THE entire square outside the main cathedral in downtown Kiev was covered in coloured, flickering candles. It was late November and Ukrainians were remembering the death of millions of farm people at the hands of Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. The Soviet dictator had followed a deliberate policy of food confiscation, execution and forced deportation to ‘collectivize’ agriculture. People came in thousands to put down their own little beacon of remembrance: their way of saying ‘never again’. It was an example of a kind of popular self-activity rarely witnessed in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Leaving aside a few notable exceptions like Prague and Bucharest, the collapse of communism did not come about in this region because of popular movements from below. By and large, arrangements were made over the heads of the people: arrangements that too often left those responsible for the old system also running the new one. But democracy needs more than this. It needs citizens to take their future into their own hands. Slowly and painfully this is beginning to happen.
A new activism is emerging. Listen, and you can hear some of its voices. It takes different forms in different places. It crystallizes around the corrupt and autocratic practices of the oligarchic quasi-democracies that moved into the vacuum left by the communist collapse. In Eastern Europe and the tiny Baltic republics, the system that has emerged allows at least some space for organizing political dissent.
Such space has been very limited throughout most of the former Soviet Union. Yet even here democracy is stirring. No longer are organizations confined to desperate struggles by a few isolated dissidents for basic human rights. Today they have ambitions to shape a democracy more profound than the sterile monopolies of politics and economics currently holding sway. As they go beyond the rallying cry of the ‘free market’, they struggle against a massive assault on people’s living standards – an assault that has replaced the cradle-to-grave security promised by the communists with a precarious existence in which millions are forced to survive on a couple of dollars a day.
There is the danger that such struggles may be misunderstood – particularly by the Western Left. For activists in the East, the old words and ways of thinking and talking stick in the throat. Olexi – a campaigner working with the Bankwatch Network (which keeps an eye on the regional shenanigans of the World Bank and IMF) – attended the Paris Social Summit last autumn. He left early because he couldn’t take the repetitive speeches by various Marxist sects. They simply had no meaning for him.
Instead, the activism that is emerging in the former Soviet Union tends to use the language of democratic struggles rather than that of traditional Marxism. But the goal of social justice remains intact.
When the demonstrations for democratic autonomy broke out in Hong Kong last year, one young activist wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt was widely televised burning a Chinese Communist flag, complete with hammer-and-sickle. What was one to make of this? Che’s spirit of free rebellion was in conflict with a Marxism where the symbols and words are simply hypocrisies justifying autocracy and privilege. If the sclerotic worldview of orthodox communism does not lead towards a democracy in the true sense – the self-rule of a people – then what good is it?
A truly international movement must be able to appreciate and work with the ironies that are rife in post-communism. The spirit of revolt once associated with Marxism has not died. It’s been passed on to other movements with other possibilities. Real democracy, mutual respect and tolerance and environmental integrity have surpassed the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as the rallying cries. Maybe if we listen closely we can learn something.
Jennie Sutton – defender of Baikal eco-region
Braving the harshness of the Siberian winter and the attentions of an overprotective terrier is relatively simple for a woman like Jennie: she takes on the State’s police. The organization for which Jennie works – The Wave – serves as an environmental watchdog for the Baikal Region. It was raided by the FSB (which is the modern version of the KGB) in 2002, and its computers were stolen. The raid occurred shortly after the group launched a campaign against the proposed Yukos oil pipeline from Russia to China that is due to pass through the catchment area of Lake Baikal – the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. ‘The pretext for their coming was that we had some maps of a uranium enrichment plant in the neighbouring city of Angarsk, but it coincided with the start of our environmental impact assessment of the Yukos project and so we rather suspected that Yukos had a hand in it.’
Then Jennie’s flat was broken into and her car stolen. She suspected the FSB had struck again. Thanks to the efforts of Russia’s NGO network, the media picked up on the story, forcing the FSB to back down and return the group’s computers. ‘Later, one of the local Angarsk deputies, who is very much in favour of the Yukos pipeline and the uranium enrichment plant, said that we had turned the whole episode into a PR campaign – which of course we had!’
