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Analysis & Opinion
16.02.09 Apathy Rules
Comment by Shaun Walker

As the economic crisis takes a toll on most of Russia’s industries, the lives of many people who live and work in small towns that support these industries take a turn for the worse. Theoretically, these would be the first places to look for social unrest, as more workers lose their jobs with no other employers to turn to. But in Russia, this is not the case.

Since studying history at the university and reading “Magnet Mountain,” Stephen Kotkin’s phenomenal tome on the founding of the city of Magnitogorsk in the 1930s, I’ve been fascinated by monogorods.

They’re not a uniquely Soviet phenomenon, of course. There are plenty of towns and cities in countries across the world that are dependent on a single industry, or a single factory. But there’s something extreme about the Russian version – entire settlements, like Magnitogorsk, named after the single industry that is based there and built entirely around it. As so often in Russian, there’s even a cool word for it – monogorod.

I was in the Urals last week and decided to make a trip to one of these settlements. After all, if there is going to be social unrest in this time of financial crisis, then monogorods seemed like the first place to look. Many of the monogorods deal in industries that have taken a major battering over the past few months. The automobile cities, where the production lines have ground to a halt, or – in the Urals, where I was – the metals plants are suffering as Russia’s construction boom has stopped dead in its tracks and demand is down.

In places where there is only one factory that employs half or more of the working-age population, when the factory gets into trouble, so does the town. In many of the industrial cities in the Urals, workers had been sent home on compulsory long holidays, receiving only two thirds of their pay in accordance with Russian law. This also has an effect on the parts of the city not directly linked to the factory. In one town, several kindergartens had been forced to close – parents had no need to send their children there because they now spent all day at home.

I plumped for Asbest as my monogorod of choice. Partly because I was curious to find out what a town of 76,000 inhabitants named after and based on a substance that I thought to be highly dangerous was like, and partly because Uralasbest, the factory that employs nearly half of the population, was in a bad way. It had been suffering for years due to the fact that asbestos is banned in many countries, but it’s taken a further hit with the crisis and the slackening of demand for construction materials. The factory was now only working on weekends, when electricity is cheaper, and several thousand workers had been laid off and put on the two thirds pay.

If I was going to find the beginnings of massed social unrest anywhere, surely this was it. On my rounds of the mayor’s office, the Asbest TV studios (oh yes, Asbestos TV does indeed exist), and various other officials, the mood was upbeat. Yes, it was a bit difficult at the moment, but that has more to do with the evil Western anti-asbestos plot rather than the financial crisis. Asbestos was always a seasonal industry anyway, and orders had come in for March which would mean the plant should get back to full volume soon. There would be no unrest here.

I wasn’t convinced, and went to talk to some locals. They weren’t happy, many of them were boozing when they should have been working, and wondering how they would feed their families if they didn’t get their jobs back. They hoped that the news of the March move to full working weeks was true, but weren’t sure they could fully trust it.
But when I asked them what they would do if things got really bad, and they looked at me blankly. “What do you mean, what would we do?” they asked.

“Would you protest?”
“Against who?”
“The mayor? The regional government? Putin? Medvedev?”
They laughed.
“What would be the point of that?”

With everyone I got the same response. People were worried and unhappy, but didn’t believe that their voice mattered to anyone, and didn’t believe that protests would solve anything. I asked Garry Kasparov what he thought about this – after all, his movement and the other opposition movements surely feel that the financial crisis will merely precipitate what they predicted all along – the demise of the Putin/Medvedev regime. “You went too early,” said Kasparov. He thinks that the first real protests will come late in the spring, when the people realize that things aren’t going to get better after all.

“Maybe these protests will be put down violently when they do come, and if they are, it will send waves all across Russia,” said Kasparov. “I don’t know what will happen but I can be certain that by the end of the year the status quo will have changed.”

He may be right, but after my trip to Asbest, I can’t see monogorods becoming the focal point of public unrest. In fact, in this notoriously apolitical society, I can’t see massive popular protests breaking out at all. The opposition might get a few more people to their protests, but on the whole, a mixture of apathy, a sense of powerlessness, and a lack of viable organizational structures seem to doom any opposition before it starts.

It’s possible, of course, that there really could be a change of mood if things get really bad. But I feel much more inclined to agree with the opinion of a newspaper editor whom I met in Ekaterinburg. “Protests! What on earth are you talking about?” he said, laughing. “You don’t realize how much Russian people can put up with before they start protesting. There won’t be protests. The women will grow potatoes to see them through the hard times, and the men will drink more vodka, and that’ll be the end of it.”
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