ALEXEI GASKAROV, the Russian antifascist and political prisoner, wrote this letter to readers of Zhukovskie Vesti, a local newspaper in the town of Zhukovsky where he lives. Gaskarov was a defendant in the Bolotnaya Square case brought against activists and other participants in the big anti-government demonstrations of 2011-12. (See defence committee site here.) He was transferred out of Butyrka remand prison in Moscow at six o’clock in the morning on 28 December 2014. Gaskarov brought in
the New Year while in transit to a medium security prison where he will serve his three-and-half-year sentence (as yet supporters don’t know which prison). In August, Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow sentenced four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case – Gaskarov, Alexander Margolin, Ilya Gushchin, and Elena Kohtareva – finding them guilty of involvement in rioting and using violence against authorities. The recent decision of the appellate court was adamant: it upheld the lower court’s verdict. In the letter, Gaskarov summed up this difficult year, spent away from loved ones, and speculated on what is happening in Russia:
In December, the Laboratory of Public Sociology (a project based at the Centre for Independent Social Research in Petersburg) published the results of its study of civic movements in the wake of the 2011–2012 protests. The main conclusion was that the critical attitude to the regime had not
faded, but had been forced to transform into different local initiatives and “small deeds.” The mass mobilisation for fair elections and the experience of joint action had made public politics an integral part of life and an essential element of self-realisation on a par with caring for loved ones and professional success.
Perhaps one of the key case studies in the research project was the evolution of civic initiatives in our own city, with the caveat that, by Russian standards, we have always had an active civil society and, as far as I know, Zhukovsky has to some extent been an example to all other Russian cities. The internal logic of the observed transformation is quite obvious and is reflected in the well-known dissident argument that those who give up freedom for sausage (stability) ultimately lose everything. The more strongly public space is constricted, the more noticeable are the crises in all other areas of public life, and not giving into pressure is a very rational choice in terms of the common good, even if one has to retreat at some points.
With its demands for democratic reform, the tentative Bolotnaya Square movement cannot lose separately from the rest of society, even if for the majority it remains a case of protest for its own sake. For the right question to ask in the current crisis is not why oil prices have fallen, but why nothing has been done over the past fifteen years to overcome our country’s economic dependence on the vagaries of foreign markets.
We cannot know the reasons for certain decisions, and I am far from saying that all those in power are “crooks and thieves,” but there is no doubt a society that has chosen an authoritarian model of governance is incapable of building an effective economy. Consequently, the harder the screws are tightened, the closer the denouement.
The lack of political competition leads only to an increase of incompetence in decision-making. For the sake of mythical manageability, the system is deprived of a complex but effective system of checks and balances, turning into a primitive vertical, which functions in an improvisatory mode.
A simple example from recent days is the Central Bank’s independence. The president’s friend needed 625 billion roubles, and they upped and printed them no questions asked, instantly causing the currency market to collapse and transferring all the costs to the entire population. On television, of course, they explained that “the West” and a “fifth column” were to blame for everything. This would not be possible in any democratic country. In Russia, however, absolute power goes on corrupting absolutely.
Despite the fact that there was more talk of dignity, freedom, and intolerance of hypocrisy and lies at the opposition rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011–2012, the regime faced a fairly simple choice: either dialogue and reforms, or crisis and stagnation, which still means change, ultimately, but at a completely different price. It is almost an axiom, so people should not get upset if they were unsuccessful, for example, in defending a forest, challenging vote rigging in court or changing urban planning policies. The experience of collective action, rather than short-term outcomes, is vital in its own right.
In Argentina in 2001, the economic crisis produced such contradictions between society and authorities that the people’s only demand was Que se vayan todos! (“Out with them all!”). And the world witnessed one of the largest societal reconstruction projects based on self-organization and local government, something that had seemed unreal, as it does now in Russia. Who could have predicted the shameful flight of the once-strong Yanukovych in 2013? It is possible that if there is no liberalisation and political thaw, at some point those who now appear important and confident will just disappear, and no one except we ourselves will be able to make decisions for us. And it will be right at such a moment that we will need the know-how of collective action and a vision for the future of both our city and the country as a whole.
From Zhukovskie Vesti, 29 December 2014. Thanks to the Russian Reader for this translation.
About the illustration. The poster “To remember is to fight” commemorates Anastasia Baburova, a journalist, and Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer – like Alexei Gaskarov, active antifascists – who were killed by neo-Nazis on 19 January 2009 in broad daylight in central Moscow. Russian antifascists are organising commemoration events this month. (For more about the murder, for which two neo-Nazis have been jailed, see this article by Alexei Gaskarov and e.g. this newspaper report.)
 In the original, Gaskarov writes that “the president’s friend” needed “25 billion rubles.” This is an obvious reference to Igor Sechin, Putin’s close colleague, a former security services officer and chairman of the largest state oil company, Rosneft. We have corrected this figure to the 625 billion rubles cited in the press as the amount of Rosneft’s recent bond issue. Before his arrest, Gaskarov worked as an economist and would not be prone to such mistakes. The figure of 25 billion rubles is thus either a typo, or reflects his restricted access to information.