Yulia Galyamina is a civil activist, politician, teacher of philology and journalism. Photo: Julia Koroleva. All rights reserved.
Today, oDR begins a series of interviews with Russian independent politicians and civic figures. Dmitry Rebrov opens this series with an interview with Yulia Galyamina, an active participant in the movement against the Moscow renovation project and a recently-elected municipal deputy in Timiryazevsky district, Moscow.
Yulia Galyamina has something of an activist past. A humanities lecturer at Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics, Galyamina has worked on the problems of Russia’s education system as part of the Dissernet project, which exposes plagiarism inside the academy, organised a school of local self-government, fought against illegal property development at Moscow’s Dubki park and ran for parliament as a candidate from the Yabloko party in 2016. Like others in the Russian opposition, Galyamina has also experienced her fair share of pressure. For instance, at the Moscow anti-corruption rally on 12 June, police officers beat up Galyamina and her husband, and she was diagnosed with a closed skull trauma as a result.
Still, Galyamina remains active. In September 2017, she won a seat at the Moscow municipal elections, becoming a deputy on the Timiryazevsky district council. These elections didn’t happen without a scandal, however: the district election committee falsified the election results, depriving independent candidates of one seat. Galyamina is now trying to protest the committee’s decision in court.
Most national media have already called the victory of independent candidates at the Moscow municipal elections a “triumph of the Gudkov team”, in reference to Dmitry Gudkov, a Russian opposition leader. Do you agree with this interpretation?
To view these events as if they’re orchestrated by one or even two people doesn’t make sense. This is a primitive approach, and it’s connected with the inertia of our perceptions about the “vertical” nature of power. In reality, the results at the municipal elections were a victory of those civic activists, leaders of local protest groups, participants in the mass “grassroots” protest who have made their voices heard in recent years. It is their victory. And I’d like to thank everybody who helped them.
Maxim Kats and Dmitry Gudkov, as well as other projects such as School of Local Self-Governance, the Open Elections project, the Candidate’s Personal Advisor, did a lot for the result. But then they took advantage of the situation in order to put their brand on the candidates. That’s a matter for their consciences, there’s no point in arguing about it now.
So where have these local communities and civic groups we’re talking about come from?
For Muscovites, self-organisation at some point became a matter of survival. The state ran out of funds, and it began to infringe on the interests of citizens more and more aggressively: tearing up parks, taking away car parks, cutting back on healthcare provision. And when the state started to “step on people’s heels”, they instantly woke up.
Photo: Julia Koroleva. All rights reserved.We saw the Torfyanka protest, groups of deceived mortgage-holders, people with foreign credit, people waiting for social housing, car owners, long-distance truck drivers, groups against the construction of advertising hoardings and churches. With time, they began to build horizontal connections and a networked structure emerged, mutual assistance. If no one defends your rights, you have to defend them yourself.
Your political career began with a small group of district activists who came together around protecting Dubki park in Moscow, which the city administration signed over for development to a commercial developer. After the scandal with the Moscow “renovation”, many in the Russian press have started talking about a second wave of protests after Bolotnaya. You’re at the centre of this story. How does this new round of protest differ from the “White Ribbon” era?
There won’t be a second wave, and we don’t need one. First, the story with Dubki is long over. That part of the park that we were fighting to protect was, in the end, developed anyway. Second, it’s clear that neither the Dubki protest, nor the Moscow renovation protest were in any way like the White Ribbon protest. And definitely not the second round of it. These are two completely different processes, which might somehow be connected to one another, but very lightly. Moreover, we won’t see any more protests with 100,000 people out on the streets. Even against the Moscow renovation project.
Perhaps young people will come out for Alexey Navalny, but only out of lack of experience — because it seems to them that you can still achieve something with public rallies.
Now people are starting to think in concrete terms and are making an effort to take power — at that level, of course, which they can
What were the protests of 2011-2012? It was about emotions. The explosion of emotions of an outraged class that was used by national politicians and people close to politics in order to take over the movement. There were a lot of slogans, but there was no programme of action.
Now people are starting to think in concrete terms and are making an effort to take power — at that level, of course, which they can. For example, in Moscow and other big regional centres, in the Urals and Siberia.
Indeed, in Moscow, it’s the local protest groups who have become the alternative to “big” party politics. Why do you think this is?
