Alexandr Zamyatin: ‘The goal of municipal campaign is to notice each other, come together and stop thinking that we are powerless’
September met with a municipal deputy of Moscow’s Zyuzino district and an author of For Democracy: Local Politics Against Depoliticization, Alexandr Zamyatin to discuss the reasons to take part in local elections in times of war, depoliticization in Russian and Western societies, and how to overcome it, VyDvizhenie — a support platform for independent candidates Zamyatin founded together with Mikhail Lobanov, — and on the recent transformations of Russian political regime.
September (S): The first question is: how does the war affect local politics and how much does it influence Moscow’s political scene in general?
Alexandr Zamyatin (AZ): War changed things for sure. Before February 24, there appeared several support initiatives for candidates and many people were willing to participate, while from late February till mid-April everything had just gone still. Hardly anyone did anything, all of us mostly tried to figure out if it is still possible to work on local elections or if it is complete nonsense at this point. That being said, war really had its impact and mostly it deprived people of motivation. Some of those who were even going to run for elections this winter and campaigned simply fled Russia. Some decided that there was no point to do it anymore and just quit the game. Some are still willing to and continue to act, but struggle to find the energy for action. It’s hard to talk about some benches in your district in such a state of things. There are barely 200 independent candidates we could find in Moscow, while in the winter by all estimates it was predicted that no less than a thousand would be running.
S: Clearly everyone was in a state of shock for the first few months. What’s going on now though? Has the activity resumed already?
AZ: It has. From what I observed on our VyDvizhenie platform (a wordplay literally translated in English as ‘YouMovement’ and figuratively as ‘Nomination’) and overall, some people were able to recover and get back on track: there are cool campaigns, house-to-house visits, people gathering in the yards, public campaigns, and so on. In other words, there are many districts where pre-election activity is in full swing.
S: My acquaintances who help Gleb Soluyanov, a municipal council candidate from the Izmaylovo district, told me he has a legal advisor who holds liberal views. And this person explained that he started working with a left-wing candidate, because all liberals fled the country, while the only members of anti-war opposition still in Russia are from the left. Does it match your observations in any way?
AZ: No, no, of course, it’s not like that. In Moscow, there is [Konstantin] Yankauskas who is a liberal and is not going anywhere. Yashin stayed, too. [Yulia] Galyamina didn’t leave as well. She isn’t running herself, but she’s still overseeing some candidates in the northern districts and helping those who run. Clearly, I’m from the left myself, but such overstatements, like all left-wingers, stayed and all liberals gave up, are complete nonsense.
S: I just thought that it is an interesting observation coming from a person with liberal views.
AZ: Surely there is some frustration in their circles with so many people left. Some are hurt, and some don’t know what to do — all of this is true. But it is wrong to assume that everybody just left. The fight is real, the fight goes on, so it’s all right.
S: You might remember that at the start of the war there was this circulating rumor that this year’s elections planned for September 9-11 are going to be canceled. Why do you think this was such a popular belief at the time?
AZ: These rumors don’t need any war to gain traction. As far as I remember, every major election I’ve tried to take part in went hand in hand with things like that: some were saying that they would be postponed, some were speculating ‘why Putin needs elections, he’s going to cancel them for good', some were predicting that there would be an emergency press conference - this happens every time. No surprise that it’s like that this time again.
S: Why didn't it actually happen this time? Is it an attempt to maintain an illusion of normality or are there another kind of reasoning behind this?
AZ: I think there are two reasons. The first one is valid even outside the war context: such elections matter for the Putin regime because they usually win them. Why don’t you hold elections you’re meant to win? In fact, it’s a great way to convince the country that your power is legitimate and people support you. This is crucial for this kind of political regime. You see, the Putin regime didn’t rely on fear before February 24, only now it’s transforming itself to some extent. It used to rely on falsified electoral support and on the passivity of the people. And the second reason — if we’re speaking about Moscow in particular — is that Sobyanin adopted a ‘nothing to see here’ policy. He is not pro-war, he is not anti-war, he is not in one camp or in the opposite one, in his Moscow everything is okay. Jam festivals, ‘Moy Rayon’ (or My District; a governmental district development program), parks. Everything’s fine, nothing happens. And if nothing happens, why not hold elections?
Members of VyDvizhenie platform campaigning on Moscow's streets. Photo: t.me/munplatform
S: By the way, speaking of Sobyanin: do you think that it’s his conscious effort to eliminate all signs of war from public spaces? To what extent is it determined by his technocratic approach to urban management?
AZ: For ten years Sobyanin has been building his global city, which in his mind is located in the world rather than in Russia specifically. There are global cities, like London, Singapore, New York, and Berlin, which means Moscow should be one as well. By spending whopping loads of money, with an enormous budget available he tried to conceal the fact that all of it is inside a deteriorating authoritarian state.