Jennie was born in India and brought up in England. She moved to Irkutsk (near the shores of Lake Baikal) in 1974 to work as an English teacher and has remained here ever since. ‘All my experience here in the Soviet Union and in Russia has been tremendously exciting. Being in the centre of all this has been an experience that I would never change for the world.’
http://www.baikalwave.eu.org (Jenny talked with Louise Sales)
Nataliya Nagorna – lesbian and gay rights activist
‘We had to overcome our animal fear. It was the first open public manifestation of gay people in Ukrainian history.’ In a noisy Kiev coffee house Nataliya is explaining the open participation of 40 gay and lesbian activists from across the Ukraine as part of the United Nations Development Programme initiated anti-AIDS Race for Life in 2003. ‘We faced violence from skinheads, nationalist groups and religious cults. The skinheads attacked our literature-stand, tried to steal our symbols and start fights. And an unidentified group of men wearing just black tried to block us and separate us out for harassment.’ Nataliya attributes the roots of gay invisibility and discrimination to the communist period. ‘In those days gay men could be sent to prison and lesbians were often sent to hospitals for forced treatment. So, unlike in the West, we were not a counterculture but a subculture. It was a kind of parallel world designed to hide us. Invisibility was the norm. And now it is not illegal but we [still] exist outside the legal discourse. That is our fight now: to overcome invisibility and have our rights recognized.’
Vladimir Slivayak – environmental defender
After a brief exchange outside a Moscow Metro station, Vladimir and I hurried out of the cold to discuss the complexities of Russian politics over a slice of apple pie.
Vladimir is a founder of the environmental group Ecodefense and is involved in its campaign to halt Russian imports of nuclear waste. He was born and raised in Kaliningrad (in western Russia). A self-professed anarchist, he was a punk in his teenage years, sporting a tricolour Mohican in the late 1980s when ‘this was enough to get you beaten up in the street’.
He is extremely worried about Russia’s current Government. ‘We have a president from the KGB who is trying to establish an authoritarian regime like Stalin. They [the Government] are approving new laws that give them the ability to put in jail anyone they like. Right now, [under] the law on state secrets, when you are talking about some nuclear or chemical facility and giving some numbers – even from sources open to the public – you can be arrested by the police. If journalists take this information from us they can be arrested as well. This law was introduced about three years ago when Putin came into power.’
Vladimir believes that the objectivity of the media has also been destroyed under the Putin Government. ‘The press is very much controlled by the authorities at different levels.’ He hopes that the current Government will be a short-lived phenomenon. ‘I think in 10 years the situation will have changed a lot. People will demand that normal parties appear with a clear political platform, declaring what they are for and what they are against. United Russia (the pro-Putin majority party in the Duma) doesn’t have any coherent policies.’
[email protected] (Vladimir talked with Louise Sales)
The Bankwatch Network – international finance watchdogs
‘It’s more fun watching banks than you might think,’ according to Tomasz Terlecki, executive director of CEE Bankwatch Network. The banks in question are not high street banks but the hugely influential international financial institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank.
Bankwatch has been tracking the operations of these so-called ‘development’ banks primarily in Central and Eastern Europe since 1995. Based in Prague, where it played a key civil society role at the World Bank 2000 meeting, Bankwatch is a coalition of NGOs spread across the entire region. The IFIs continue to be heavily involved in post-communist reconstruction – often choosing to throw their weight behind environmentally and socially destructive projects despite their benign veneers. Think of nuclear reactors, devastating mining or huge road projects through protected areas. The chances are that Bankwatch will have spotted Ifiinvolvement and a campaign will be under way, its co-ordinators seeking to involve the locally-affected population, passing on expertise as to how to hold the banks to account and regularly making them rethink.
