Parallel worlds: how connected Russians now live without the state

Russia’s summer of the wildfires brought about a change in society, says Andrei Loshak. Previously the only possible options for those disenchanted with the system were to take the streets or pack our bags and leave. Now we have another: self-help and self- organisation, much in the spirit of the Anarchist Prince, Peter Kropotkin

Members of the Russian intelligentsia today live without icons. On the one hand is the state, a necrotic Leviathan looking out for its own interests; on the other is the people, best exemplified the TV watcher Belyakov from “Nasha Rasha” [c.f. Vicky Pollard from “Little Britain” - ed.].  A militant slob, swigging beer in front of the TV.  Not much of a choice.

Thinking people look around and choose themselves.  Individualism has become the religion of the past decade.  Recently I interviewed the songwriter Sergei Shnurov, whose point of view is fairly typical.  He sincerely believes that any civic protest is bunkum: when there are elections coming any outfit will be closed down, so why waste your time?  When I asked what the course of action should be for an Akakiy Akakievich [hero of Gogol’s tale The Overcoat ] i.e. a little man with no rights surrounded by coppers and bandits, the musician answered in his typically colourful language “If you make any Akakiy Akakievich a policemen for a week he’ll be so pleased, he’ll wet himself.  Give him a baton and a “No Entry” sign and he’s got a f**** life.  When he experiences a twinge of jealously for those black Mercs and their flashing lights – well, offer to put him in one and he certainly won’t refuse.  No one would.  It’s easy to say things when you don’t have a choice.”

"Russians spend twice as much time on social networks as our Western counterparts...  The internet has become a parallel reality that has everything so lacking in ordinary life: freedom of expression, absence of propaganda and the possibility of civic engagement."

They’ve almost managed to convince us that we’re not worth anything.  In his attempts to strengthen his vertical [of power], Putin has once and for all done away with grassroots involvement in the government of the country.  The little man’s rights have always been despised by the authorities in Russia, of course.  Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev, a learned man, professor of jurisprudence and favourite of Alexander III (and, therefore, also of the film-maker and enlightened conservative Nikita Mikhalkov) banned the people from reading anything other than the Bible and fairytales.  

At work the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Vladislav Surkov monitors TV and the “exuberant riffraff” of the pro-Kremlin youth movements; at home with friends he reads the beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg in the original.  The philosopher Berdyayev wrote of Pobedonostev that he was a nihilist in his relations with mankind and the world, didn’t believe in man and considered human nature hopelessly flawed and insignificant.”  This could probably be said of Surkov too.  Anyone who believes in the state, doesn’t believe in human nature.  And vice versa.

The Anarchist Prince Kropotkin devoted his whole life to the promotion of one idea:  people are better than institutions.   He was a convinced Darwinist, who in his main work “Mutual aid:  a factor in evolution” (1903) set out to prove that the most important thing in nature is not natural selection, but cooperation between the species.  This cooperation is a human characteristic too: “Even among the lowest-ranking savages of Patagonia Darwin was struck by the same feature – the smallest piece of food he gave to one of them was immediately divided up equally among all those present”.  Biologists today are not inclined to exaggerate the influence of inter-species cooperation on evolution, but as far as human nature is concerned, many people are quite optimistic in a Kropotkin-like fashion.  The famous ethologist Richard Dawkins exclaims at the end of his book “The Selfish Gene”: “We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism -- something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”.

