Fishing: Russia’s other civil battlefront

The recent wave of demonstrations against election fraud across Russia were preceded in the spring and autumn by protests from grassroots fishermen’s organisations, who marched to defend their right to fish for free. Authorities soon climbed down from their controversial plans to privatise rivers and lakes, but not before radicalising an estimated 15-20 million amateur fishermen, writes Oleg Pavlov.

I wake up to a luminous and clear sky. The sun has not yet risen above the pine forest that stretches out from the edges of our dacha plot. But as I look through the attic window, I can already see that it will be a bright day.

I tiptoe downstairs so as not to disturb the whole household. I have prepared everything the night before; my little rucksack is packed and my fishing rod is tied to my bicycle frame. I just have to ride 3 kilometres through the dacha settlement to get to the river. It takes about 15 minutes to put the forest and the hill behind me.

I have my own little spot on the Volga – it’s a small, stony inlet. When I cast my line, almost instantly I feel a merry tugging — it’s as if the fish had been waiting for me!

I reel in some perch and carp, but the fish are not the most important part of fishing. For me, this little spot is the only place where I can really relax and take a break from all my worldly cares.

At first the sun just tickles my back, as it filters through the thick forest, but the opposite bank is already bathed in light. Eventually it will rise above the treetops and my side of the river will also get the sunshine. Then I can have a dip and sunbathe, while keeping my fishing float in sight.

The eagles which inhabit the little island in front of me are always hovering above the water’s surface, but I have never seen one catch a fish.  Seagulls on the other hand, fish quite boisterously in this stretch, and wild ducks also join them.  At around noon, squirrels appear from the trees to get a piece of bread before scampering back into the forest.

Oh what peace!

A country of fishermen

Purely domestic holidays are not unusual for Russians. Even official data points to the fact that only 5-7% of Russians take their holidays abroad. Most of us holiday either at home, or at our dachas. The reason for this is quite banal: most people cannot afford to take holidays in domestic or foreign resorts. Even though Russia is one of the richest countries in the world, its regional population is among the poorest.

Fishing_Vladivostok

Fishing from a pier in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok. After berry and mushroom picking, fishing is Russians’ second most popular hobby: men aged 24-45 are the country's most enthusiastic fishermen. (Photo: Flickr, Watchsmart)

In this context, fishing is really one of few attainable holiday activities for Russians. But now the people could lose this remaining pleasure to the greed of our country’s officials.

One of the biggest public demonstrations in Russia for many years occurred in Kazan’s main square at the end of March. According to official estimates, there were three thousand people gathered. Off the record, police said that as many as five thousand people joined the protest. This was certainly no exaggeration – even the organisers of the demonstration had trouble holding back the tide of people. I even overheard one police colonel saying something rude to a protester and the man retorted that if the policeman did not leave him alone, he would call on all of his friends, relatives and acquaintances and the protest would grow until it became 20 or even 40-thousand-strong. The colour drained from the colonel’s face and he walked away without protest. He could understand that this was not an empty threat.

‘We have an estimated 15-20 million fishermen in Russia. If five people support each fisherman in the country, then you get 100 million protesters! That’s practically the whole country.’

The amateur fisherman gathered to protest against the sale of rivers and lakes to private owners. The rivers Volga, Kama and Vyatka, as well as a number of tributaries and lakes, had all been divided up into fishing sites and hastily put up for sale. Amazingly, only a week after the ink was dried on the law allowing these plots to be sold, all of property put up for sale in the region of Tatarstan was auctioned off and 99% of the plots were sold. It turned out that the waterways were all bought by the very bureaucrats (or their families) who had arranged the sales.

Right away, people were to be issued charges for fishing in these waters and no environmental protection services or fishing facilities were to be provided in exchange for the fishing fee.

Even when it looked as if all of Russia’s assets had been divided up, the authorities set about trying to sell everything else. When the waterways and riverbanks of the whole country have been sold off, air is the only element that Russians will be able to enjoy for free.

Radicalising the masses

When the post-election protests spread across Russia at the beginning of the month, the authorities seemed surprised. ‘What’s this?’, they cried.  ‘Why have all these people suddenly converged upon the streets?’

I can tell you that this movement of protest did not grow overnight.  Dissatisfaction has been fomenting in the hearts of Russians for a long time.

POster_antipoaching

An old Soviet antipoaching banner found in a remote village on Lake Baikal, The caption reads: "Fishing afficionados! Help to save the fish population. The poacher is the enemy of the nation!" On the other hand, "poaching" often helped people to survive in times of food shortages. (Photo: Zygmunt Dzieciolowski)

The sheer blindness of Russian officials to the needs of the people has blinded them to what is really going on around them. The officials have formed a class apart from the rest of the population, and they have destroyed all communication links with ordinary people. With free press and honest elections denied to us, our only way of getting attention is to take to the streets. The fisherman’s protest was the first demonstration of this kind this year.

Fishermen in Russia are not a refined group of people. They are a coarse enough bunch, dressed in padded trousers and heavy jackets. They do not correspond to the ‘bearded intellectuals’ that Vladimir Putin has accused of causing anti-government disturbance. Their protest slogans, asking ‘Why the hell should I pay for fish I haven’t caught yet?’ portrayed a palpable sense of rage. The people who were previously thought stick their heads in the sand have become seriously politicised.

Oleg Mazanov, one of the organisers of the demonstration, believes that the fishing issue is a national concern.

‘We have an estimated 15-20 million fishermen in Russia.  You can see some of them here at the protest. Each of these guys probably has a wife, children, fathers, mothers and friends, all of whom support the cause. Say, if 5 people support each fisherman in the country, then you get 100 million protesters! That’s practically the whole country. Everyone is touched by this issue – of course it is political!’

