Last month, over a thousand trade unionists, human rights activists, students, miners, environmentalists, artists, left thinkers and journalists gathered on a campus in the heart of Moscow. It was Russia’s first ever Social Forum, designed to develop strategies, exchange ideas, and build a new movement for democracy and social change–as has been done in recent years in Brazil, India and Italy.

Longtime political activist and journalist–and contributor to The Nation–Boris Kagarlitsky’s report from the frontlines of this unprecedented event is published below. (As Director of the Institute of Globalization Studies, Kagarlitsky was one of the key organizers of the Forum.)

His analysis of what the Forum means for the future of opposition in Russia–and for the upsurge of new social movements and the left in that country–is an invaluable counter to the conventional wisdom about Putin’s Russia.

(For more information about some of the organizers, visit the website of Moscow’s Institute of Globalization Studies; and for more on the Forum, click here

Russia’s First Social Forum
by Boris Kagarlitsky

On the weekend of April 16 and 17, the first Russian Social Forum was held in Moscow. On the campus of Moscow’s University of the Humanities, members of the left, trade union, environmental, human rights and disabled organisations gathered to discuss strategy and tactics for the struggle against the policies of today’s authorities. The participants numbered more than a thousand–but reporters from the mainstream media were almost completely absent.

On the evening of April 16, a demonstration to mark the opening of the forum was held on Pushkin Square. It might, of course, seem that to attract a little over a thousand activists from such a vast country was no special achievement. But with an almost no money and or access to the mass media, in circumstances where even collecting the addresses of participants in the protest action was a problem, and when the price of the cheapest train ticket is often an insurmountable barrier to making the trip to Moscow, organizing such a forum was by no means a simple task. (In Germany, where the left is considerably stronger, and where trade unions and antiglobalist groups are able to invest far greater resources in forums, similar events attract around five thousand people.)

Interms of attendance, Moscow’s first forum can be considered a success. But there was another measure of success: Until now, persuading various left groups to work together has been extremely difficult. Similarly, the “alternative” trade unions have not always got along. The Russian Social Forum was the result of joint work by a series of groups and organizations whose past relations have often been far from friendly. Nevertheless, the forum took place. The proceedings were not without problems, but the overwhelming majority of the participants showed a readiness to work together.

Among the activists present were those of the Left Youth Front, and also of several youth groups that have remained outside that organization. The trade union bodies included the All-Russian Confederation of Labour, the Siberian Confederation of Labour, and the Defense of Labour group. Also present were representatives of the Institute for the Study of Globalization, the Institute for the Study of Collective Action, and the “Alternativy” (Alternatives) movement–all of which played a central role in organizing the forum. The alternative press was also well represented–ranging from the St Petersburg art project “What is to be Done?” to the Tyumen Worker and the quite new Pravda-Info, which presented its first issue at the forum.

Unlike congresses or big meetings of the parliamentary (Duma) opposition, where bored followers are brought in to hear ritualistic speeches from their leaders, the Russian Social Forum was a place where people themselves organised seminars, set up discussions, and planned specific actions. Officially, political parties were excluded from the forum, but the gathering was by no means apolitical. While parties could not put proposals to the forum, no one prevented their supporters from participating fully. Demands on the authorities were voiced bluntly, without sentimental references to a kindly tsar-president being surrounded by evil ministers.

The forum brought together miners and artists, people with a wealth of political experience and students who had learned about the forum from the internet. They joined in singing the Internationale, debated tactics for organizing street protests, and discussed the experience of strike struggles. They argued about what it means to be a leftist in the art world, and about whether it is worth encouraging people to quit old trade unions with a record of servility to the authorities. They exchanged addresses and telephone numbers.

Only the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was conspicuous for its absence. On April 16, the Communists were holding a meeting of the Union of Communist Parties. Instead of meeting with activists of the social protest movements, the party chiefs of the former Soviet republics preferred to talk to one another. Individual members of the KPRF were nevertheless present at the Forum, and in most cases, they were not positive about the leadership of their party. In the same fashion, few representatives were in evidence from the “official” trade unions–the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.

Many participants described the parallels they saw in the Forum’s meetings with the first legal meetings of the “informals” (unofficial, unsanctioned social and political groups)in the days of perestroika, in the late 1980s. The atmosphere was similar, and many people were seeing one another for the first time in many years. On the other hand, younger people could make comparisons only with the European social forums, at which hundreds of Russians have been present.

What lay behind the success of the Russian Social Forum? The answer, of course, is the general upsurge of social movements that has taken place in the country. Russia-wide protests in January this year against the law on the monetization of benefits, which substituted meager money payments for various benefits in kind that had been enjoyed by pensioners, showed that Russians are by no means as obedient and long-suffering as the country’s leaders would

The liberal–or what might better be called neoliberal–opposition has livened up as well. In these circles, it’s become respectable to sympathize with the rebellious pensioners who have blocked streets, and to show an indignant concern for young people who fall beneath the batons of the police.

However, most of the protesters themselves have no faith in “liberal” politicians. As for the nationalist-minded figures from the Russian Communist party and the “Homeland” bloc, the more actively they have joined in the protest actions, the more quickly these actions have died down. The growing hostility to the authorities is combined with a pronounced lack of confidence in this opposition. After all, the Kremlin’s liberal critics share with it a free-market philosophy and a belief that the outcomes of privatization need to be strengthened and defended. The uselessness of the Duma/parliamentary “patriots,” meanwhile, has long been obvious even to people without much experience of politics. Nostalgia is no substitute for an economic program, and arguments about the so-called special mission of Russia cannot conceal an open distaste for action. Nor can hours-long speeches about the good of the people provide a cover for anti-democratism and for a lack of interest in the real people, as opposed to a stereotyped image of them.

Meanwhile, the events of the past January have shown that a new opposition is taking shape in Russia. It is not being formed around the parliamentary/Duma parties, but on the basis of the developing social movements. Participants in the protest actions are trying to acquire a voice and to formulate their own demands to be placed on the authorities. As in many other countries, a Social Forum is now providing a meeting place for the protesters. Unlike earlier international organizations of the left, the “new international” that is coming into being on the basis of the ideas proclaimed by the social forums–in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Florence, Paris and London–is exceptionally democratic. In terms of ideas, the initiative has come from below. For Russian political culture–in which, even on the left, an unbelievable gap has remained between passive followers and leaders bursting with self-satisfaction–the forum was simply miraculous; it featured neither honorary presidiums nor long, ceremonious speeches.

At the April 16 demonstration, the order in which the speakers addressed the participants was determined by lot; first up was Petr Zolotarev, a trade union leader from the city of Togliatti. The television and press joined in ignoring this “incorrect” gathering, but no one was especially embittered as a result; the social movements are acquiring their own media, from websites and small newspapers to pirate radio stations and internet television. Indeed, one can speak of the “small press” only in the sense that these news sources are run on little money. Pravda-Info, for example, has appeared in a print-run of 55,000 copies, enormous for such publications. A new social force is coming into being before our eyes. If the authorities fail to take account of it, so much the worse for the authorities.