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A voice from Russia's truckers' protest

Truckers across Russia have descended on Moscow to protest a new freight tax which will threaten their livelihood. Vladimir shares his story of life behind the wheel.

 

Nikolai Ovchinnikov
9 December 2015

Since mid-November, Russia’s long distance truckers have been protesting against a new freight tax on trucks over 12 tonnes. The tax is 1.53 rubles (£0.01) per kilometre until March 2016 and 3.73 rubles (£0.04) per kilometre thereafter. The official reason Russia’s Federal Transportation Agency (Rosavtodor) gives for the new tax is to pay for the road damage it says 12-tonne trucks cause. In fact, according to a press release, Rosavtodor claims that one 12-tonne truck causes road damage equivalent to 40,000-50,000 cars.

The tax will be collected through Platon, an electronic monitoring system, operated by RT-Invest Transport Systems, a company owned by Sergei Chemezov, a close associate of Vladimir Putin who is subject to western sanctions, and Igor Rotenberg, son of Putin’s former judo partner Arkady Rotenberg.

Given the closeness of RT-Invest’s co-owners to the Russian president, many see this new tax as just another example of rent-seeking corruption in Russia. Indeed, RT-Invest was created specifically for this no-bid state contract. According to Russian business daily Vedomosti, RT-Invest is projected to earn 10.6 billion rubles (£102 million) of the 50.6 billion rubles (£404 million) in road taxes collected annually.

In response, many of Russia’s truckers rose up and have been staging protests all over the country demanding the tax’s repeal. By late November truckers decided to set out for Moscow, and by 27 November the first 200 trucks had already left from Dagestan.

Communist Party Duma deputy Konstantin Rodin meets protesting truckers in Moscow Oblast, 4 December.

The most dramatic protest was on 4 December when hundreds of truckers clogged Moscow Ring highway with a large, slow moving semi-truck caravan. It’s unclear what the truckers will do next since their demands have mostly been ignored by the Kremlin. A few Communist Party Duma members have spoken in the truckers’ defense, and it seems the Communist Party is looking to politically capitalize on, not to mention co-opt, the movement by proposing to corral them into a new political organization. Communist Party Duma deputy Konstantin Rodin meets protesting truckers in Moscow Oblast, 4 December. Photo: (c) Grigory Sysoev / visual RIANBelow is a translation of an account of one trucker, Vladimir Georgievich, 32, about life on the road, in Russia, and the strong bond he feels with his fellow truckers. This first person account speaks to the complexity of the situation and the many obstacles Russian small business owners face.

But Georgievich’s concerns speak far beyond those of his profession—his comments on Russia’s living conditions, the quality of its infrastructure, and life out in the provinces captures a vividness often absent in most western accounts of Russian political protest.

'I live in this small cabin like a dog'

I worked in a lot of jobs before. I was in the navy, for example. Why did I get behind the wheel? You know, I really don’t remember. I probably needed to make some money.

I also worked before [becoming a truck driver]. I worked in a factory as an electrician, and it was all generally suitable to me. There was this production manager, a 'good guy' who decided to make electrical engineers out of us electricians. Basically, they wanted me to do everything. And when I told them, 'Then pay me extra!' they refused. And I don't get it: it's five o'clock, I’m getting ready to go home, and here he comes and tells me that this and that needs to get hooked up. I tell him: 'So I'll hook it up and then you'll come over to my place and hang wallpaper.' And he's like, 'Why should I have to go to your place and hang wallpaper?' And I tell him: 'Why should I work for free?' It's like this everywhere. The pay is under the table as well. So I quit. That was ten years ago.

At first I drove a GAZelle, then a [ZIL-5301] Bychok, and then I got a job delivering cargo in a company. I usually worked in the office and not for myself. They treated people like nothing there. You get here with a load, you’ve been delivering the whole day, they’re on your ass, and then in the evening they say 'You need to be in Moscow in the morning!' And what am I supposed to be, a robot?! I didn’t sleep all day, supervised, and now it’s my responsibility to sit behind the wheel for at least another 14-15 hours. It’s a 24 hour shift. By chance, do you work a 24 hour shift? No. So now I don’t either.

