Building Left Visions from Ireland to the Urals? – Report on the Russian Social Forum (RSF)

Jirí Málek on the necessity of a dialogue between leftists in Russia and other European countries.

Today, Russia is a "terra incognita" for many Western European leftists. If any information is available, it concerns everything but the Russian left-wing movement. Since the Russian Federation (RF) remains one of the dominant world powers with military capabilities that could destroy the world several times over, we should pay attention to this country and its key political players. If dialogue fails to restart between disparate leftist forces in Russia and other European countries, including pan-European left-wing structures, communication will only take place between forces that cannot be considered leftist. There will then be room for populists, radical rightists and nationalists of all kinds. One of the few opportunities I have had to get to know the current Russian situation came in the form of my visit to the Russian Social Forum (RSF).
After many years (the previous one took place in 2006), a meeting of the federal social forum representing the entire RF was successfully called in Saint Petersburg. The meeting took place in May 2019 in Saint Petersburg.

Several months of preparation preceded the meeting – the preparatory committee had 17 members with Aleksandr Vladimirovich Buzgalin playing a key role. The RSF meeting took place in plenary with 20 sections and discussion panels. Delegations participated from abroad: RLS (Kerstin Kaiser – Moscow office director, Lutz Brangsch, V. Fomenko), transform! europe – Jiri Málek, and guests from Canada, Great Britain and Ukraine.

Preparation for the RSF was launched at the end of 2018. Organisers sought a way to activate social structures in the RF. The last RSF took place in Saint Petersburg 13 years ago. Since then, there have been a number of changes in RF political life. However, local social structures do not evaluate this period positively. Rather, it has been a time for defeats and growing apathy; the local left-wing coalitions have been disintegrated and the system of solidarity and cooperation between different actors has been greatly disrupted. Only in some places (e.g., Saint Petersburg) have there been local activities based on the social forum concept. A new generation of activists has started that does not remember, or has already forgotten, the alter-globalist movements of the beginning of the 21st century.

More than 360 participants took part in the RSF meeting. Participants from 29 RF regions (including Siberia) were present. There were also representatives of some political parties and groups (e.g., the secretary of the party organisation – Communist Party of the Russian Federation – and deputy of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg – a regional parliament), a member of the Russian State Duma (a parliament), Oleg N. Smolin (for the CP of the RF) and others. Representatives and activists of various civic initiatives, political groupings and clubs participated in the discussions in various sections, as did the people representing the Russian Church. There was a large representation from scientific circles, universities and academia. However, both moderators and active participants in the discussions also came from other strata of society. It is people from "day-to-day life" who encounter the political and economic realities on a daily basis. If we look at the political composition of the participants, supporters of all sorts of political left-wing streams could be found – those that can be found throughout Europe, as well as specific left-wing groups tied primarily to the contemporary Russian environment. Marxists, Trotskyists, people representing a rather neo-Marxist approach, democratic socialists, environmental activists, eco-socialists, left-wing activists close to the social democratic approach, anarchists and many others were present. There were also activists working in the workers’ collective and fighting for workers’ rights, both in state-owned enterprises and in the private sector, or helping to solve pensioners’ social problems.

In the sections (seminars), various aspects of the political-economic and social situation of the RF were assessed: the "Economy for People" programme, the issue of mutual functioning of social movements and left-wing political subjects, issues of education, science and culture (e.g., the struggle for the preservation of the world-famous Pulkovo Observatory), women’s rights, the position of workers and their wages, the right of assembly and reality in the RF, the environment, the rights of prisoners, the situation in prisons, the Left and means of mass information, political and socio-economic processes in the post-Soviet space (including Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk regions), the possibilities of left forces, and more. Throughout the negotiations, a critical attitude was held towards the current Russian political-economic reality (including President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev). Criticism of contemporary Russian anti-social capitalism (struggle for pension reform and retirement, corruption, slow modernisation of industry, neglect of scientific development, etc.) was often heard.

The programme was complemented by several culturally political contributions, which reflected the historical path of the Russian (Soviet) Left. More than 70 years of the Soviet state were undoubtedly reflected in the RSF discussions. The current approach of left-wing forces in the RF may also be characterised by the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution at the launch of the RSF and one of the slogans of that anniversary: "We will redo life again". This historical experience was present in many introductory appearances or discussion posts. On the other hand, a number of topics that find great scope for discussions of a similar nature in (west) Europe were rather marginal. This reflects the objective reality of Russian society and the problems facing the Russian Left. Similar events in other post-Soviet states (Belarus, Ukraine, Central Asian countries, etc.) could be very likely.

In all sections, in addition to the introductory speeches, there were a number of discussion posts with many suggestions and additions. During the final plenary session, the participants were briefed on the section sessions. However, it was not possible to incorporate all thoughts, suggestions and reminders into a final document. Therefore, it was decided that this should be finalised and published by the Organising Committee. The idea that the Organising Committee should continue to work as a coordinating body for other social structure activities and the RSF was also supported.

It seems that this RSF could launch a new and more effective phase in the formation of left-wing progressive forces in the RF. In turn, this could link social activists with political entities, including some left-wing political parties. Political movement in the RF and in leftist structures, movements and political parties in this large country, which is of key importance to the European continent, should not remain marginalised by the EU Left. Conversely, a broad dialogue without "preconceptions" should contribute to the creation of left-wing visions from Ireland to the Urals.