Viktoria and Sergei, activists in the Workers’ Platform, a Russian Marxist group based in Perm and Kaluga, talked to Solidarity.
Solidarity: what are the conditions like for activists?
Viktoria: In Russia, in the economy, there has been a process of neo-liberal reforms. There is a lot of discontent as the regime puts on pressure and repression. But we are still able to organise workers in independent trade unions.
The most active of our groups is in Kaluga, an industrial city near Moscow where there are lots of factories like Peugot-Citroen, Volkswagen, Samsung, and other transnational corporations. In Perm there are fewer transnational corporations, but there is Nestea. In some of these enterprises the workers are organised in independent trade unions. The trade unions and the political movement, Workers’ Platform work together.
There are lots of pseudo-left organisations — the Communist Party, are socialist parties — they have nothing to do with the workers’ movement.
The strongest sector for independent unions is probably car production: Ford, VW, Citroen. And also food factories, like Nestea in Omsk and Inmarko, an international ice cream manufacturer.
S: How are economic conditions?
V: The percentage of our GNP spent on education, health and science was small in the 1990s and the start of this century, but now it is miserable.
In Moscow, they are trying to close a lot of hospitals, and 8,000 medical staff are to lose their jobs. 2,000 people attended a meeting about this. In healthcare, there is a union called “Deystviya” or “Action” with branches in different cities including Moscow and St Petersburg, and they have been fighting for the last two years.
Reforms in education are trying to introduce fees for school education. People need to pay for learning languages, art, history and so on. Students may get two hours of chemistry and pay extra for more lessons. They are trying to close many universities.
There is a trade union called Uchitel, “the teacher”. It is very small, and is trying to unite university teachers in Moscow. But 20 years of neoliberal reforms have made people very individualistic. It is the most difficult sphere to organise in.
S: Do the strong independent unions have any political activity?
V: They are just starting out. I was invited as a professor at Perm University to talk to the union in Kaluga tabout dialectical and historical materialism, and to run a short course on Marx’s Capital. So there is a strong wish to learn, but it is only the first steps. I teach a course on Marx’s Capital at Perm University. I need to teach from the perspective of pluralism; I read Hayek with students for philosophy courses. But I say, if you want to read Hayek, read Marx also. This is not strictly prohibited, but it of course the head of my university doesn’t like it at all.
S: In the UK, such a trade union course would be pretty rare. Is there a tradition of working-class education?
V: Yes. I work in a Polytechnical University. My students normally work in small firms and enterprises, doing manual work. They are interested in materialist philosophy. I was asked to organise a study circle in my flat. It ran on the weekends, and students would come and read Marx and Lenin, and we celebrated the anniversary of the Paris Commune. In Kaluga they read Trotsky, My Life, which is interesting and fresh, and after they’d read that, they asked me to come.
S: What do people in Russia, especially younger people, think when you say, “we are socialists, we are Marxists”?
V: At school, people are taught by official propaganda that communism and fascism are the same. So when they encounter ideas such as ours, socialist ideas, for the first time, it is shocking. But you need to spend time to explain that it is normal, progressive; when people see that their problems could be described and solved with the help of this theory, they become more convinced.
Most people understand that our Communist Party is not Communist. When my students ask, is there an alternative to the Communist Party, I try to explain that if they want an alternative, they have to make it themselves. They find this response form me striking and shocking. People are used to understanding politics as something away in Moscow, in the Kremlin, and not in their own lives.
S: Do you encounter pro-Stalin nostalgics much?
V: Most people don’t want to relive the Stalinist era, and they understand that Stalin was not real communism. Unfortunately, young people know very little about Trotsky, the old Bolsheviks. They don’t know that the old Bolsheviks had different ideas and that Lenin was trying to convince, and not to impose his point of view as the only one.
S: In Albania, some young people see it as fashionable to be religious — particularly, to be Catholic. This is seen as an expression of rebellion. In Poland, after 1988, it was very common among young people, to say, “I want to become a small capitalist and start my own business.” So, if you are young, energetic, you want to change your life, this is how you do it. What do you have in Russia?
V: In Russia, there is also a common idea of getting your own business. But in the last two or three years, millions of small businesses have closed. So people are thinking hard about such things, and young people more often say, “I want to be a manager”, or “I want to be an administrator”. If they are from villages or small cities, they tend to understand the situation better. This is because they have no jobs, no healthcare. But if students or young workers have a more comfortable background they are not very attentive to communist ideas or the idea that there is something wrong.
