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The Bitter Wisconsin Cold Warmed by a Moscow Breeze

It’s been a harsh several weeks in Madison, Wisconsin for demonstrators against the governor and legislature, worse for the Progressive Era reforms being swiftly eliminated, one after the other. For those who aren’t following life in the Flyover regions, Right To Work passed the state Senate and is moving on to the Assembly, this coming week. With Republicans in charge, passage is all but certain. Also: temperatures rarely rise to the 20s.

We could reflect upon the great Uprising of 2011, the months of often massive demonstrations against “Act 10,” stripping state workers of their rights. But what I have in my mind is, rather, 1970. The contrasts are jarring.  Back then, students stood at center stage. These days, students—teaching assistants aside—seem largely absent, despite the hardships that the new state measures are certain to place upon them. Yet, buses arrive in Madison from Milwaukee, from Racine, Kenosha and LaCrosse, Wausau and Wisconsin Rapids, bringing hundreds of unionists, active and retirees to demonstrate at the Wisconsin Capitol—something that would never have happened in the antiwar days. A steelworker-orator even proposes a General Strike! Something that not only did not ever happen, but still seems improbable, lamentably.

We march to keep warm, and amidst the rubbing of hand warmers inside gloves, we appreciate the genuine enjoyment in marching, the human solidarity and the funny signs. Many of them are directed against the otherwise laughable, would-be presidential contender/governor Scott Walker. For us, he looks and acts like a Bad Howdy Doody.  Contemplating Walker and the Koch Brothers, a major source of funds, I remember a sign inspired by the old Wisconsin red light trade for summer season Chicago businessmen, “The money is on the dresser, Scotty!”

Marching just behind me, a nurse-unionist offers a Teamster a quip or truism that I never heard. Her union steward had “Prime Beef” tattooed “on her butt.” A pleasant joke to her husband (lover?). A better joke—she said—on her rest home caregiver, when she gets flipped over, in the years to come. This nurse has been there and seen worse.  One of many middle agers, this spunky lady, facing reality with more jokes to come.

Looking for other bright spots, I find one not too deeply buried in my memory:  a campus lecture by a visiting Boris K a little over a week earlier. This is a guy used to politics in the cold!

What brings it to mind is also the odd Russophobic trope that has seemingly invaded television and films, from The Americans (now in its Nth season) to the over-the-top Marvel’s Miss Carter, with its dramatization of Russian mentality and her balletic-like judo assaults on those who threatened America…in 1946!

Back in the present, a full room of perhaps 40-50, mostly older listeners, including many experienced political activists who I might see in the chilly demonstrations, gathered, under the auspices of the Havens Center (itself endangered thanks to hostility from the Republican state legislature), snatching up every available chair. We happen to be in the Memorial Union, down the hall from the large rooms where raucous arguments over tactics for the antiwar demonstrations of 1967-71 echoed over so many nights.

Boris is charming, a humorous, somewhat self-deprecatory lecturer, better in his imperfect English that I am with almost any unknown audience. Most of us know about, even if we did not read, the book that made Kagarlistky famous in the West: his Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (2008), a survey of Russia’s rise as an imperial state from late medieval times to the recent restoration of capitalism, emphasizing its relation to western Europe.

He spoke to us for perhaps 70 minutes, rarely repeating, never sounding didactic or overbearing. From my listening, here are a few key points.

The Western press treatment of Russia and the Ukrainian crisis is completely misleading, he noted, but no worse than that inside Russia, where the television is pro-Putin, the radio network anti-Putin, and both owned by the same oligarch!

Behind this mass or mess of misinformation, he located a few realities for the eager audience. The traumatic recession in the closing years of the century destroyed nearly half Russian manufacture, but a small recovery  prompted some new businesses, typified by small-scale travel agents. Millions of more prosperous Russians now could visit abroad, and wanted to do so, urgently. Also the rising of oil and some other commodities brought back some prosperity.

But overall, the economy did not “develop,” it only “expanded,” and after a century of being a leading developed economy, Russia had become a “developing” economy, Third Worldish, supplying raw materials to the world.  With the fall of oil prices, serious troubles lay ahead.

Putin, considered by outsiders to be all-powerful, was actually put forward by a section of the oligarchs as weak, something more than a figure head but less than a convincing leader, which was just what they wanted. They have fallen out among themselves over strategies for their particular investments, but in some ways, the oligarchs of some mining and manufacturing, along with the military, are holding on determinedly to a medium version of the social state. That is, and for their own reasons; slow privatization. Others, now avidly anti-Putin, want rapid privatization, most especially of the health system, the most expensive and, by ordinary folks, the most needed part of the whole system.

What of the working class? Boris observed that the lies told about life in Russia had long since convinced Russian workers that the lies told about alleged Socialism must reflect lies about the realities of Western capitalism. Reading Moscow propaganda backward, capitalism European and American style just had to be a sort of utopia for consumers and workers. Soon enough, after 1990, these illusions shattered, but nothing, no conceptual alternative let alone a political one, arrived in their place. As the Russian economy falls, Boris predicted, so will Putin. Then the workers will have their chance.

What of the Ukraine? Boris spoke briefly—this was not his topic—but to the point of the general misunderstanding. He observed, for example, that Russia sent tanks to the rebels…and Russian factories supply used tank parts to the Ukrainian military. Economic relations continue no matter what, and this suggests a play-acting-game that will, eventually, find a conclusion. The eagerness of the West to overplay its hand is mirrored by Russian claims about Ukrainian Fascism, a very real thing but not, so far, as central as seen from Moscow or some observers from the West.

Which leaves us Wisconsinites where we were, already. Facing our own wave of privatization, our own need to fight back against austerity, lies, selfishness, stupidity and perhaps a touch of fascism. Boris, we’re with you. What happens next?

Paul Buhle is co-editor with Mari Jo Buhle of It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Social Protest (2012). His mother was a nurse.

(The journal of the German Left Party, maintains a page with his essays that have been translated into English, here:  http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/629

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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