And obviously, such a global city is a technocratic one, it’s not attentive to what locals think of it. Even though there were some ways to provide feedback before, they were gradually dismantled over time. Meaning we smoothly and almost silently got to the point where we don’t have any public hearings. There is just no such thing anymore. While some time ago it was the main tool for facilitating public activity around, for instance, urban development projects. So his current stance of “nothing’s happening at all” stems from the fact that he had tried to be the leader and founder of the global city. It seems that it’s not just his thing at all to adopt a hawk’s attitude and become someone like Volodyn or Kadyrov. At the same time, he might just find it lame to take the pro-war side. Judging from the inside, by Moscow's political scene, I feel that Sobyanin is far from being fond of such things. He’s held his ceremony for Putin in Luzhniki, but he won’t be plastering Z’s all over the city or anything like that. It’s just not his thing. But here comes a kind of political analysis I don’t to engage with.
S: So apparently he still holds onto a hope to build this global city?
AZ: I guess he’s a realist after all, and he understands that his hard work of 10 years went down the drain. He probably freaked out over what happened. And since he freaked out, he doesn’t want and will never want to promote militarist policy in Moscow, because it just undid everything he worked on. There will be no global city, at least in his lifetime. He’ll die and there will be no global Moscow he dreamt to see.
S: Back to the elections: do you think they still remain the main mean of legitimation for Putin’s regime?
AZ: No, I don’t think so, these are local elections after all. Momentum is what drives them in the first place. It’s harder to cancel municipal elections than to hold them in the current circumstances. As for next year, here comes the first big challenge: Sobyanin’s second term will end and mayor elections are supposed to take place. He has to either reset his terms or resign. Changing the regulations will not be an instant move given the current lineup of Moscow City Council, they will have to break a few backs for it. Therefore, mayor elections in 2023 will be a mega important test of whether the electoral system matters for the regime. As for me, this is not self-evident, I value the opinions of people I listen to, and they think that the regime has transformed itself, that elections and plebiscitary support don’t matter for it that much anymore. Fear and direct oppression are what comes to the forefront. We’ll see. Municipal elections won’t show us anything in that regard.
S: In your book For Democracy, one of the core topics is depoliticization, it being a key characteristic of Putin’s era. However, it is common not only for Russian society, and many leftist scholars also speak on this matter. For example, this year German sociologist Klaus Dörre published a book called Depoliticised Class Society. What do you think are unique features of depoliticization in Russian society compared to other societies of the global North and South?
AZ: I borrowed this term exactly from them: it is, so to speak, ‘imported’ directly from Western studies of depoliticization. That’s why these phenomena are related. I think that the main differentiating factor is depth. Meaning, when in Germany or in the Netherlands people complain about depoliticization, they say: look, election turnout rates dropped from 80 to 60 percent. And that is viewed as horrendous depoliticization. While in Russia there are simply no elections with a 70 percent turnout, except the presidential ones, where Kremlin goes all out to give it a boost. Anyway, when they complain about depoliticization [in the West], they say that 60 percent [turnout] is low, and 40-60 is extremely low, while when we have 40 percent turnout, we say 'yay, repoliticization', we cheer for it. That’s the whole other level of the same thing.
Moreover, I would say that there is a big difference in the level of political awareness, as in the West there is a well-established political culture with a range of political parties, and there are generations of people who vote for the right or for the left. Populists had dealt a blow to this culture, this was very interesting to observe, this is still happening in some countries. There is no such thing in Russia though. Who are the Russian right or the Russian left? CPRF against LDPR? That’s ridiculous. So the second big distinction, in my mind, is that there is no political culture that could suffer from depoliticization. It just didn’t have time to develop. That’s why the consequences are different as well. In other words, when they complain about depoliticization, they mean that populists are exploiting it, while when we complain about depoliticization, we mean that there was no political culture that could be eroded, to begin with.
Cover of 'For Democracy'. Photo: rusmirror.ru
S: Are depoliticization and the crisis of class organization of the last four decades connected in any way? We all know, for instance, that union membership has been steadily declining in the world for the last forty years. Is there any milestone that Russian depoliticization could be traced back to? While in the West it is, once again, the neoliberal turn of the late 70s to 80s, was there a moment of such magnitude in Russian history that acted as a trigger?
AZ: I think rather not. Peter Mair has a great book called Ruling the Void, which he didn’t finish, and in this book he clearly traces based on all sorts of data — on party membership, union membership, elections turnout, and so on — this trend you talk about. It’s all very strongly tied to the party parliamentary system. If the government is formed by a majority coalition in the parliament, such effects occur. While in Russia there isn’t and never was such a liberal parliamentary system where parties really matter. Let’s say, Yeltsin — what party he was a member of?
