Who could ever have imagined that it would take a fatal car accident to express the depth and scale of the anti-corporate mood in Russia? On February 25, on Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow, two women died – Olga Aleksandrina and Vera Sidelnikova. Both of them were well-known gynecologists, reason enough for the publicity given to the fatal crash. But what really shook the public was the fact that the two women’s Citroën had been in a head-on collision with a Mercedes belonging to corporation LUKoil, and that in this armored vehicle was the vice president of the company, Anatoliy Barkov.
The police immediately began hiding details of the crash, explaining that there was no evidence of guilt by the Mercedes driver in the accident. According to the police version, it appeared that two women in the Citroën had violated all the rules and raced along the oncoming lane. No one bought this. A few days later, the Internet was already full of exposes of the official version. Rapper Noize MC wrote a song "Mercedes S666,” which – under the title "Restore Justice” – was distributed in a variety of homemade videoclips. The Automobile Federation of Russia, which had previously participated in various mass protests against government policies, began to search for eyewitnesses to the accident. Several people immediately responded, saying that they could confirm the guilt of the Mercedes driver. Meanwhile, motorists are urged to boycott LUKoil gas stations, and many motorists have already followed this call.
A swelling wave of indignation – visible in indignant outcries on the Internet – could be seen as just one more manifestation of a critical attitude toward authority that is widespread on the web, if not for one circumstance that carried the affair beyond ordinary and familiar scandals: the alleged perpetrator of the accident was not a government official but a representative of a private corporation. Not surprisingly, therefore, the opposition liberal press, usually eager to seize on every scandal, this time did not display the same uniform reaction. The well-known music critic Artem Troitsky was banned from the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow because he wanted to play the song "Mercedes S666” in his talkshow "Special Opinion.” For his part, Troitsky sarcastically remarked that the protest song by Noize MC is much more important "than the demonstration and arrests on Triumpal Square,” clearly hinting on the small-scale protests organized by the Liberals.
If the posture of the liberal radio speaks for itself, no less significant has been the behavior of the police, protecting an influential representative of a private enterprise which has no close ties to government. The collision of the Mercedes with the Citroën demonstrates to society at large that, in Russia, class differences have, long since, carried more weight than mere heft in political connections.
For liberal commentators, the unraveling of the scandal with the Mercedes clearly turned out to be not to their liking. The left radical groups, for their part, have shown scant interest. After all, the dead women were doctors, not stokers or carpenters. And, judging by the brand of their car, they belonged to the middle class. Had the Mercedes rammed a crowd of workers on strike, marching down the road with red flags, then, of course, that would be a topic demanding keen attention. Provided, of course, that the red flags would have been of a correct tint, giving no grounds for suspicion of reformism.
Clearly, the two women in their Citroën did not conform to the ideologically correct – from the point of view of revolutionaries – image of victims of capitalism. And, so the campaign of protest began to unfold quite spontaneously, without any participation by the Left. It’s precisely this fact that gives us more grounds to consider this protest as truly significant. The spontaneous anti-corporate mood, expressed by rapper Noize MC, has much greater significance in the public sphere than the rote propaganda of radical groups, which provokes melancholy and boredom, first and foremost in the representatives of the working class to whom it is being addressed.
The scandal around Citroën’s crash proved to be, in equal measure, inconvenient to all who attempt to form public opinion, thus demonstrating that public opinion is not controlled by them but formed spontaneously, despite the manipulation of propagandists – liberal, governmental or “red.”
In today’s Russia, where politics is no more than the effusions of complacent gentlefolk on abstract themes, and where the opposition differs from the government only by the fact that it is going to protect the interests of LUKoil and of similar corporations even more zealously, the protest caused by the collision of the Mercedes with Citroën might be much more significant event than seems at first glance. The desire “to restore justice” in society is formed not by abstract propaganda but by life experience. And the tragedy on Leninsky Prospekt was perceived by thousands of people precisely thus.
Translated by Alevtina Rea.
BORIS KAGARLITSKY is director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements (IGSO) in Moscow and editor in chief of the Levaya Politika (Left Politics) quarterly. He is also coordinator of the Transnational Institute Global Crisis project. He has written many books, including most recently Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (2008).