Putin’s “Light Calvary”

In his speech to the 8th Komsomol Congress in 1928, Nikolai Bukharin called for new methods for fighting bureaucratism in Soviet institutions. While there were already groups like the “Group for the Struggle Against Bureaucratism,” the “Help Groups of the RKI (Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate)”, and a variety of “shock brigades” to fight bureaucratic red tape, corruption, and mismanagement, for Bukarin, these “didn’t take a such a large scope.” Bukharin suggested something a lot more focused and voluntary. “From these groups it is necessary to organize a Light Calvary of the RKI.” The Komsomol, he declared, would be on its “front line.”

What was this Light Calvary? They were a “secret shopper” of sorts, though with the power to denounce and weed out “class enemies.” They were to pose as ordinary citizens and not representatives of Soviet power. “These special groups of the Komsomol must go into stores, institutions, markets, shops, commissariats, etc. They will arrive not as official controllers, without a mandate, without a coupon, and without official demands; they will arrive simply as shoppers, as appellants, as petitioners, in short as ordinary morals like any other.”

The Komsomol archives are full of reports from local Light Cavalries throughout 1928 and 1929. They would go into magazines and shops, posing as ordinary shoppers and report on corruption, shortages, and “bureaucratism.” Sometimes they identified “class enemies” as the root of these problems, unmasking and denouncing “kulaks,” “Nepmen,” and other “enemies of the proletarian dictatorship.” What is interesting about the Light Calvary is that while it was called for from above, the content of its activities were organized from below. Therefore, Komsomol rank and file activists determined what constituted “bureaucratism” and “class enemies.”

I mention the Light Calvary not only to mention an interesting moment in Komsomol history, but also because it seems that Putin has a Light Calvary of his own. On Sunday the pro-Kremlin youth group Mestnye (Locals) raided 20 markets in Moscow oblast to look for illegal immigrants and traders who sell fake brands. In the suburb of Reutov, 400 activists gathered and held signs and chanted slogans like “Don’t buy from illegals!”, We don’t need dead souls!” “No registration, no trust!”, “If you violate the border, and don’t give a damn about the law, there won’t be any trade, there will be OMON!”

The group’s leader, Sergei Fateyev, told Interfax, “More than 6,000 young people decided to check possibilities for equal access of vendors to 20 markets in 20 Moscow region towns, including Lyubertsy, Khimki, Reutov, Mozhaisk and others. This is the main goal of the action which started at 11 a.m.” “Some 400 members of the movement,” he continued, “brought a farmer to a market in Reutov, where he was freely selling his products. They also tried to find out whether vendors had certificates for their products. Placards informing customers that sold products may be dangerous for their health were installed at pavilions where no certificates were produced.” Mestnye’s other activities include supporting restrictions on gambling, which is believed to be controlled by the Georgian mafia, and organizing patrols to fight crime. It seems that Russia now has its own version of the Minutemen.

Sunday’s action was not without incident. Minor scuffles broke out between Mestnye activists, market traders, and others protesting their methods. Police arrested 80 people, 30 of which were Mestnye activists.

Mestnye is Putin’s Light Calvary whether he wants them or not. The group declared that the inspiration for their action was to fulfill Putin’s order to stop lawlessness in markets and root out illegal immigrants. Last month Putin ordered his Cabinet to take measures against the hiring of illegal immigrants, “alleging they were crowding out native Russian producers and retailers.” Beginning next year, migrants will be banned from selling alcohol and pharmaceuticals, a move that seeks to curb the selling of fake brands. In addition, “Foreigners should comprise no more than 40 percent of retail personnel employed outside stores during the period ending April 1 and will not be allowed to take these jobs further on next year,” reports the International Herald Tribune.

According to Mestnye statements, they look to provide an alternative to the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). Perhaps, a DPNI-light of sorts. “We will constantly pursue migrants, Fateev told Kommersant. When the paper asked about their similarity to DPNI, Fateev responded, “The DPNI only talk and do nothing. But we do!” A month ago, Mestnye appealed to the General Prosecutor with demands to label DPNI an extremist group. DPNI’s leader Aleksandr Belov countered this with “This is not a metamorphosis, the administration of the President gave Mestnye the directive to challenge us, to tap our slogans, to copy our actions. The state thinks that with such forms they can take the situation under their control.”

The Light Calvary is long dead, but its methods are not forgotten. And instead of unmasking bureaucrats and class enemies of the Soviet State, they are rooting out “illegals” and others who don’t fit into the Russian nation. The race struggle has replaced the class struggle, and the “illegal” stands in for the “kulak.”