S: He was a non-partisan. That is, originally he was a member of CPSU, and after that, as far as I can remember, never joined any party on principle.
AZ: Indeed. Meaning Russian policymakers kind of detach themselves from political parties. Because there is another political system, this system has another design. In Great Britain, you can’t become a prime minister without a party, right? Or in France? That’s why I think that these things are not inherent to us, I wouldn’t jump to such extrapolations.
S: Nevertheless, depoliticization in Russia and in other countries has something in common. For example, there are usually two ideologemes behind depoliticization. On the one hand, there is the view of politics as something excluded from ‘normal’ life and at the same time often ‘dirty’. On the other hand, there is fatalism, that is, a lack of vision of the future as something that can be pursued and changed. How to address such beliefs? What can they be countered with, especially in the current situation?
AZ: Actually what stems from these assumptions is how they can and should be countered and we try to combat them as best as we can. If people don’t like politics for being full of ‘dirty’ and ‘unpleasant’ individuals, whose lies are seen from space, the only thing we can do is to come out and show that we are politicians who don’t lie, who speak with people honestly and clearly. That’s what’s so appealing in grassroots local politics for me: you simply tell people everything that's on your mind on some issue. And they are ‘buying’ it, they can tell you from some bureaucrat from United Russia.
I’ve had such an experience myself: once a woman from United Russia came and tried to sabotage my yard meeting. People looked at me and at her and asked once the meeting had ended: ‘Who the hell was this person?’. I answered: ‘Come on, she’s from United Russia’. They said: ‘United Russian, huh, say no more'. So these beliefs could be only countered by bringing up reasonable public politicians who openly express their beliefs and don’t have any kind of shady hidden agenda.
The solution to the second problem is the same. When people say that they don’t understand what to do with all of this and what future can be there at all, there has to be some kind of scenario to offer, some kind of vision — theoretical as well. I’m not fond of those committees aimed to set up some kind of Russian government in exile to hand over power to them overnight, that is pretty absurd. But it’s necessary to work on real problems. There are many public intellectuals who do this important work. And one more thing: it’s crucial to make practical efforts in this direction. By taking part in elections we involve people in such practice that lets them see something working out thanks to their actions. Like in the case of Lobanov last year. Sure, he didn’t get into the State Duma, and overall it may seem like a defeat. But in reality, those deeply involved in his campaign saw at the polls that their candidate beats the United Russia candidate. Nothing can take away this feeling. They may change the numbers on the board, but hundreds of people have already felt that their efforts pay off, that they are able to take down this Leviathan.
Zamyatin campaigning in his district. Photo: facebook.com/aazamyatin
S: Right, it was awesome at the polls last autumn, that was a great experience. Now let’s return to the VyDvizhenie platform. In a short time, you managed to bring together 100 candidates from 50 districts of Moscow. Who are they? Do they share any agenda except principles of self-governance and self-оrganization? Does anyone from other regions reach out to you — to ask for advice, maybe?
AZ: Speaking of our candidates: they are very different people. They are Moscow citizens who share only their independence from the government of Moscow or any governmental structures or big business in general and they care about their city. Of course, we have a set of qualifying criteria: it’s important that they are not some chauvinists — Nazis have their own Nazi thing called Obschestvo.Buduscheye (can be translated as ‘Future.Society’ — ed.). If you don’t like ‘blacks’, immigration policy, and Jews, that’s not our thing. At the same time, we’re not happy with the policies of the Moscow government, we’re not satisfied with their budget priorities and their management decisions. It matters for us to work with people who have a clear anti-war position. It’s easy to recognize by the interviews we hold. When someone starts saying ‘Well, I don’t know, both sides are wrong’, we say goodbye. We don’t want to support such people. I think that’s a very simple question that has to be simply answered. That’s all. We don’t have any agenda, because local politics in its current form is not about agendas, but about styles of politics. And we push forward a particular style of politics — the style of public grassroots democratic politics, being ready to guard the interests of your neighbors, confront bureaucrats, and publicly defend your views. Not to try to sneak through parties, not to compromise with boards and prefectures, not to plot any schemes just to become some stinky council member. That’s what we have instead.
Speaking of other cities: I had a few such messages. Back in winter, when Lobanov and I held our school of municipal deputies, there were some requests, like to hold it in Petersburg. That is, there is demand, even this week someone wrote to me from another city. People submit applications and then it turns out that they are not in Moscow and so on. We can’t help them out in other cities so far, but maybe, if everything will be OK, eventually we’ll be able to.
S: Right, because while things in Moscow are pretty clear, a bystander doesn’t fully understand what is going on in other regions, nor is there any organizing or self-organizing.