‘Fishermen in Russia are not a refined group of people. They do not correspond to the ‘bearded intellectuals’ that Vladimir Putin has accused of causing anti-government disturbance ...  The people who were previously thought stick their heads in the sand have become seriously politicised.’

The protesters held up flags and placards, pinned to their fishing rods, bearing slogans such as, ‘Every law has an author’, and ‘Tatarstan’s rivers for the people!’ and ‘The Volga is not just a river, it’s our homeland!’

Kazan’s officials have gone so overboard with the new policy on fishing sites that they have even divvied up the city’s waterways among themselves. The capital of Tatarstan is divided in half by the river Kazanka. All of the banks of the river and the summer beaches in the city have been sold. Citizens use these places to bathe and sunbathe and walk with their children. Will a mother, pushing a pram, now have to pay for the pleasure of walking with her child along the banks of the river in her native town?

Oleg Mazanov said that he has tried to find out what this fishing ban really means.

‘At first, we wrote to all of the relevant authorities to find out what was going on and there was some exchange of formal letters. After we had begun to organise the demonstration, the officials began to take notice and they started to invite us to the Tatarstan Parliament and to meetings with the governor, Ravil Muratov. Officially, the authorities have agreed to meet with us and consider our concerns, but this is not enough. We need a law that protects our interests’

Eventually the authorities got scared and all of the sales were nullified. We could finally go back to spending the summer with a fishing rod in hand. But people had already become activated and they even formed an association, The Union of Russian Fishermen.

Victory at the top

Igor Golischenko, a doctor and amateur fishing enthusiast, joined the Moscow branch of the association. He has taken this issue to the top, right up to the deputy prime minister, Viktor Zubkov. He has also taken part in a debate on the subject in the State Duma.

Sturgeon

Kaluga fish, a type of sturgeon predatory fish, caught in the early nineties in Kamchatka, Far East. Overfishing and widespread poaching led to a significant decline of sturgeon population all over Russia (Photo: Zygmunt Dzieciolowski)

Golischenko says that the formation of The Union of Russian Fishermen was necessary because an individual voice does not count when mounting a campaign like this.

‘Before we organised the Union, we were nobodies. We were a faceless bunch of baddies, trying to hassle the authorities, and we had no legal status’, he said.

The authorities began to negotiate with the organisation and they even ordered the re-working of the fishing law.  Was this not a victory for the fishermen? Perhaps the work of the Union is over?

Maxim Komarov, a lawyer and one of the authors of the Article on Fishing, is determined that the Union will continue to fight the cause of fishermen. ‘Nobody has guaranteed that we won’t have the same problem again. They could easily announce a new law – one that is even worse for fishermen. They could start putting a license on a fish hook, and then they could charge for each time you throw it in the water. Who can guarantee that this won’t happen? Nobody! This is why it is imperative that we should maintain an organisation that protects the rights of fishermen’

It is important to note here that the fishermen were not only protecting their own rights; they were also campaigning to protect the rivers that are so dear to their hearts. The Volga, Kama and other bodies of water had been effectively made available for sale to poachers, who would strip the rivers of fish. The waterways are practically covered in vicious, fine-meshed nets that catch even the tiniest fish. Divers, who worked on the recovery of the wreckage of the Bulgaria ferry last summer, found that they had to clear scores of kilometres of netting before they could continue their work.

The Union of Russian Fishermen is an important force for the protection of Russia’s rivers. One of the leaders of the Kazan’s Fishermen movement, Oleg Mazaov, says that their organisation is willing to monitor the purity of the water and deter poachers. They also want to educate the population on environmental conservation issues and they are prepared to work with children from local orphanages on these projects, which would be part of the Union’s official mandate.

But there is nothing new in this. Fishermen have always cooperated with fishing inspectors, who the State consigned to the rubbish heap a long time ago.  The Kazan fishermen even chipped in to buy a motor and petrol for the fishing inspector’s boat.  Only six people are employed to supervise the vast waterways of Tatarstan in this one little boat.

The fishermen are convinced that if the rivers and banks are sold into private hands, the new owners will once again deplete the resources of the waterways. The new owners will certainly not trouble themselves over breeding whitebait or tackling poachers. In fact, the fishermen are concerned that poachers will simply begin to pay a percentage of their catch to the owners, who will turn a blind eye to their illegal activities.

The Fishing Law was once again reviewed by the Russian parliament last autumn. After close inspection, the fishermen could find no changes to the law that they had objected to. The wording had been altered but the law was effectively the same.

Winter_fishing

Sub-zero temperatures and freezing wind do not scare Russian fishermen. They drill holes in the ice and wait hours for their catch (Photo, Flickr, Thiago PP)

Andrei Krainy, the head of Russian Fisheries, could not persuade the fishermen that any real changes had been made. His rude and condescending attitude towards the Fishermen’s Union further exacerbated the situation and at the end of November another mass demonstration was held. The people showed that they were not about to sit on their hands over this issue. There was a strong will among demonstrators to fight for their rights and to protect the rivers. People want their grandchildren to be able to enjoy the natural surroundings and traditional pastimes that have been passed down through generations.

This is what I want too. I have never caught a lot of fish, but then, I never really wanted to. For me the real pleasure of fishing is in the preparation and anticipation of such a peaceful activity. Nothing beats the pure bliss of feeling at one with nature. This river bank, these trees and stones belong to me. They are part of my life and I don’t want them to be sold off to anyone.

About the author

Oleg Pavlov is a journalist based in Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. He is the local correspondent for Radio Liberty's Russian Service.