May Day in Moscow: a turning point that wasn't

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — An important breakthrough, it seemed, was about to occur in the fight to defend Russian workers. On May 1, the back-to-Brezhnev Trudovaya Rossiya ("Toiling Russia") bloc was not the only formation calling its followers onto the streets to condemn the policies of the Yeltsin government.

Simultaneously with the Trudovaya Rossiya rally, called for Oktyabrskaya Square, the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP) was to hold a protest meeting a kilometre down the road at the entrance to Gorky Park.

The MFP, covering 90% of the workers in Moscow Province, has 5.6 million members. Moreover, it is far from having the worst leadership in the Russian labour movement. Central leaders, including its president Mikhail Shmakov and vice-president Mikhail Nagaitsev, have been important in the effort to build a Party of Labour as a new left-wing alternative to the fragments of the outlawed Communist Party.

Some weeks back, Shmakov published a long article in the MFP newspaper Solidarnost in which he hammered the government's planned basis for agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The article concluded with a set of five demands that set the Moscow labour movement in clear opposition to the key policies of Yeltsin and first vice-premier Yegor Gaidar.

In particular, the MFP president called for an end to "savage" — that is, mafia — and "nomenklatura" privatisation. He demanded that priority should be given to handing over enterprises to their workers.

Whatever hopes the "civilised left" might have held, however, melted quickly as the morning of May Day progressed. The union march that set off from the statue of Friedrich Engels was a modest affair. Outside Gorky Park, the crowd that assembled beneath the sky-blue banners of the MFP was again disappointing — 7000, 8000?

One after the other, activists from MFP unions described starvation-level wages, mounting unemployment, the plunder of enterprise property by parasitic "cooperatives", and managers more arrogant than ever in their new status as directors of private "concerns". The demands were straightforward: living wages, genuine indexation, de-statisation into the hands of workers and a lowering of the crippling taxes through which the government bankrupts state enterprises in preparation for nomenklatura carve-ups.

Throughout, a solid bank of red banners on the skyline was a reminder that a much larger Trudovaya Rossiya rally was under way on Oktyabrskaya Square. As the last MFP speakers wound up, the red tide began to descend, heading past Gorky Park to the Krimsky bridge and Red Square.

The "red-brown horde" — as the liberal press refers to the reconstituted Communist organisations — had mobilised its members effectively. In the narrow streets leading to the Kremlin, the Trudovaya Rossiya march took 20 minutes to pass a given point, suggesting that perhaps 25,000 people took part. There was no question as to which forces held the initiative in the opposition.

Communist demonstrations in Moscow for the past year have been a parade of incongruities, and this one was no exception. The right-wing city government had sought to depoliticise May Day, the "Day of International Workers' Solidarity", by redesignating it as the "Holiday of Spring and Labour". In the Manezh Square along the north wall of the Kremlin, a stage had been erected, and folk music and dance troupes were waiting to perform. The marchers saw little of this. For 200 metres across the square, two lines of buses had been parked end to end to channel the marchers and prevent any possibility of a red-brown contagion.

Red Square had been turned into a travesty. For the edification of the marchers, ill fed and threatened with joblessness, a huge placard on the building at the northern end proclaimed in Russian and English: "Freedom works! Free press, free speech, free spirit. The Freedom Forum." Along the facade of the now privatised GUM department store, a huge display invited the workers to "Enjoy 323 days of sun a year in the Canary Islands".

Listening to Trudovaya Rossiya speakers is not for the impatient or thin-skinned. While the faithful break into chants of "Soviet Union!" or "Yeltsin — Jew!", simple themes are reworked interminably: the treachery of Gorbachev, the need to restore the integrity of the Soviet state. The oratory combines the subtlety of a provincial melodrama with the intellectual daring of purge-era party congresses.

Far better to let the speeches roll thunderously by and to wander through the crowd. "Hungry doctors for the resignation of the government!" a placard announces. Further on, two men are selling the Verses from Prison of Anatoly Lukyanov, purge-era president of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and now — poet. Members of the Spartacist League are selling a tract exhorting the demonstrators to "form workers' and soldiers' soviets", haranguing their bemused customers in American-accented Russian.

Meanwhile, the BMWs multiply outside fashionable restaurants, and on the pavement opposite the Intourist Hotel, the lines lengthen of Moscow citizens standing mutely for hours, holding up a pair of pantihose, an alarm clock, a bag of sweets. The misery deepens, the inequalities become more glaring — and the Russian labour movement still has made no significant impact.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.