The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

War and Ordinary Russians

Jun 20, 2022

This article is translated from the June 17 issue, #2811 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group of that name active in France.

Russia’s president just signed a law modifying the terms for paying pensions to non-Russian workers from the Confederation of Independent States (CIS), a grouping of several former Soviet republics since 1991.

These retirees are qualified as migrants. They are no longer entitled to a pension in Russia, except if their home country has a specific agreement with Russia.

CIS countries remain linked to Russia, but they seized the opportunity of the war in Ukraine to distance themselves further from the Kremlin. In retaliation, Moscow attacked their nationals who worked in Russia.

Russia’s rulers have not only a political and diplomatic interest in this reform, but also an economic interest. Russia’s budget will save more than 220 million dollars.

But undoubtedly this law matters most to Vladimir Putin on the social level. He wants to persuade Russian people that only he defends them from widespread hostility, even in the “foreign but nearby” other former Soviet republics. By playing the nationalist card, the Kremlin wants Russian people to forget everything that opposes them to the government and its wealthy elite. The rich are quite interested now in dividing workers among themselves, whether by their passport or by their origin. In recent months some social conflicts arose where migrant workers were at the forefront, for example in Siberia, in the Far East, and in the oilfields.

Peter the Great … and Tiny Paychecks

Putin exalts the memory of Emperor Peter the Great, whose 350th anniversary he celebrated with great fanfare, especially his military victory over Sweden. Putin knows his “special operation” in Ukraine is not popular.

If not, why block local media from publishing the list of soldiers killed in Ukraine? Supposedly this would violate the secrecy of the army’s losses. Apparently, it is very necessary to protect the state secret that these losses are heavy. But everyone knows it, even without having precise figures.

And no censorship can prevent everyone from seeing prices soar since the war started. Food and basic necessities rose from 30 to 50%. Russian yogurt and laundry detergent, 70% and higher. Meanwhile wages are not rising. If anything, they are falling because of unemployment.

In industry, auto factories are fully or partially shut down. AvtoVaz is a former subsidiary of French automaker Renault, which sold it to the Russian government for one euro while reserving the option to buy it back. It cornered a third of the Russian vehicle market. Because of Western sanctions, AvtoVaz can no longer release its Duster and can only produce other models without anti-lock brakes or on-board computers, and so on. This lack of equipment likely won’t interfere with relaunching the old Moskvitch model which AvtoVaz stopped producing more than 20 years ago, exactly because it was so technologically primitive! But all this enterprise’s announcements and patriotic bluffing won’t bring back jobs and wages for the tens of thousands of laid off workers and technicians in Moscow and factory town Togliatti.

The enterprise continues to pay salaries and unemployment benefits at the old rate. But for how long? Already some workers had to find other jobs. Others relocated to the countryside because they can no longer pay rent in a big city.

Western automakers and suppliers had settled in Kaluga, around 120 miles south of Moscow. But in Kaluga Volkswagen is down. The firm pays unemployment benefits, but according to the “independent” trade union MPRA, it does not plan any production in 2022. Volkswagen announced it would close its workshops at GAZ, the giant factory in the center of Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow. VW offers five or six months’ wages to anyone who “voluntarily” quits.

In Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania, the Avtotor (BMW) factory has only worked two weeks since the war started. It produces spare parts for old models. Nobody knows what will happen, but management offered workers, by way of compensation, to go and harvest potatoes and berries this summer!

In Moscow the construction industry used to employ many workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Now there are more and more “white” faces on construction sites. They are migrants from within Russia. Deprived of employment in their region, they are trying their luck in the capital.

Another effect of Western sanctions: in Tikhvin near Leningrad, a wagon-building factory had to stop running for lack of bearings. The country does not produce enough. But to compensate for the situation, the factory will retool for military production. The authorities often put forward this solution. Given the prolonged war and material losses in Ukraine, weapons-system production is on fire.

Unpaid Wages … and Protests

It also seems that the instances of companies simply not paying wages, or paying them after long delays, are increasing. This might explain the rise in “protest actions,” in other words strikes, since the beginning of June.

With the declaration of something like martial law around the end of February, the number of published strikes fell sharply. But the first three days of June saw as many strikes as happened in all of March. One of the most important strikes, including a demonstration, took place in a mining company in the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia.

As far as one can tell from a few examples, discontent exists even in the army. A video is circulating which shows dozens of workers such as miners and teachers from Donbass who were enlisted in the forces of the separatist republic of Lugansk. They demonstrated against their orders and refused to go and fight outside the region. Their families publicly supported them. And apparently almost half of those fighting in the first period of this war refused to re-enlist for another deployment.

In Russia’s countryside and its big cities there are slogans and graffiti on the walls: “No to war!” Despite heavy punishments and much publicity by the authorities about having disciplined thousands of protesters, Putin and his regime have apparently failed to bring everyone into line.