The world, thank heavens, is better than it seems through the tinted glass of armed Mercs.  Our main cause for optimism is for the moment in the virtual space of the blogosphere.  Comscore Agency  recently established that Russian internet users are the most active bloggers in the world.   We spend on average twice as much time on social networks as our Western counterparts.  Nothing surprising in that.  The internet has long since become a parallel reality that has everything so lacking in ordinary life: freedom of expression, lack of window dressing or propaganda, the possibility of civic engagement.  For the moment it’s more often a banal cross-post, which acts like psychotherapy.  In the smoking areas of the Japanese Panasonic factories there used to be little figures of the bosses.  During the smoking breaks the workers would beat up the rag figures of the exploiter with all their might and main.  The figure would squeak pathetically in response.  Having let off some of the steam of their class hatred, the workers would then go back to work.  That’s how it is with us:  we read of the latest lawlessness, put up a link and feel a bit better.  But it’s not worth regarding the cross-post as purely palliative.  It’s just the first stage of civic engagement.  Internet man is no longer indifferent.  He’s taken the first step, broken ranks and started his own battle.  The energy of his discontent builds up to become a real force, which is capable of knocking a breach in the rusty carcass of the state.  There have already been several examples of the lethal force of the internet.

"The spirit of the internet is anarchic... the conviction that the state is not only useless, but actively harmful, gets stronger there every day"

As far as I can remember, this force first kicked in quite recently – last year.  The pregnant wife of a humble computer programmer, Alexei Shumm, was knocked down by a policeman at a crossing and killed.  The cop, of course, scarpered.  When Alexei sensed that the police were trying to hush this up, he set up a dedicated LiveJournal page.  In 24 hours he had a thousand comments from people who were prepared to do anything to help.  No one counted the number of comments.  It was joint efforts that got the policeman jailed.   

Then there was the story of the volunteers from the organisation «Old Age and Joy».  They have a page in LiveJournal.  They're ordinary girls from good Moscow families who go round old people's homes.  They just go, no one asks them to.  They bring delicacies and diapers, talk to the old people and sing songs.  They say it's not illness and poverty that gets the elderly down – it's the loneliness.  The girls had been quietly getting on with this for three years and been round about 60 homes and shelters, none of them very far from Moscow.  No one would have found out about them if they hadn't posted photographs on their LiveJournal page.  The pictures were taken at the Yammsky Old People's Home and looked as if they'd been taken in a fascist concentration camp.  The page erupted, there were thousands of comments and TV journalists came to see for themselves.  The director was sacked and in a panic the home was closed down for reconstruction.  The girls were forgotten – though they continued going to homes every weekend, changing diapers and singing songs.

Major Dymovsky's now famous appeal to Putin about police corruption was addressed primarily not to the country's rulers, but to civil society at large

At the end of the year a new genre had been born: a video appeal to the President or the Prime Minister posted on the internet.  Police whistleblower Major Dymovsky was not the only seeker after truth.  Although formally people were appealing to the authorities, they were actually targeting the civil society, that is you and me.   

There was a terrible accident at the beginning of this year on Lenin Prospekt in Moscow.  The traffic police tried to put the blame on the women who had died in the accident and their relatives had no other option than to appeal to the internet society for help.  That gave rise to a whole movement against «migalki» or abuse of flashing blue lights.  The Russian Automobile Federation carried out their own independent investigation and concluded that the driver of the Mercedes was to blame.

After this, other victims of collisions (not always cars) with the authorities started posting video messages.  Valerii Fadeev from Chelyabinsk was crippled when he was knocked down by Tatiana Kolokoltseva, the daughter of a high-ranking FSB man.  Fadeev's son was killed in the accident.  People turned to the internet for justice, knowing that they'd never get it in the real world.  The little man, Akakiy Akakievich, used to exclaim helplessly  «Leave me alone!  Why are you tormenting me?».  Now, with the help of web-cameras and fibre optics, he can tell the whole world about the injustice, naming the creep who has injured his human dignity.

The American sociologist of the internet, Clay Shirky, maintains that the internet is driven by that altruistic desire for mutual aid Kropotkin described in his writings.  Shirky divides involvement in this process into several stages: from the impulsive wish to share a problem, including the cross-post, right up to collective actions aimed at solving it.  He predicts a new age of horizontal social activity, as anyone can now create and share content.  People are less interested in consumption and more in participation. 

