Russians embrace Soviet ideals – by not paying their gas bills

Why We Wrote This

Frustration with present economic woes is leading many Russians to turn to the ideals of a rose-colored Soviet past. And for some, that means an unusual ethical stand: refusing to pay their utility bills.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters/File
A couple dressed as the Soviet sculpture ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ attend a May Day rally in Moscow in 2016. Russia is experiencing a surprise spike in nostalgia for the USSR.

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Union SSR, a Russian “trade union” of some 15,000 members, has a somewhat unusual philosophy. While the Soviet Union is gone, the union insists its legal spirit remains alive. And the union’s members want to assert their economic and social rights as “Soviet citizens” against what they consider a dysfunctional and illegitimate new reality: the modern Russian government structure. As a practical matter, that means not paying their electricity, gas, and housing bills. “Officials of the Russian Federation substitute themselves for Soviet ones,” says Union SSR founder Sergei Dyomkin. “Yet the state they preside over is not a social state as the USSR was.” The union is a manifestation of a growing frustration with the Russian economy and a desire for a rose-colored Soviet past. And the rising cost of utilities seems to be a flashpoint issue. State gas monopoly Gazprom says that Russians owe nearly half a billion dollars in unpaid gas bills alone. Earlier this month a court in Chechnya ordered Gazprom to write off $135 million in debt owed by the population after prosecutors warned of “rising social tensions.” There are signs that other Russian regions might employ the same tactic.

There is a joke that was especially popular in the harsh years following the collapse of the USSR.

One Russian says to another, “You know, everything our old Soviet bosses told us about communism was false. But everything they told us about capitalism was true.”

That joke captures some of the ambivalence that still shapes Russians’ responses to the collapse of the USSR’s socialist state behemoth almost three decades ago and its replacement by an essentially market-driven form of state capitalism.

As in many Western countries, there is widespread disillusionment with a system that increasingly seems incapable of delivering economic prosperity, or even security, for large parts of the population. And Russia is experiencing a surprise spike in nostalgia for the USSR, in which nearly two-thirds now say they “regret” its passing, perhaps fueled by selected memories of the free education, health care, and full employment guaranteed by the Soviet welfare state.

Enter Sergei Dyomkin and his fast-growing Union SSR movement.

The former oil trader created the Union SSR “trade union” for people who want to assert their economic and social rights as “Soviet citizens” against what they consider a dysfunctional and illegitimate new reality. They don’t deny that the USSR is gone; they just insist that its legal spirit remains alive.

And of more practical import for the Russian state, the union encourages its members to demand that authorities live up to the Soviet-era rhetoric of social justice that still permeates the Russian constitution and political rhetoric. Until they do, the movement says, members should refuse to pay their electricity, gas, and housing charges until Russia’s social reality is brought back into line with the post-Soviet state’s political rhetoric.

“We cannot go on living as we used to,” Mr. Dyomkin says. “Of course the Soviet Union cannot be restored. But officials of the Russian Federation substitute themselves for Soviet ones, yet the state they preside over is not a social state as the USSR was. It has bad medical care, bad education, people are exploited for profits, and the courts do not function as they should. We want the state to obey its own laws. Officials must be the servants of the people.”

The power of unpaid bills

The rising nostalgia for a departed superpower, combined with widespread, growing economic hardship and disenchantment with existing political institutions, is potentially a powerful social force. But don’t expect Russians to erupt into their own version of France’s “yellow vest” uprising anytime soon. Polls consistently show large majorities of Russians unwilling to take their protest moods to the streets, perhaps another aspect of the Soviet legacy.

But Dyomkin insists that he is not interested in such political ends. “We aren’t going to be demonstrating in the streets, organizing meetings, or calling people to do anything,” he says. “Our goal is to raise consciousness.”

Union SSR reportedly has more than 15,000 members in 170 branches around Russia, especially in the restive Russian Far East. The group has not registered as a public organization and at least so far seems to be flying beneath the authorities’ radar screen.

But the tactic of refusing to pay one’s bills until the state delivers on its promises, which may seem quixotic to Westerners, might catch on in Russia.

Earlier this month a court in Chechnya ordered the Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom to write off $135 million in debt owed by the population after prosecutors warned of “rising social tensions.” Gazprom is appealing that decision, but there are signs that other regions around Russia might employ the same tactic.

Members of Dyomkin’s group say they are determined. “I am not a person who is easily frightened,” says Vladimir Petrov, a retired military officer and founding member of Union SSR. “Our task is to unite people. When there are a million of us, we will be a big force, and the authorities will have to listen.”

The Soviet legacy

A variety of signals suggest that popular discontent is rising amid stagnating incomes and rising prices over the past five years. Public dissatisfaction has been made especially acute by issues like the Kremlin’s dismantling of the Soviet-era pension benefits and other liberal reforms of the old welfare system. More than half of Russians say they want the government to resign over its handling of social and economic policy.

But the rising cost of utilities, known as communal payments, seems to be a flashpoint issue. Gazprom says that Russians owe nearly half a billion dollars in unpaid gas bills alone.

“Communal tariffs grow every single year. There was not a single year after USSR collapse when it didn’t happen,” says Yekaterina Schulmann, an associate professor at the Russian Academy of National Economy and State Service [RANEPA]. “People takes loans, and the growing credit load is a problem in its own right. People need consumer loans to make both ends meet.” [Editor's note: The original version used a different transliteration of Ms. Schulmann's name.]

The element of Soviet nostalgia is one factor that makes Russian political culture, and its public manifestations, quite different from the West today, says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the Federal Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“The policies of today’s state are turning more and more toward dismantling the old Soviet welfare system without providing adequate replacements. One thing people had in the Soviet Union was medical clinics in every community; today there are places that have no access to health care at all,” he says. “Social inequality is visibly growing. The Russian elite today enjoys all the privileges of wealth but feels no responsibility for public needs.... The Soviet state proclaimed equality as its main objective, and people remember that. The Soviet legacy is this enduring demand for social justice, for equality, for the principle that wealth should be properly earned and it should serve social ends.

“To be clear, people have a very selective memory of the Soviet Union. They don’t miss the shortages of goods, the repressions, the impossibility to travel abroad or to freely practice one’s religion. Nobody wants any of that back. But much of today’s political conversation is formed by people's yearning for a mythological Soviet Union, the socially oriented state that made a priority of popular needs,” he adds.

‘Who represents the people?’

Some accuse Dyomkin of being a political huckster who is mainly after the $15 fee each new member of his union must pay, followed by monthly dues of around $3. He denies that and insists that all the money goes to expanding the organization.

“It’s about enforcing the law. Who represents the people? Only political parties are represented in the parliament; the people didn't choose them.... Our union takes the form of a trade union,” which is a grass-roots organization of ordinary people uniting to defend their rights, he says.

Whatever the truth about Dyomkin’s motivations, the broad attention Union SSR is attracting seems to be a sign of the times.

“This union looks like a populist project aimed at a particular segment of society,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow-based political consultancy. “They seem to promise people something, to protect their rights, but give no guarantees. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, its leaders abscond....

“But, at the same time, its appearance shows that there is a social demand for such organizations. The state is not doing its job, so people look for alternatives. In future, such new organizations will be unregistered, independent, and at odds with the authorities. Maybe some will be frauds, but some of them might actually defend people’s rights,” he says. “But what seems certain is that there will be more groups like this.”

• Olga Podolskaya contributed to this report.

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