely true of the old "unions." But since 1992 the link with the state has been largely broken. The collapse of the USSR transformed the situation. The old CPSU had 8 million members, mainly careerists looking for jobs in the state. Now the link was broken, they left in droves. The present CPRF has about half a million - which means that a big de facto purge has taken place, and a lot of the worst elements have been removed. The turning point was the August 1991 coup. After this, the CP was illegalised for a while. The leaders were threatened with a trial. It is therefore not correct to say that nothing has happened, that these organisations remain as before. Nevertheless, it is natural that, because of their history (and also because of their present conduct and policies) many good workers and youth do not trust them or are openly hostile.

The picture one gets of the CPRF is that of a numerically large party led by that wing of the bureaucracy that gained nothing from the Reform and finds itself marginalised, and tries to lean on the working class for support, while manoeuvring with the tops of the state and particularly the army. The membership is mainly old, with very little youth and not many workers. However, the CPRF is only serious mass party that could act as a point of reference in the struggle against the nascent bourgeoisie. And despite the class collaborationist policies of the leadership, in its ranks there are many honest communists who would like to back to the old days, not in the sense of Stalin but the best days of Brezhnev, but with reforms.

Moreover, the Party is not homogeneous, even at the leadership level. While the leading faction of Zyuganov is prepared to accept capitalism, while appealing to Russian nationalism (he publicly announces his membership of the Orthodox Church!), these views are not shared by everyone. There are apparently three main factions: 1) the "National Reformists" (Gennady Zyuganov, Yuri Bely); 2) The Social Democrats (Valentin Kuptsov) and 3) the "Orthodox Communists" of the Leninist Platform in the Communist Movement led by Richard Kosolapov. That there are tensions in the CPRF leadership is clear from the following: the CPRF leaders decided to vote for the State budget a few months ago, although it was a slashing attack on living standards. Just one detail: expenditure on culture and education is to be cut by 55%. But one third of the CP Duma deputies defied Party discipline and voted against. This shows that the pressure is building up and is at least partially reflected in the leadership of the CPRF.

Discussions on the unions

I spoke with Kirill Buketov, full-timer for the main trade union fed. (FNPR) a left winger who started as member of the anarcho-syndicalist movement, but later decided it was better to work in the mass trade union movement, who explained the recent evolution of the Russian trade union movement.

In the period of the break-up of the USSR, there was an attempt to set up "independent" unions. These got some kind of base in areas where the "official" union was particularly rotten. They were anti-communist and got funds from the CIA, channelled through the AFL-CIO. At first, some of them did quite well out of CIA money and cuddling up to the government, but are now being hammered by Yeltsin. Only a few are viable - like the air traffic controllers and airline pilots). Once the workers saw that the "independents" were in reality completely dependent on the bourgeoisie, they abandoned them. The FNPR - the heir to the old state unions - now has the overwhelming majority. This showed the complete falsity of trying to base oneself on the so-called independent unions, as some so-called Marxists tried to do, with predictable results.

Overall trade union membership remains high despite the terrible economic collapse. In 1993 the figure for all union membership was 90.7%. In 1995 it stood at 89.9% - an insignificant variation. However, within this, there was a certain shift away from the FNPR, which, however, retained the overwhelming majority. According to published statistics, the FNPR went from 69.8 million in 1992 to 48 million in 1995. RC puts the present level at 42 million. So the decisive sectors remain in the FNPR. However, the leadership believes in "social partnership", that is class collaboration. The statements of the union leaders suggest that they are as frightened of the movement of the workers as the government. One spokesman - Gennady Khodokov commented that "Spontaneous actions among workers all over Russia are on the increase and there is a serious danger that things could get out of hand. Increasingly workers are raising political demands, calling for the resignation of the country's leaders....We want the March 27th protest to be successful, but we are trying to contain extremist efforts to give it a political character. Threatening social peace and stability is not our purpose."

By all accounts, there is not much active participation of workers in the FNPR at present. Bear in mind that, like the CPRF, this was mainly composed of the remnants of the old state bureaucratic structure, though it also experienced a purge and a partial renovation with the entry of new elements. However, in many factories the union still includes the directors, and is regarded with suspicion especially by the most radical elements. In 1995 there was a poll of the metal industry which revealed that 44% of the FNPR rank and file, 41% of the activists and even 32% of the full-timers admitted that they remained in the union either from "inertia" or "didn't really think about it". Only 20% said that the union "had obtained the confidence of the majority of workers". One half observed that the rank and file workers were disappointed with the trade union membership. Another survey showed that in 46 regions, up to 60% stated that they had not participated in a single event organised by the unions.

