This time… different?

Whoever was in the right and in the wrong in Ferguson, the scope and intensity of the recent protests against racially motivated police violence have been impressive. The organizing behind these actions, both peaceful and violent, remains underappreciated by mainstream media. African-Americans only make up 12% of US residents. Putin’s opponents make up roughly the same proportion of Russians. Cops don’t shoot as much in Russia as in the US but police brutality is widespread and mass protests are rare.

Two reasons from the top of my head: barriers to community organizing and lack of protest ghettos. But that’s only true of large cities, which the sociologist Natalia Zubarevich calls “the first Russia”. About 30% of Russians live there if all 500,000+ cities are counted, and 21% if only 1,000,000+ cities are included. In good times, that’s where most dissidents dwell – educated middle-class folks generally averse to violence.

There’s is also a second Russia of mid-sized towns making up 25% of total population. Of these people, 40% – that is, 10% of Russia’s total – live in one-company towns, on Zubarevich’s estimate. As a major economic crisis is approaching, chances are multiplying that these company towns will turn out ghettos of discontent. The Kremlin won’t be able to pour cash into the economy as in 2008-9. Putin’s personal interference won’t work wonders either. Lookup “Putin” and “Pikalevo”, a town by St. Petersburg centered around Oleg Deripaska’s alumina plant. You’ll get “Putin Plays Sheriff for Cowboy Capitalists” from the NYT and “Pikalevo, la città fabbrica salvata dal blitz di Putin” from La Repubblica.

This time around, no blitz is going to save the “monotowns” but it can do what lightnings often do, start a fire. Back in December 2011, Zubarevich wrote in Vedomosti:

It is for the “second Russia” that the impact of a new crisis, should it occur, will be a very strong shock: manufacturing declines by more than other sectors and mobility and competitiveness of these residents are not high. Will there be enough money in the federal budget to increase transfers to regions by a third and boost funding to keep up employment by several times, as it was the case in 2009? If not, it is the residents of industrial towns who will be the primary protest engine demanding work and wages, which will put more pressure on the authorities to make populist decisions. A lot of the half-alive enterprises should have been closed down long ago because of their inefficiency and loss-making but it was not done during the crisis [2008-10] and, most likely, will not be done if a repeat shock hits. As the year 2009 showed, the authorities realize the threat of the “second Russia’s” protest and know how to put it out. Struggling for jobs and wages leaves the “second Russia” perfectly indifferent to issues concerning the middle class. The authorities realize that and try to set them on the “first Russia”. This is running against time. During economic growth, wages in industrial towns grew slower than in regional centers; during the crisis, they declined faster. The population of industrial towns is contracting fast; the youth are moving to regional centers. It’s no use threatening the capital with Nizhny Tagil [a heavy-industry town in the Urals].


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