This phenomenon has not yet been properly described and has no name.  In some Western publications you see the terms «clicktivism» and «webism».  Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya has called it «net democracy» and «wikipolitics» and Shirky has come up with the term «cognitive surplus».  He considers that the surplus time and energy is the result of people watching less TV.  Attitudes to the internet are also changing.  As well as creating community values, such as posting photos on Flickr or on the site «Cool Kittens», people are starting to created social values.  Shirky illustrates this with the history of the internet platform Ushahidi, created by the Kenyan blogger Ori Okolo to highlight the multiple procedural violations during the presidential elections (Kenya shares 156th place with Russia in the corruption ratings table).  The site is a map to which anyone can add relevant information by text message or from a computer.  The platform was made publicly accessible and successfully used by volunteers in Haiti after the earthquake and in Russia on the site «Help Map» at the time of the wildfires (www.russian-fires.ru) .

The fires played a decisive part in finally revealing the true situation.  In her controversial letter to [Minister of Emergencies Sergei] Shoigu the volunteer Anna Baskakova wrote: «I have lost the last illusions of my childhood that up there is someone who cares about us and protects us (no, not God – I mean the leadership of the country, and that includes you).  Now I am a grown-up I shall only rely on myself.»  Anna was planning a seaside holiday this year, but in her friend's blog she saw a post in which her friend in all seriousness trying to find out how long firemen's sleeves should be.  Anna suddenly realised that the job of dousing burning houses was not just for the people involved.  Her own home was not in anyway threatened, but she couldn't sit by and watch other people's houses burning.  Realising that the government was completely powerless and had auctioned off everything, right down to the rusty alarm bell, she felt personally responsibility for the catastrophe.  She abandoned the palm trees and the sea, got into her car and set off for the worst affected area to put out the fires.  There were very many more like her.  This summer we were all in some way involved in extinguishing the fires – some actively, others more passively by giving money to the volunteers, buying them anti-fire gear or sending the victims parcels of humanitarian aid.

"More and more people are finding the time for helping each other ...  Society is growing horizontal links."

At the time of the wildfires people demonstrated that extraordinary capacity for helping each other and for self-organisation that Kropotkin wrote about so emphatically and that is so at odds with the interests of the state.  In her letter to Shoigu Anna wrote «I now believe in human goodness, because from all over and on trust people sent me things, money and food and all in the cause of putting out the fires.  Even completely unknown people from abroad say they trust me and transfer money to me on my credit card.  Do they send it to you too, Sergei Kuzhugetovich [Shoigu]?  Strange.  I wonder why they don't want to help you.»

The authorities tried to pull a fast one at this point too.  The spontaneity and sincerity of people's gestures showed up the amorality of the government representatives particularly clearly. Among the stories told by the volunteers to the weekly Big City there were many like this one: «Members of the United Russia party offered to pay for the petrol for the volunteers' cars – but in return the volunteers were to stick their party labels on the windows.  One girl called me to offer buses for the volunteeers. She said the buses would be easy to recognise because they would have Nashi stickers on them. Thanks a bundle!  We collect up people for them and they stick their label on them». 

Some local officials tried to dump on the rubbish tip some of the humanitarian aid sent from all corners of Russia to the victims of the fires.  This is typical:  their minds are like Chichikov's [hero of Gogol's Dead Souls], completely unable to grasp assistance can be freely and voluntarily offered, so they push it out of their consciousness straight away.  Officials and humanitarian aid turned out to be incompatible.

Everyone knows about the Photoshop disgrace of the Young Guard movement [youth organisation of United Russia party], unmasked by the blogger Nazarov, aka Piligrim_67.  United Russia supporters' underhand attempts to take over the «Help Map», which had been set up by volunteers to help victims of the fires, also failed.  The internet is no zombie box.  For every lie or falsehood there will be a Piligrim_67, who is prepared to spend hours in front of the computer to unmask cheats and in such a way that they won't know what hit them.