Now I am a small business owner and self-employed. But it’s hard to get a loan. My truck is already paid off. I lived out of my cabin for two years to pay it off. At first I couldn’t get a loan from a bank. I would go into a bank and they were like 'small business owner? Oh, well, adios!' Only Sberbank approved me for 86,000 rubles. But I was lucky. My brother joined the navy. He got a loan from it.

The routes vary. And they go in sorts of directions and they’re not without problems. Take the one to Kirov, for example. One way takes three days there, and three days back. But you waste a day 300 kilometres outside Totma because there aren’t any roads. You kill a whole day. That is, if you don’t breakdown. And somewhere your tire catches something or the carburetor breaks somewhere. It’s all because of the roads. I saw how they made the road out to Arkhangelsk: They just paved everything with clay. This will all soon fall apart.

Or take any way to Krasnoyarsk and it takes twenty days at best. I don’t sleep at home and don’t see my family. I live in this little cabin like a dog. I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, fill up, and quietly get on my way.

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In the cabin there’s gas, a refrigerator, two beds, everything you need. There a sauna and a café in truck stops. But only if it’s near Piter [Rn: St. Petersburg]. But farther out—there’s poverty. You drive out and you see the old top-performing collective farms, where there is nothing but ruin. They’re all overgrown with weeds. Wherever I arrive to unload, for example, in the Pskov region, I ask, 'How much do you make?' They say, well, five thousand [rubles] (about £50) per month. I’m shocked: 'Even the monthly minimum wage is more.' And it turns out that all of them work part-time. But they work all day. If you don’t want to work—there’s nothing else. A driver comes joins truckers in protest against the Platon system, Moscow Oblast. Photo: (c) Grigory Sysoev / VisualRIAN.I now usually drive 14-15 hours a day. At most. Then I get some sleep. Otherwise, you can cross into the opposing lane. I never rush anywhere and I now keep an optimal work schedule. You get up at five or six in the morning, it’s still dark, but you get up. No one drives at night in the winter: the roads aren’t clean and there are potholes everywhere. When they patch them up you get a hill instead of a hole.

We work alone. You don’t make anything with two of you. If you’re alone at very least you can make a bit of something. We sleep in the truck. Now it’s horrible to sleep on the shoulder unless you are really tired. You can wake up without fuel, without spare tires, with the loaded freight. It’s very dangerous.

Nothing’s changed. You just stand there with your mouth wide open as they pour out your fuel, cut open the trailer tarps, and unload your freight. At the same time the traffic cops are forever bred to hustle. They pull you over to frame you. For example, they put a road sign on a wooden stick that was never there. Or they find a drunk to throw themselves in front of your truck. You’re driving and he jumps in front of you. How do you stop multi-ton tractor-trailer? And then after five hundred meters the [cops] stop you start hustling you for money. Only a dashcam saves you. The questions vanish once they see that you have one. 

In fact, the 1990s haven’t gone away. For example, in 2009 my tire was shot out on the Chelyabinsk bypass. There’s banditry. You have to pay a bit of money if you want to drive on the road. 500 rubles (£5). For this money they’ll escort you so you aren’t robbed. And then you have to give them another 500 on the way back.

The 1990s haven’t gone away

Perhaps only on the Piter-Moscow route nobody helps anyone. Those who drive there don’t see trouble. Just once I saw someone broken down and couldn’t stop or go. Well, for example, I won’t be able to make it for unloading, I’ll come tomorrow. But then the guy didn’t die. It was minus twenty below, the truck is broken down, and the fuel is frozen. And the entire problem is getting the truck to start because you filled up with low-grade diesel at the gas station.

I’ve been in every possible situation. There was one time when I set a tire on fire to stay warm. Yeah, that’s right. You set a spare tire on fire bit by bit otherwise you'll freeze and that’s it.

The KPRF [Communist Party] has helped us a lot. They give us legal help and informational support. They say, come lead a meeting if you'd like.