AZ: The only thing I know about this is an organization called Zemsky S’yezd (or Zemstvo Congress; Zemstvos — historically elected bodies of local self-government in Russia) founded by Yulia Galyamina. There are some local deputies from the opposition, and they are having their own campaigns for sure.
S: I found it interesting that while [Roman] Yuneman and his Obschestvo.Buduscheye is promoting nationalist agenda, you rather stick to more generalized criteria for your candidates.
AZ: There is a huge difference between us: they’re on top, they’re doing fine. They have been waiting their whole life to ‘make it to Kiyv’, as their leader says. Meanwhile, we’re under attack. Now our situation leads us to all be jailed in no time in case we prioritize our anti-war position. That’s what makes us different. But at the same time they still hypocritically conceal their nationalism. Because in our liberal, liberal-left and left environment they keep pretending to be just civil activists. Like they are nationalists but of a democratic kind. So they are ashamed anyway.
S: Yeah, and that same argumentation over and over again — ‘sure, we are nationalists, but we are a part of civil society, just like other members of the opposition'...
AZ: Yeah, 'we’re just going to build immigrant camps, but in a "civil" way'.
S: Is there going to be any direct confrontation between VyDvizhenie and the nationalist bloc? And what’s your overall assessment of resources for the mobilization of voters — both yours and of your opponents?
AZ: Frankly speaking, we got lucky and there are no districts where our strong team and their strong team have to compete. It’s lucky not because I don’t want to compete — sure thing, let’s do it. It’s because I don’t want to waste energy on this, it’s better to fight United Russia, fight Sobyanin, fight Putin’s system in general, not a bunch of Nazis inside of it. Right now we don’t overlap that much. There are some districts where we and they both have some candidates, but there is neither coalition nor confrontation. There are simply so few candidates that such a problem just doesn’t occur. We exist separately.
S: Speaking of the recent arrest of Misha Lobanov and of your extremism lawsuit — how much these oppressive measures are linked with the foundation of VyDvizhenie? And how high are the risks of your candidates being further removed from polls and detained?
AZ: I believe these events are related. There’s a very simple sign: as can be seen in Lobanov’s files, officers of Center E (Centre for Combating Extremism — ed.) started reading his posts to look for signs of ‘discreditation of the army’ the next day after the platform was introduced. So all these screenshots, legal expertise, and so on were posted the next day after we presented the platform. So all of it existed for months, and only after the VyDvizhenie appeared, they sat down and started reading. I think the causation is apparent. Our candidates in particular are not attacked for now. Misha [Lobanov] bears the brunt of it, for the time being, those not affiliated with the platform suffer as well — see what happened with Yashin (Yashin has been in detention since early July and faces up to up to 10 years in prison for spreading 'fake news', i.e. reporting on Russia army's actions in Bucha - ed.). Of course, they might jail us all tomorrow, or they might let us be and no one will be detained.
Mikhail Lobanov signs a suretyship for Ilya Yashin. Photo: facebook.com/mlobanov84
S: As you probably noticed yourself, for many people out there it feels almost ridiculous to turn to local politics in times of war. In case the municipal campaign is a success, how it would be possible for elected deputies to affect the ‘big’ politics, including the war?
AZ: Neither municipal deputies nor members of the current government, regional, and federal administrations can directly impact the war. Only those on the front line and those sitting in a bunker with our old man can. So it’s weird to think like that. But society can be influenced heavily. I think our main impact is that people sharing our views — anti-war views in particular, but our general views on society, on democracy — could see that there are quite a lot of them and that they are capable in politics. Now all of them are sitting in their holes and complaining that they are in minority and that the country is full of gremlins, goblins, and orcs, but when they will see that people the same as them are elected into councils and become deputies thanks to them, that would be a completely different thing. That is, the main goal of the municipal campaign is to notice each other, come together and stop thinking that we are the smallest powerless minority.
S: And judging by your communication with voters in the district, what is the current mood?
AZ: I’ve been pleasantly surprised in recent months. When I came to the most neglected block in the district where clearly people drink a lot and where are no jobs, the locals, all by themselves, told me as a deputy that those bastards started the war and now they’re going to rebuild Mariupol instead of fixing heating which is acting up here in the five-story building for the whole winter. So people are in their right minds. I haven’t seen anyone with Z’s yelling that we need to take over Kyiv. At least I’ve seen skepticism and at most I’ve seen outright rejection. The only thing is that people are rather scared. Unless I’ve said myself that war is war, they try to use euphemisms like ‘operation’ and ‘special military operation’. I answer: ‘It’s war’. They say: ‘Can we say war though?’. I say: ‘I’m a deputy and I say that you can’. They say: ‘Well, so, war’. Sometimes people need to be helped just a little bit.
Interview, transcription and editing: September collective