The wildfires were a demonstration that we and the state co-exist in parallel worlds.   They deal with their problems and we get on with solving ours.  At that time the Ministry of Emergencies site had PR shots of Shoigu, TV did the same for Putin.  We, the people, were trying to work out where the fires were and who to save:  we organised ourselves into groups and set up information networks about the fires.  The symbol of this parallel existence was the story of the volunteer who saved Meshchera.  This unique nature reserve was on fire and there weren't enough people or equipment:  every time a car passed, the soldiers would rake over the road surface to smooth it – the local authorities were getting ready for Putin's visit.  Many thousands of hectares of the reserve were destroyed by fire.  Putin never showed up.

Campaigning to save Khimki forest: "Nothing can persuade officials to believe in the purity of someone's intentions.  "Who's behind you?"  "Where do you get your orders from?" are the questions that civil rights activists hear all the time

The problem of the authorities today is their organic inability to overcome the «tyranny of the selfish replicator».   The names they have come up with for the Putin era!  Monetocracy, hydrocarbon civilisation, utilitarian elite, the time-server generation.  They're all about Chichikov's theory of starting with a kopeck in order to get rich.  There are no populists, no great power nationalists:  what there is a firm belief that «cash conquers all evil».  Nothing could persuade officials to believe in the purity of someone's intentions, if they are not in some way connected with multiplying that same kopeck.  «Who's behind you?»  «Where do you get your orders from?» are the questions that civil rights activists hear all the time.

Recently I was in touch with one of the people who had taken part in the rout of the Khimki Administration.  On his Facebook page under Bio I read: «I am on the federal wanted list J» - just like that, with a smiley.  Let's call him Fedya.  He tells how officers from two FSB directorates came to his friend's flat and tried to force him to sign a statement that Fedya was an American spy, recruited during one his trips to Europe.  According to them, Fedya had spent two months in a CIA training camp, been furnished with a suitcase full of dollars and sent back to Russia.  The officers said «You've got to understand that there is no point whatsoever in trying to defend this man.  He's been paid millions to put you up to doing this.  By the way, how much were you paid for it?»  These people sincerely believe that the Khimki protest was a paid job and apparently the Kremlin thinks so too.  They simply can't imagine that there can be any other explanation.  The head of Putin's State Youth Committee, Vasilii Yakemenko, told me this in an interview.  From personal experience, he said «Believe me, any ideology will always have big money behind it».

The spirit of the internet is anarchic: the conviction that the state is not only useless, but actively harmful, gets stronger there every day.  The same Piligrim_67 blogger from Chelyabinsk is investigating a gang of young thugs who attack drivers on their own.  In two days he found both the original group and other thugs in expensive foreign cars, who turned out to be related to the city fathers.  The police didn't even manage to open a case.  The blogger jokingly appealed to the Minister of the Interior «Mr Nurgaliev!  Tell them where to f…g go!  Take me and another 10 ordinary bloggers.  Navalny by himself could replace the whole of your Economic Crimes Squad and I'll do the work of the road police.»

In a now-legendary post «Give us back the alarm bell!», blogger Alexander Pochkov aka top_lap came up with a theory, to which most people – including the Prime Minister – paid no attention.  He wrote that if the state is unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens, then we don't owe it anything:  «Exempt me from paying taxes or at the very least put my contributions into a pension fund.  With the life we lead I won't anyway live long enough to get my pension and I can use the money to buy a fire engine for three villages.  I shall sleep soundly knowing that no one will be able to take it away from my people, my village neighbours, because it'll will be ours and we'll kill for it if we have to.»

"In the new era of digital cooperation the Russian authorities are like an analogue monster, for whom there's no place in the sparkling world of the future ..."

I talked to Pochkov.  After his famous post he got a thousand or more hits in LiveJournal.  He started to feel that he was not just a blogger, more of a conduit to express the interests of the Russian middle class.  As the American's say «He's on a mission», a feeling which is completely alien to officials.  Since September Pochkov has made a point of not paying his taxes – the young man's put his money where his mouth is.  He has a following of like-minded thinkers in the internet.  He's a salaried corporate travel manager and he told his boss that he is not paying his taxes as a matter of principle.  The boss took the risk of agreeing with him.