The old parties are too cumbersome, inflexible. They’ve stopped being able to answer the challenges of the era. It’s easier for the state to put pressure on them, and in general it’s very hard to use force against a networked community. How can you pressure people who aren’t connected by a single institute? You can put down one local leader, but someone will take their place without harming the cause.
So Russia’s party system has exhausted itself?
This is an evolutionary process. When the dinosaurs died out, mammals appeared, and the mammoths were slightly smaller in size. I’m sure that big party politics in Russia, in the form it’s existed over the past 20 years, has definitely exhausted itself.
Photo: Julia Koroleva. All rights reserved.Parties should become service organisations for local leaders. Their task is to serve politicians, formulate common goals and coordinate. In the 2000s, our parliamentary parties didn’t do this. Russian opposition parties could have become the kind of organisations with resources at some point, but they didn’t cope with this task.
For a long time, the opposition has been working on any old rubbish, organising “marches of dissenters”, walking around the streets… You shouldn’t think that I’m not for public rallies, I am, but you have to understand that protest is a tool. What were those “marches of dissenters” for? They simply didn’t work.
Now we have a significant amount of independent leaders who don’t really need parties. And if all political parties operating in our country just disappeared, nothing much would change, on the whole, for those leaders I just mentioned.
"We are waiting for changes!", Graffiti in Moscow, 2012. Photo CC-by-2.0: Evgeny Isaev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
There have been local “revolts” before, including in Russia’s regions — after the Russian state banned righthand drive cars, after the state monetised welfare privileges, against property development…
Back then, there was no organising infrastructure, no understanding how protests should work. Now there’s been a change of generation. An ideology of grassroots politicisation has emerged, and there’s organisations that can structure local protest.
You mentioned Siberia and the Urals, but there we haven’t seen the same kind of effect that local protest has had in Moscow.
The poorer people live, the less resources they have for self-organisation. There’s a metaphor: after the sanctions against Russia began, a struggle between the “television” and the “refrigerator” began. But that’s a myth. The refrigerator and the television, as a rule, either both win at the same time, or both lose, but always together.
It seems to me that Russia’s old vertically integrated parties, including the liberal parties, were parties that followed the Leninist model. That is, they thought of themselves as a kind of avant-garde, sending their activists to meet “the people” in order to lead a passive electorate which was, in essence, unable to self-organise… Now everything has changed, and now the other side has the initiative.
You know, at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s everything was quite different. Where did Boris Nemtsov come from, for instance? Which party put him forward? Who sent him? The party system that we’re discussing — and which I’m criticising — formed later. But as soon as it did form, it basically ossified instantly.
What’s happening now, by the way, looks a lot like what was happening in Russia during the late 1980s. The victory of independent candidates at the Moscow municipal elections is, in some sense, analogous to the first “democrats” who made their way into the Gorbachev-era city councils. The only difference is that there was mass enthusiasm back in the 1980s, rather than the apathy of today.
What’s happening now, by the way, looks a lot like what was happening in Russia during the late 1980s
There was a lot of disappointed people back in 1990 and 1991, a lot of cynicism. Looking back today, it seems that everything was so one-sided. I’d say that today we’re seeing the emergence of politics itself once again.
But this can all end at any moment — if local grassroots leaders who’ve been elected to the municipal councils suddenly demonstrate that they are unable to do anything, that they cannot become a political force. And moreover, if it turns out that they won’t be closer to their fellow citizens than the old politicians — because then people will turn away from then. And that will be the worst thing. We’re pioneers, the first people to discover huge new political continents, and we bear a huge responsibility for that.
Julia Galyamina urges Moscow residents to take part in the protest on May 27 and 28 against the plans of the Moscow government to begin a mass demolition of five-storey buildings. Photo: Нeadquarter / YouTube. Some rights reserved.
I want to ask you about responsibility. We agreed not to discuss Maxim Kats, but there’s already a split emerging in the municipal council of Moscow’s Khamovniki district, which Kats is very actively involved in.
Independent candidates took the majority of seats in Khamovniki, and yes, there is a split there because certain deputies belong to Kats’ “team”, and others don’t. The non-Kats people have a candidate for district council chairperson, Alexandra Parushina, an old activist Whereas Kats’ team has their own candidate.