This indicates the low level of participation in the unions at this stage. But this will inevitably change in the next period as the pressure from below grows. Already the pressure from the class has compelled the leaders reluctantly to call the day of action on March 27th, where millions of workers participated. True, subsequent "days of action" were less well supported, as the leaders are clearly trying to give them a merely symbolic character, and calling them separately from the CP. In addition, the terrible economic crisis, the fear of unemployment and the fact that many workers have not been paid for months, militates against widespread strike action. Small-scale economic strikes do not make much sense in this situation. The only thing that would make sense is an all-out general strike, linked to the slogan, Down with the government. But neither the FNPR nor CP leaders are willing to campaign for this. The central problem therefore remains the problem of leadership. But even in the absence of leadership, the process of radicalisation continues, and is expressed in the creation of soviet-style "committees of salvation" in the Kuzbass and other regions.

Unparalleled collapse

The collapse of the planned economy and the movement towards capitalism has meant an unparalleled collapse of production which is still continuing. Many workers have not been paid for three, six or more months. The consequence has been a nightmare of poverty, beggary and even actual hunger. In the army, there have been cases of soldiers starving to death. The fact that one of the main tasks of the Salvation Committees is the distribution of food speaks for itself. The depth of the economic crisis is one of the main reasons why there has not so far been a generalised movement of the Russian working class. Stunned and disoriented by developments, and in the absence of a serious revolutionary alternative, the workers have, in general, kept their heads down. The strike movement has still continued, above all in mining areas like the Kuzbass, but under such conditions, partial strikes for economic demands make little sense. The only possible slogan in such a case is an all-out political general strike to bring down the government. That would get a response from the class. But neither the leaders of the CP nor the unions are prepared to launch such a slogan.

The key question is the subjective factor - the absence of leadership. This has undoubtedly played a big role in holding back the movement. But this cannot go on forever. Visiting Moscow gives one a completely unreal vision of Russian life. Superficially there is an air of prosperity and bustling activity, from the old women selling cucumbers outside the Metro to the sleek Mercedes sweeping along the road and the families of "novo rishay" (new rich) self-consciously indulging in their Big Macs as if they were taking tea at the Ritz. Of course, there is another, grimmer side even in Moscow. The hoards of beggars on every street corner, the prostitutes - mainly poor girls from the provinces, who form a large queue on the corner of Tverskaya street, waiting for the next big car to pull up, the crime, the drunkenness, the "Mafiya".

But Moscow is not Russia. Just travel 100 miles outside the capital and the picture changes dramatically. The real situation in Russia was graphically described to me by Kirill Buketov, in the following way. Recently he went to visit the town of Ivanovo, only a few hundred kilometres from Moscow. Historically, this was the centre of the textile industry, and he was staying at the house of a man and woman who work in a textile factory. As a small present, Kirill brought a couple of bars of chocolate from Moscow. The couple have two small daughters, the elder aged eight. When they saw the chocolate, the elder burst out crying, because she had not seen chocolate for years, and her small sister did not know what it was. From this small anecdote, one can see the huge gulf separating Moscow and Petersburg from the rest of the country, although it must be added that even in Moscow there are huge differences between rich and poor, and the most appalling conditions can be seen even at the end of the metro line.

In mid February, teachers only received their pay in three provinces out of 89 (Moscow, Samara, and oil-rich Yamal-Nenets). There were protests in the other 86 provinces. There have been a rash of local strikes and demonstrations. For example, the central Siberian town of Salair 3,000 miners from the gold-silver-lead mines occupied the offices of the administration and were only persuaded to leave after three days of tense negotiations. These workers had not been paid for a year, and were living on bread doled out by the company, but even this ran out on February 25th. There are many such examples.

The savage cuts in state expenditure threatens even the most basic services. The latest victim has been the supply of energy and water in the far east of Russia. Recently, there were reports of serious disturbances in the far-eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, where a state of emergency was declared on May 8th. Blackouts had lasted as long as 20 hours, leaving people without heat, light and in some cases, water. An article in the Moscow Komsomolskaya Pravda (15th May) commented that: "The people are protesting the endless power cuts, which have assumed the character of a disaster. The city's dermatological and venereal disease clinic poured untested blood into the sewerage system - it had gone off in the hospital's switched-off refrigerators. After which the health and epidemiology service warned of possible encounters with syphilis pathogens in the waters of the Amur Gulf." This is only one example of the kind of chaos and disintegration caused by the attempt to impose the rule of the "market". The power workers, according to this article "have forgotten what money looks like." The same is true of the miners of nearby Maritime District, who are still sending coal to the power station, although they have not been paid for six months. But the patience of the workers has its limits. The anger of the populace boiled over. The people of Vladivostok poured onto the streets, blocking the main highway and chanting slogans such as "Down with the Misters! Bring back the Comrades, and electricity at two kopecks!" The miners have announced that they will block Vladivostok airport, the Trans-Siberian railway and major highways in the area. Meanwhile, the power stations in the area are running out of fuel altogether.

Whereas the miners of the Maritime District have misguidedly appealed to Yeltsin to intervene. The miners of Kuzbass in Western Siberia have long since abandoned any illusions in the gang that sits in the Kremlin. On May 19th they returned to the struggle with a street demonstration of 15,000, protesting against job losses. As we have already explained, the Kuzbass workers have set up Committees of Salvation, which are soviets in all but name.