Pochkov doesn't want to pay money to a state which is building the technopark at Skolkovo, Olympic facilities in Sochi and some kind of Russky island.  Who gives a stuff about the Olympics, when Russia is so poor and people's living conditions so appalling?  Haven't they got anything else to build?  As is proper for the voice of the people, Pochkov started self-help and self-organisation with himself.  He has dug a well in his house in the village, bought a pump and a generator, so he now depends on no one for his water and electricity.  Lots of people did this after the fires, he says.  «We've been managing without the state for a long time.  I no longer use the so-called free health service:  I was paying the doctors more in bribes than I pay a private medical insurance company in a year.  No member of my family even has any records at the local surgery any more.  Education: let's take the state kindergarten, where my mother works.  The parents pay money officially to keep the facilities in good order.  The money is paid to subcontractors, who buy floor covering, curtains and sanitary ware  At one point the staff asked if the windows could be replaced, as the kindergarten is on the 3rd Ring Road, which is both dirty and noisy.  They went to see the local education department, where they were told that there was no money, so the parents got together and paid for the new windows.  So, where's the state in all this?»

The spirit of Makhno is abroad in Russia.  Another hero of the fires is the farmer Shlyapnikov from the Vladimir Region.  Doctor Lisa herself thanked him for his energetic help and organisational abilities.  «Esquire» ran a piece on this gigantic figure's battle with the authorities.  There is a hospital in the village where he lives.  The rural council decided to get rid of it, but Shlyapnikov wanted people to be able to go on being treated there and knew how to do it.  He got the villagers together and impeached the rural council.  He was accused of subverting the constitution and a criminal case was opened against him.  But Shlyapnikov has no time for all that:  he is busy using all hands possible to plant trees at the sites devastated by the fires and it has to be done before the first snow.  The theoretical knowledge of this village secret revolutionary, who has done everything for himself, is amazing.  «I love Kropotkin and the old man Makhno.  And the practical stories of the Hanseatic League, whose anarchic existence lasted 600 years with no presidents or constitution.  People were rich and happy, producing works of art which are valued to this day.  Anyone who hiked their prices was thrown into the river, but the church had no power and there were no kings.  There were no wars and no arguments.  There were 800 cities in the League.  We wouldn't manage anything on that scale in Russia, but I'm building an anarchical model in my own village.

Even the gossip journalist Bozena Rynska, who usually describes the banquets of the very rich, recently went to press with a column on a totally unglamorous subject.  She told the story of the search in a forest near Moscow for Maria Fomkina and her 4-year old niece, who had got lost.  The police and the Ministry of Emergencies demonstrated their complete helplessness:  to look for people in a forest you need special helicopters and they didn't have any.  Volunteers (located and recruited over the internet) combed the forest continuously for several days and finally found Maria and her niece.  But too late – they had died of hypothermia.  After that the volunteers wrote that in future there should be a rapid reaction group, with equipment bought with their own money.  Perhaps even the helicopter…the main thing was to keep the officials out of it, as they would ruin everything.  Rynska had observed the search.  She wrote «Confronted by the indifference of the state, decent people are banding together.  But they don't just whine about how crappy the system is, they are starting to take responsibility for what goes on into their own hands.  Just like the song — 'let’s link hands, my friends'».

And that's what's happening.  More and more people are finding the time for helping each other selflessly.  Society is growing horizontal links.  Evgenia Chirikova is the leader of the movement set up to protect Khimki Forest.  In a recent interview she said: «I feel very close to people who are helping each other defend their rights.  I take a great interest, for instance, in what the Russian Drivers Federation and its director Sergei Kanaev are doing, though I can't do these things myself.  But when the going gets tough, I will of course support him.»  During the summer the RAF site carried an enormous banner «Protect Khimki Forest!».  It's not only money that unites people, as the Kremlin ideologues think.  Perhaps we are taking a very small step up the evolutionary ladder, away from the «selfish replicator».  Perhaps we have already achieved that «cognitive surplus»…but it's more likely that when things are difficult the self-preservation instinct kicks in.  Suddenly you realise that it's quite useful to be kind.  Do as you would be done by.  If the state has embarked on a programme of self-annihilation, people start saving themselves.  The antifascist Maxim Sokolov, recently released from his travel ban, got it right in his interview with the newspaper Kommersant.  He said: «In Mozhaisk Central Prison I understood something, which I think is quite important.  Each person has a prison inside them – the necessity to live together and solve our common problems and somehow to confront the system.  This teaches one to see a person in every drug addict or criminal.  Everyone who has spent time inside can find a common language and see the person in someone else.  Prisoner solidarity really does exist and you wouldn't survive without it».