And why doesn’t Parushina suit Kats?
He doesn’t want Parushina as head of the council mostly because he doesn’t control her.
But he controls his own people?
Yes. For many people, Maxim Kats is an authority, and they obey him. I don’t know why he needs to have all that control. But the issue is that Kats is actively involved in the process of appointing the heads of local self-governance structures like a kind of grey cardinal. He’s visited council meetings in other districts, as far as I know.
You could say that among the 300 independent Moscow councillors there’s real district activists and local leaders who have been elected by themselves, and then there’s people who came out of nowhere, people who were chosen by Kats off the street, without any experience. Moreover, there’s a certain number of deputies — quite a few actually — who used to be activists, but then took advantage of the services of the Kats team.
Photo: Julia Koroleva. All rights reserved.In Moscow's Eastern Degunino district, for example, someone with two convictions for breaking and entering ran from Kats team, the communists ran their own candidate instead. Both sides lost in the end, and not one independent candidate made it through.
Why take inexperienced people into the district councils?
Well, this is quite simple. For Kats and Gudkov, the municipal elections were a technical issue. Gudkov plans to run for the Moscow mayoral elections next September, he needs to get through the “municipal filter”. If you look at local self-governance only from that angle, then what difference does it make who’s going to be a councillor?
By the way, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) failed these municipal elections on the whole.
That’s right, and Yabloko only managed a decent result thanks to Emilia Slabunova, who thinks in the right way: from the bottom up, and not the other way round… It’s a different matter than those who won seats, even those who ran on party lists, are now talking about ourselves as an independent force. A force that doesn’t want to come together into organisations with a bureaucracy and budget.
Photo: Julia Koroleva. All rights reserved.
You recently held a congress of independent councillors. Were there candidates “from Kats” there?
Yes, but for us the congress wasn’t about Kats. The congress is an attempt to build horizontal connections between the district councils. Roughly 100 people took part. We came to an agreement on coordinating our legislative efforts, on creating our own Council of Municipal Formations of Moscow in counterbalance to the official one. But this is already politics.
You mean something like the Petrograd Council of 100 years ago? That is, a kind of alternative power vertical?
Yes, but one that acts within the limit of the law. This council, as I see it, could become a driver of positive changes in our city.
Moving on to personal matters, you used to be an academic, quietly working on Siberian languages…
I’m still an academic today. But I never worked on Siberian languages quietly. I was always switching between activism and research.
For many of those involved in the truck driver protests, their long protest at Khimki ended in divorce…
Ah, you’re talking about my husband, right?
Yes, I mean, surely he used to have a normal life!
He’s never had a normal life! [Laughs] I came to political journalism in 2003 when our child was one year old, and we’d been married for two and a half… So he’s used to the fact that I’m always being detained, beaten. He spent his last birthday in the local election committee building, it was the height of the municipal elections, and the first person to congratulate him was the secretary of the electoral committee, not his wife. He understands that all this isn’t for nothing.
I noticed that you have this “STOP Communism” sticker on your office door.
Our local communists are always telling me to take it down, but I don’t. These are my beliefs. And all the same, I know that they’re my best allies, I can always rely on them, and they – on me.
People need to come together not as part of a party brand — communists there, liberals here — but to fight a concrete battle
People need to come together not as part of a party brand — communists there, liberals here — but to fight a concrete battle, which speaks to the real interests of the communities that elected them. Otherwise, we’ll end up in never-ending arguments without achieving anything.
But what about their attitude to Stalin, for example?
That’s also important, but at the municipal level, the question is simple: do you vote for a member of United Russia to be head of the district council or not? This is what’s important, as this is a political action. What your opinion on history and the rulers of the 20th century is, well, that doesn’t really matter.
But what about party discipline? Particularly when it comes to those who have run as party candidates?
I’ve seen how people choose which flags to run under. They had to take a photograph of themselves for leaflets and they were discussing: “Oh, Yabloko has this photographer, KPRF has this one, and so on. Who takes the best photos? KPRF? Then let’s join them!” In this situation, “party discipline” and everything that our political dinosaurs are used to — this is just archaic.
Yes, a party is an effective instrument if you have a national agenda. Partially because our legislation is written for parties. But local leaders don’t have this kind of agenda. Perhaps with time it will emerge.