To be honest. I've never voted for United Russia and I never will. It's no wonder [Communist Party leader] Zyuganov says United Russia is the party of crooks and thieves. I've seen it all living in the Leningrad region: we have a nearby village where people live in complete shit. They only had gas a year ago, the trash isn't picked up, and the head of the village administration lives in a two-story villa with an additional cottage with a swimming pool. She even has a normal paved asphalt road. Do you think she's bought all of this on her salary? Unlikely.

As for the president? I think he can solve problems all the same.I think that we clearly won't live to retirement in the current situation. There's no other way in our country. They all want it to be like in Europe. But you earn a living and make roads to be like Europe. But here they decided to tax everything they can. Putin said: don't increase taxes. And they all rose anyway. A 16 per cent increase in the small business tax. Here's the government specifically contradicting Putin's decree.

The truckers are not about politics. What does the average working person need it for?! Working people need to work, earn a living, and feed their family. That's all you need. But if they really start caving into us, how must we regard it? Well, we will give you money for what won't and never will be. There won't be roads. How many times have they tricked us by promising to abolish the transportation tax, when in fact it wasn’t? And now with this [Ed. Platon system] - now they've betrayed us a second time. They probably thought that everyone would quietly go along with it again.

My son was born not long ago. My brother already has four kids and I have one so far. My son is still small, nursing, and understands nothing. But, you know, I won't mind if he wants to be like me and get behind the wheel. It's normal. I don't see anything wrong with it. You see, we have all sorts of people. There are academics, submariners, and pilots. We had a military unit deactivated, and people have nowhere to go. And this Major sits at the helm. Or a submarine officer. Everyone goes who essentially needs to earn a living.

My job is my life. I can't imagine life without it. I once tried to get out. I had a Scania 124 and I sold it. It had a hopper on the back. Three months rolled by. I couldn't resist. I just can't. You know, it's like, you try something once and sucked. It's like being a sailor. My navy brother is the same.

You think it’s in our interests to raise hell?  

Well, of course, we talk amongst ourselves. Mostly how? A convoy assembles, we get on the CB and constantly talk. We generally talk about everything. We're with each other all the time, outside of work, on vacation, when we get together. We have such a professional bond and friendship. You see, we don't park our trucks outside a building—they'll get broken into there. Everyone parks in a parking lot. We hang out. You know, we don't have the thing when you go up to someone you don't know in a town and you start talking and they think you're an idiot.

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It doesn't matter if we know you or not. We are all equal. It doesn't matter if you're in a beat up old truck or a new one, or how old or young you are. The highway doesn't put up with stuck up and bad people. You see, in the city you can be cut off and left in the dust. But everyone is equal on the road. Anything can happen to anyone out there. You’re diving a 40-ton truck and where can you hide it. You see, we are willing to share the last: it doesn’t matter who you are. You will stand up and to stay to the bitter end. 'Trucker, if you dare - park your lorry on Red Square' reads this protest sign in Moscow. Image still via YouTubeWe have an interregional trade union headed by Alexander Kotov. He takes care of everything that needs doing. Right, I haven’t joined it yet—I’ve only put in an application. Why didn’t I join sooner? I can’t say. I just probably didn’t understand that we need to come together. I realized this at the very last moment. We listen to the radio, watch the federal TV channels—they don’t tell you anything that we don’t know or haven’t figured out.

We’re all in the same boat. I'll tell you another thing. Are the Prime Minster and the heads of Rosavtodor (the Federal Transportation Agency) straight up lying when they say a truck causes damage to the roads equivalent to 50,000 cars? For that, to put it bluntly, you’d have to be transporting a gigantic streamliner that hasn’t stopped at all the ports around the world. They say that our vehicles weigh 50,000 tonnes. How can they lie to our faces? What am I paying for? For roads busted up beyond recognition?!

You think it’s in our interests to raise hell? It’s all out of desperation. Just imagine if you earn 5,000 rubles (£47) and the taxes are 6,000 (£57). Either you pay per kilometre or get in the unemployment line. I agree: let them build highways and all this infrastructure. I'm prepared to pay but not at 3.5 rubles per kilometre.

This interview was originally published in Russian at Colta.ru, and appears here with their kind permission. Translation and introduction by Sean Guillory. 

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