Those who are from these small cities, who come to the big city, almost all of them are atheists. In Russia, religious propaganda is very strong. But people see a lot of money goes to build churches, to fund religious projects and so on and workers don’t like it.
S: In the general historical impression you are given at school is the revolution good or bad?
V: Bad. Firstly, it was not a revolution, but a band that took the power; the power was laying on the floor and could be picked up by anyone. This is a completely abnormal way of explaining the events of 1917! We are taught that our modern reliance on commodities from the west, and all other major problems, are the fault of the Bolsheviks.
S: What is your activity on the question of the Ukraine?
V: The left in Russia is very strongly divided on this. Some think this is Ukraine’s problem, and Russia has the Crimea, and that is a good thing. That is the line of the Russian Communist Party. Others think that Russia is an imperialist force and that Ukraine has become an arena for two imperialist forces: the USA and Europe on the one hand, and Russia on the other. That is our position as well. We think that the problem is that the workers in Ukraine and in Novorossiya do not have experience of organisation in trade unions, political movements, and that is why they could not understand the situation, and that is why the nationalist movement was able to do more than the left.
There is a huge amount of government propaganda saying that the Kiev government is controlled by Nazis, that Novorossiya represents freedom and so on.
S: The Russian government has used the anniversary of the end of the Second World War quite a lot.
V: They turned this date into a nationalist event. Under the Soviet Union, there were a lot of problems, of course, but it was an internationalist war against the Nazis. All the nationalities in the USSR united to fight the Nazis.
Solidarity: A lot of those nationalities got deported.
V: Yes, of course. Over 15 nations were deported. But the government is trying to make the situation look like a Russian victory. They have even changed the symbol of victory from the red flag to the St George’s Cross, orange and black, which has nothing to do with World War Two.
S: But actually, Stalin fought the Second World War as a Russian nationalist war, with suppression of minority nations in the USSR such as was done nowhere else.
V: Yes, that was a problem of course, a big one. But at the same time, it would not have been possible to have won without the nations all uniting.
S: But they didn’t all unite…
V: Yes, I agree.
S: How did you become a socialist?
V: I had a very liberal (right-wing) upbringing and school. I was always taught things about the Soviet Union that were even more negative than is normal, and I was always wondering, why is the Soviet Union only depicted negatively? But when I studied the Russian Revolution, I saw that there was Trotsky as well as Lenin and Stalin, so I decided to learn what he stood for. I started with Revolution Betrayed. It was shocking! Another view on history and the modern situation. He predicted the coming of capitalism with the bureaucracy, if things did not change and if there was no world revolution to link up with the Russian revolution. And I thought, if he was a Marxist, then I need to read Marx. And then I need to read Lenin. And then their roots: Hegel, Feuerbach, and so on and so on. Sergei had a very similar story. He had family problems, and needed to understand the situation properly. He started with anarcho-communism, but soon came to more serious ideas, and read Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.
S: Does the Workers’ Platform have a publication?
V: We produce a newspaper in Kaluga, called Prometheus. It is produced with our friends in trade unions. We have no newspaper in Perm yet, but we are working on it. With the internet, we can spread the Kaluga paper everywhere. It is distributed at certain workplaces, for free.
S: How do you find new members?
V: In Russia, it is difficult. It often happens by accident. In Perm, most of the leftwing people came from the philosophical faculty, where they were taught how to start thinking for the first time. Another way of recruiting is through subcultures. We make our propaganda among these young people by means of concerts, DIY events, and we invite them to meetings. We have a cinema club in a public library, and we show the films of Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, and so on. We invite young people to Marxist seminars. They need to read, and come to the seminar already having read the book and ready to discuss.
Sergei: Some young people see how we work in trade unions and they come to us. Some people ask us to teach them how to organise campaigns and trade unions.
V: In Perm, we have about 20 people who come to all our events. There are a lot of people who like our ideas but who do not come to every meeting we do. There are maybe a hundred or more people like this. In Kaluga they have 10 activists and a hundred or more people who like to help.
S: How ethnically and nationally diverse is your group and its periphery?
V: We all are of mixed heritage. We are Ukrainian, Russian, Czech, and German. But unfortunately we can’t recruit migrants, like Kazakhs, Uzbeks.
It is complicated. In Russia, people come to work for a week, a month, a year, and then send money back to their family and leave again. So they often do not want to co-operate with trade unions.