If you’re sick of huge oil pipelines criss-crossing the planet, usually with significant IFI backing, then take direct action and become an Active Bankwatcher at http://www.active.bankwatch.org
Nataliya Priobrozhenskaya – antinuclear campaigner
‘Everything changed here at the time of Chernobyl. The people could see how the Communist Party lied.’ Nataliya is a biochemist who has worked with radioactive isotopes since the 1950s. We are meeting in the rather plush offices of the Ukrainian Peace Council in Kiev. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl turned Nataliya into an activist speaking at meetings and rallies to tell ‘the truth about nuclear power’. She has since become a champion of the Ukrainian children whose long-term effects have marked a generation. Today she runs her own NGO called Fund Saving Children of Ukraine from the Chernobyl Tragedy. Both Chernobyl and the collapse of the USSR transformed the Peace Council too, from a statesponsored propaganda organization to one that takes critical and controversial stands on issues of war and peace. It was not only outspoken on Chernobyl and nuclear power but played a key role in the struggle to make the Ukraine the first country in the world to give up nuclear weapons. Nataliya was very much part of that struggle.
‘I went to the Parliament and asked the members who were in favour of keeping the weapons which one of them would be willing to push the button. None stepped forward.’ The Ukraine’s bloody history may have been the reason why the independence constitution of 1990 stipulated a nuclear-free country. Nearly 15 million Ukrainians died in World War Two, to say nothing of the Stalin-engineered famine of the early 1930s – and after that there was Chernobyl.
Nataliya is just back from addressing the European Social Summit in Paris. Her experiences make her a forthright feminist. ‘Some ministries should always be run by women – health, culture, education and finance.’ Then she pauses and adds defence, because ‘then men would not fight any more’. [email protected]
Eleanora Manandyan – social justice worker
Eleanora explains how her agency for helping poor youth in Armenia got its name quite simply. ‘We face a severe psychological problem here in Armenia. Everyone will tell you they have no hope, no belief in the future. “New Armenia” gives the idea of hope.’
The agency does casework with young people but its ambitions go well beyond that of a Westernstyle social agency, fundamentally challenging the corrupt political oligarchy that runs her country.
As a former student activist herself, Eleanora is enthusiastic about building a network of pupil councils throughout Armenian high schools to empower youth. She talks despairingly of the aid money that disappears into a black hole. ‘Money for schools is stolen. Electricity privatization money disappears. Enough money is given to fund 20 HIV education centres, [but only] 2 get funded. And if anyone gets close to this problem they disappear.’ She quotes a police inspector who told her in confidence: ‘It is possible to solve all Armenia’s problems in 24 hours – put all these oligarchs in prison and put their money back into the state budget.’
Eleanora doesn’t let her frustration overwhelm her. ‘We must create new hope. Our only hope is to work with children.’ http://www.newarmenia.org]
Vasyl Lisovy – former political prisoner
Vasyl has an intense, rumpled look with piercing eyes and the smell of tobacco about him. His passion for ideas is infectious. The ideas of political philosophers like Charles Taylor and Jurgen Habermas trip easily off his lips. He survived eight years in the Soviet camps under the Brezhnev regime for what he describes as a ‘modest’ participation in the 1970s dissident movement. In the camps ‘they taught me how to resist pressure, but with modern technology – to put pressure on the mind – there is only so much one person can resist.’
Today he describes Ukraine as ‘the usual situation in a post-colonial country with no political movement. Independence needs to come from below so it creates new insights and a new mentality. In our case it came from above and the result is this oligarchization where dirty money becomes big capital. We have a combination of a small number of rich New Ukrainians in partnership with the old Communist nomenklatura. But the old political culture of obedience is still here.’
Vasyl is critical of those in the West who enrich themselves by playing games with the oligarchs. He is also sceptical about liberal notions of individualism, which he finds ‘too simple’. They need to be combined with more communitarian notions of the public interest.
Sources of Information:
Moscow News – A good independent newspaper for daily coverage of how the world looks from Moscow: http://www.mn.ru/english/
Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) – An excellent website from independent journalists covering Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (in addition to Iraq): www.iwpr.net/home
Johnson’s Russia List – A more mainstream source of information with no party line: http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/
The Bulletin – Excellent environmental contacts from all over the region. Eastern European Environmental Quarterly, Ady Endre ut 9-11, 2000 Szentendre, Hungary. Tel: +36 26 504 000
Stephen Cohen, The Failed Crusade, WW Norton, New York, 2001; and Boris Kagarlitsky, Russia Under Yeltsin and Putin, Pluto, London, 2002.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7