In towns like Prokopievsk the committees, elected at workshop level, have a city-wide co-ordination and have a permanent character, existing alongside the town councils. They "overlap with the trade unions. and moreover have a tendency to spread". The same people are active in the committees and the unions. They have different functions. The workers understand the need for a nation-wide permanent organisation - and that can only be the FNPR. The committees are not restricted to the Kuzbass, but also exist in other areas where the working class has a strong tradition. This is an extremely important development. It is the first time since 1917 that such committees have been set up in Russia. The future battles of the Russian workers will propel them to the first rank. After all, and in spite of everything, there is a long revolutionary tradition in Russia which decades of totalitarian rule have dimmed, but not extinguished.

The 9th May

The ruinous consequences of the movement towards capitalism are felt by wide layers of society, not just workers and collective farmers, but scientists and artists, old age pensioners and women, soldiers and intellectuals. Recently, the trade unions of the Russian Academy of Sciences, state science centres, colleges and universities, have come out in favour of a struggle against the Yeltsin government. In the last few years, this government has reduced the funding of science from 2.5 per cent of GNP to only 0.3 per cent. Now it is planning to reduce the funding of science further by a factor of three. This means that proportionately, Russia will spend less on science than Uganda! Already, the life expectancy of Russian men is about the same as Pakistan - 57 years. The birth rate is falling, and is now lower than the death rate. These figures represent a terrible collapse in all the most basic indices of civilised existence. And there is a growing realisation of the fact.

Beneath the surface of apparent calm, a storm is brewing in Russia. It is not just the economic collapse and the poverty. It is something much, much deeper. An all-pervading sense of anxiety, bitterness and loss that extends far beyond the working class. The years of nationalised planned economy were years of tremendous advance which transformed Russia from a backward, semi-feudal country, heavily dependent on foreign capital, into the second most powerful nation on earth. The present catastrophe signifies not only misery for millions, but a deep sense of national humiliation. Such sentiments can, and do, give rise to all kinds of reactionary phenomena, such as the resurgence of Pan-Slavism, the Orthodox Church and a number of sinister Russian nationalist parties and groups with openly racist, anti-Semitic and quasi-fascist tendencies in the spirit of the old Black Hundreds.

However, it would be a mistake to confuse these reactionary manifestations with the widespread feeling of the masses that Russia is being destroyed. This is most often reflected in the demand for the reconstitution of the Soviet Union, and specifically for the immediate reunification of Russia and Belarus. I saw this clearly on the demonstration on the 9th of May. This was Victory Day, the anniversary of the victory of the Soviet Union against Hitler Germany. In the past, this was celebrated with a big official parade with tanks, guns and rockets. Now the Yeltsin government, as part of its attempt to cuddle up to the West, has reduced the official parade in Red Square to minuscule proportions, while the CPRF and other opposition parties hold a separate demonstration outside the Square.

The demonstration on May 9th is the traditional Victory Day demonstration - the anniversary of the victory over Hitler Germany, which in the past included a formidable display of tanks, guns and rockets in Red Square. This year all that was suppressed. But in order to steal the thunder of the CP, who organised their own demo., Yeltsin ordered a small military parade in Red Square, which, as on May Day, was closed to the CP demonstrators. The government parade was short and perfunctory. The press agreed that the opposition had effectively out-classed the government and stolen an advantage. The CP demonstration was big - bigger than May Day, in fact. The first thing that struck you was the number of army uniforms present: a large number of serving and retired army officers and soldiers, tough-looking commandos, even Cossacks, filed past the applauding crowds. The Union of Soviet Officers carried a big banner. It is clear that the CP leaders are making a big play for the support of the army officers, who are seething with discontent over the loss of their customary power and prestige. Things have got so bad that there have been cases of soldiers starving to death. To these officers, Yeltsin's sell-out to NATO is only the latest in a series of national humiliations since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sooner or later, the accumulated bitterness and discontent in the barracks must lead to new explosions.

In a whole series of discussions I had with people of different views, from anarcho-syndicalists to hard-line Stalinists, I was struck by the extremely unstable nature of the situation. Beneath the superficial façade of feverish economic activity in Moscow, where every street corner seems to be a building site, there is a profound sense of unease and insecurity. Every year at least $20 billion are stashed away in foreign currency, while investment languishes. The total deposits in commercial banks is only half this amount. Promstroy, a special bank set up to promote investment for "patriotic" purposes in 1994 devoted 20% of its total portfolio to credits for industrial development. By mid 1996, this had fallen to only 8%. No wonder the Russian economy continues to fall!

Evidently, even this fall must come to an end. It is possible that by the end of the year, or next year, there will be some kind of growth. Paradoxically, this will be the signal for an explosion of the class struggle in Russia. Even a slight upturn in the economy will be enough to encourage the workers who still have their heads down to pass over onto the offensive. Those in the West who imagine that everything in Russia is resolved are in for a big surprise. In reality, nothing is resolved. Russia is set to enter a new and turbulent period. Once the mighty Russian working class begins to flex its muscles, the whole world will sit up and take notice.