The May Days of Moscow


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Real wages in Russia, the State Audit Chamber reported recently, were down during the first quarter of this year by 30% from the levels a year earlier. In most countries, that would guarantee a hot May Day.

May 1 in Moscow this year saw two quite separate demonstrations. The weather at both, politically as well as meteorologically, was cold, windy and drizzling. Each action in its way illustrated the failures of leadership that have helped prevent workers in Russia, with few exceptions, from mounting a committed defence of their interests even when under heavy attack.

Of Moscow's two May Days the larger, drawing about 10,000 participants and organised by the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP), started out from the Byelorusskaya railway station to the north-west of the city centre at about 9am. The aura was the traditional one of pumped-up festivity: brass bands, clusters of coloured balloons, the pale blue banners of the MFP.

Most conspicuous was the absence of any hint of working-class militancy. Moscow newspapers seem to disagree over whether the Day of International Workers' Solidarity has been renamed the Day of Peace and Labour or the Festival of Labour and Spring. But there was no doubt that the organisers of the MFP's march had cast off the travails of class struggle.

Mikhail Shmakov, chairperson of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), of which the MFP is part, had endorsed three May Day slogans: "For a sharp increase in wages!", "Pay off the [wage] debts!" and "International solidarity against the aggressors in Yugoslavia!". Only the last of these was particularly evident on placards and banners at the march.

At this and previous MFP May Day actions, a deliberate policy of political filtration had been applied. "Various political parties" would be prevented from taking part, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported FNPR secretary Andrei Isayev as declaring.

However, politics as such was not banished. To prove it, a huge banner of the political bloc Otechestvo ("Fatherland") stretched almost the whole width of Tverskaya Street. Behind the banner were flags and placards with the logo of the Union of Labour.

Otechestvo is the organisation put together by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to speed his progress to the Russian presidency. It is rapidly winning recruits among provincial governors and mayors as a populist-nationalist "party of power". The Union of Labour, set up under Isayev as the political face of the FNPR, has become an integral part of Luzhkov's bloc.

After several kilometres, the MFP's march halted outside the offices of the city government. Combining symbolism with expediency, the MFP now has its headquarters in the same administrative complex.

The time had come for speeches: from Shmakov, MFP head Mikhail Nagaytsev and Mayor Luzhkov himself, lashing the NATO governments for the bombing of Yugoslavia. The addresses were brief and the stage was quickly turned over to shivering singers and dancers for the rest of the day's entertainment.

The left

Working-class politics — of a sort — were nevertheless to be had in Moscow on May 1. Around a towering, romantic statue of Lenin on Kaluzhskaya Square, the main organisations of the Russian left — the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, "Working Russia", Viktor Anpilov's "Stalinist Bloc for the USSR" and others — had set aside their differences in order to march to the city centre.

Demonstrations by Russia's Communists are not for the faint of heart, or, at times, for the weak of stomach. As the forces gather, grandiose Soviet hymns bellow from loudspeakers. Literature-sellers hawk texts with titles such as Jews in Russian History and Beware — Sinister Forces.

Beneath the red banners and Soviet flags, the protesters are usually middle-aged or older, with gaunt faces and shabby clothing. Placards are mostly home-made and the messages often voice a gritty rage or ironic wit: "All bosses are bastards!" "Yeltsin to the workbench — for six months without wages!".

This year, about 5000 left-wing demonstrators marched from Kaluzhskaya Square to rally around the statue of Karl Marx near the Bolshoi Theatre. Again, speakers condemned the bombing of Yugoslavia.

The discussion of domestic politics at the rally focused largely on efforts by Communists in the parliament to impeach President Yeltsin. Blocked from succeeding by a maze of constitutional provisions, the impeachment campaign is essentially a propaganda move. But it is a curiously ill-directed one, belabouring points that are no longer even contentious; ordinary Russians could scarcely despise Yeltsin more than they do.

Meanwhile, opposition activists have been distracted from the real tasks before them: helping to develop and popularise the strategies and organisational mechanisms needed if Russian workers are to wage an effective fight for their jobs and incomes.

In sum, Moscow's two May Days of 1999 were a litany of the ways in which workers' leaders can let down those who follow them. The heads of the FNPR and MFP, scared by the thought of leading an independent movement of workers, have gone in search of a powerful patron — and have found Luzhkov. But Russia's trade union movement cannot defend workers if it is put in hock to the Moscow mayor, the effective head of a labyrinthine — and now increasingly insolvent — business empire.

In his speech to the MFP's May Day rally, Luzhkov called for wages to be doubled. But his material interests lie in "downsizing" wages and employment levels. Whatever promises he makes, he will bankrupt workers before he bankrupts himself.

No leadership

Meanwhile, the leading figures in the left opposition are in essence no more ready than Shmakov and Nagaytsev to lead Russia's workers and poor in an independent fight.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has been full of rhetorical fury against Yeltsin, but has found its own political pawnshop in the "left" government of Yeltsin's prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov. The government's chief economic strategist, first deputy prime minister Yury Maslyukov, is a Communist Party member.

As economics columnist Irina Yasina noted during April in the English-language Moscow Times, the buying power of the average Russian pension had been allowed by Primakov and Maslyukov to fall to unprecedentedly low levels, standing in March at only 65% of the "subsistence minimum" income.

"The most radical reform government could never dream of taking such liberties", Yasina observed. "In reality, the communist government has turned out to be tougher than the reformers with their incessant promises."

Other sections of the left are not sure there is anything progressive about stabilising Russian capitalism by forcing pensioners to beg on the metro. But with few exceptions, even the most radical elements of the Russian left refuse to trust in the ability of workers to understand political questions in class terms.

For the country's left parties, the defence of workers' interests has to be shoe-horned into the context of "patriotism", of the overriding need to defend "Russia", and by inference the Russian capitalist state. Among the most jarring notes at the left's May Day rally, especially when coming from supposed followers of Marx and Lenin, was the fervent nationalism of many of the speakers.

At best, these contortions mystify and disorient workers. At worst, they bring the left into unnerving proximity with openly racist currents.

Logically, the flames of revolt should now be licking about the foundations of Russia's capitalism. But in Moscow on May Day, all that could be detected was a faint burning smell. The reasons had more to do with gross political dereliction than with the dismal weather.