"The banal cross-post [...]  acts like psychotherapy. But the cross-post is more than purely palliative: it is the first stage of civic engagement."

The most recent example is the freshest.  For several months my friend, the TV journalist Oleg Yasakov, followed the drama of the ambulance driver, Pavel Zaika.  One night Zaika was drunk and got into a fight with the taxi driver who was taking him home.  Zaika's nose got broken, so he smashed the windows of the taxi.  After that they both ended up at the police station.  Zaika was suddenly accused of attempted robbery.  The police extracted a statement implicating Zaika from the driver, who was called Ulugbek, and chucked him into a cell with Zaika for a few days.  There the former enemies became friends.  Prisoner solidarity is force to be reckoned with.  Ulugbek tried to retract his statement, but they put the frighteners on him.  He disappeared from Moscow and posted a video appeal with the account of what had actually happened. It had no effect whatsoever on the investigation.   Zaika's wife and friends were told what it would cost for the police to close the case.  Before the trial the price was 5,000 euros, and afterwards – presumably with the judge's cut included – it would be 100,000.  No one had anything even vaguely approaching sums like this.  A very popular TV programme, where my friend works, broadcast a piece about the unfortunate Zaika, which demonstrated very clearly the absurdity of the accusations against him. 

When Oleg told Zaika's story on his LiveJournal page, a campaign started up in the internet.  It was called «Saving Private Zaika».  Last Saturday, just before he was sentenced, there was to have been another programme about him.  The Moscow City Court press secretary said to Oleg: «Drop this Zaika and we'll give you exclusive access to the stars.  They're always coming up in our courts!»  A few days before the broadcast the programme management received an urgent call from on high requesting that the programme be withdrawn.  Zaika's lawyer claimed that the head of the Moscow City Court had issued specific instructions not to acquit him, so as not to give the impression that the press can influence the court.  The system has no reverse gear. 

A controversial road accident on Moscow's main Lenin prospekt gave rise to a  movement against official abuse of migalki, or emergency blue lights

There was a huge fuss around the accident on Lenin Prospekt, but the blame was still laid at the door of the woman driving the Citroen (who was killed).    Oleg and the bloggers did all they could to help someone they didn't even know.  They didn't pull it off:  this week Zaika was sentenced to one year in an ordinary prison.  The state looks to its own affairs, which are obviously completely at odds with the interests of the people.  We have to get together and help each other, if we want to be able to survive the oppression.  Anyone could find themselves in the little man's place, crushed by the system.  If we do nothing, we are like the young head of department who silently looked on while Akakiy Akakievich was being humiliated.  «After that for a long time, even at moments of good cheer, he would remember the little man with the receding hairline and his heart-rending words – Leave me alone, why are you tormenting me? – and in these piercing words he could hear other words 'I am your brother'».

The colossal leap forward in telecommunications technology has meant that myriads of invisible links unite the inhabitants of the planet into a single network.  People have become closer to each other and sharp practice has become more difficult to pull off in this world.  In the new era of digital cooperation the Russian authorities are like an analogue monster, for whom there's no place in the sparkling world of the future, which is like a technocratic phalanx with transparent walls.

Andrei Loshak is a Moscow-based TV and print journalist. In 2003 he was awarded TEFI, Russia’s most prestigious television award, in the category best TV reporter.

About the author

Andrei Loshak is a Moscow-based TV and print journalist. In 2003 he was awarded TEFI, Russia’s most prestigious television award, in the category best TV reporter