This corner of Karelia is known for two things: its paper mill and its prison. But its residents are fed up with poor quality housing, inefficient public transport and an unresponsive state — and are trying to do something about it. RU
lead Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.In Segezha, most people are either “paper people” (workers at the local pulp and paper mill) or officers at the local prison colony. Indeed, Segezha’s Colony No.7 has a reputation: Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent two years in prison here, and in 2016, another political prisoner, Ildar Dadin, revealed he’d been brutally tortured at the colony.
Residents of Segezha recently took to the streets to demand the resignation of the town’s mayor. I went along to find out more – and found people exchanging their frustrations on local issues.
Between the prison and the paper mill
In the early 1990s, this typical company town was the second largest settlement in Karelia, which shares a border with Finland, but in the last 15 years it’s lost a quarter of its population. Residents, especially young people, are leaving for bigger cities.
The massive Segezha Group Pulp and Paper Mill, Russia’s largest producer of packaging paper and paper bags, appears a flourishing and busy company: it’s modernising its operations with the installation of new, up to date equipment. But this industrial progress is having no effect on the lives of the local people, one in ten of whom work for the company.
Segezha’s town centre may look relatively prosperous and, but its three outlying districts – DOK, Leyguba and Goristaya Street – are stuck not in the 1990s, but the 1960s. Here, the potholed roads, which the town’s buses won’t travel along any more, are lined with ramshackle barracks, and the ubiquitous 1960s five-storey blocks of flats known as “Khrushchevki” are in no better shape. The town has 157 condemned residential buildings, with a cumulative area of 63,000 sq m. But the mayor’s office is in no hurry to include them in its plan for moving people out of unsafe housing, while the construction of new housing supposedly going up as part of the plan is on hold. Sub-contractors are constantly replaced and endlessly fighting one another through the courts.
A unique deputy
“The call for a rally came from social media,” Andrey Rogalevich, a deputy in Karelia’s regional legislature, tells me, commenting on the 3 February protest. “I still don’t know whether it was a cry from the heart or a provocation, or somebody was setting me up. But it did happen and was directed at me, so I decided to take it on and organise it. Some people who promised me help on the day ended up under too much pressure [from the authorities] and dropped out, but I went ahead and organised the protest.”
Rogalevich was born and bred in Segezha, and in September 2016 became the only deputy to beat a United Russia candidate in a single-member constituency in elections to the regional parliament. True, with a majority of just two votes over his rival.
The young politician, who in the last elections stood as a candidate for the Just Russia political party, is well known for his active politics and attempts to use his status for the good of his district. Rogalevich had no hesitation in criticising not just the local, but the regional authorities. Indeed, he was so active in the assembly that when the party leadership refused to select him as their candidate for his home constituency, it seemed to many a sign of a conspiracy between Just Russia and the ruling United Russia party to sideline a strong candidate.
As a result Rogalevich left Just Russia, and won a seat with the support of Yabloko. “Party membership isn’t the most important thing,” he says, commenting on the fact he didn’t actually join Russia’s oldest democratic political party. “The main thing is to behave like a normal person.”
In December 2016, at the height of discussions over Karelia’s regional budget for the next year, Rogalevich went on hunger strike after the regional assembly voted against an amendment he had proposed about the allocation of funding to rebuild Segezha’s child health centre (Karelia’s ex-governor Alexander Khudilainen had promised to pass the amendment on a visit to the town before the 2016 parliamentary election). The hunger strike was short-lived – the regional government publicly promised to include the rebuilding in its Federal Target Programme.
Rogalevich is trusted by most voters and people turn to him for help when the town authorities are ignoring their demands. It’s no surprise that this winter, when problems arose yet again in Segezha, it was Rogalevich whom local residents asked to organise a rally and call for the mayor’s resignation.
A placardless protest
A few hours before the rally was due to take place, Rogalevich was nervous. “There will probably be just a few people, but we can still stand there even if there aren’t many of us.”
He needn’t have worried. By the appointed time, over 200 people had gathered in the town’s central Peace Square – a large protest action for a town of 29,000. For comparison, Navalny’s “Voters’ Strike” in the regional capital of Petrozavodsk attracted fewer than 150 people (admittedly, it hadn’t received official permission from the city authorities and not many locals were ready to take the risk). But the protest was obviously not centrally organised: people came without placards and banners and wanted not just to listen to Rogalevich, but speak out themselves.
Unusually for a public figure, town mayor Anatoly Lotosh hadn’t banned the rally that was calling for his resignation. Telegram channels based in Karelia even published a copy of the instruction in which he appointed a member of his administrative staff as his “designated representative” at the protest. Lotosh himself, however, declined an invitation to attend and refused to talk to protesters.
Rogalevich opened the rally by reminding protesters of the mayor’s attitude three years ago. In September 2013, Lotosh was in fact re-elected as mayor with a record low in terms of votes – a mere 15%, only 1,549 votes. And it looks as though the mistrust between the residents and the mayor is mutual.
“I stayed away from the rally in 2015,” Rogalevich began, “so that Lotosh couldn’t say that I had organised it. He did, however, claim that the people who attended it were paid. So now, with the journalists here, tell me whether you were paid to come here today?”
“No!” replied the chorus of voices.
“We’d have happily taken the money, but nobody offered us any,” shouted a woman in the front row while laughter broke out across the square. “I’ve not enough money to last till pay day,” she added.
“Thanks for breaking the ice,” said Rogalevich as he got down to business. “We’re not asking the mayor to abandon sanctions against Russia. We’re just asking him to do the job he’s supposed to be doing, rather than moaning about how he doesn’t have the powers, or how Russian laws won’t allow him to carry out his responsibilities. But given that he can’t do his job, our only request to him is to voluntarily, quietly and peacefully resign.”
Walking to school through the cemetery
During Rogalevich’s speech, the atmosphere was friendly: people listened, nodded their heads in approval and discussed what they had heard. The issues were the usual ones: terrible roads, expensive public transport that doesn’t cover every district, unsafe housing, inefficient use of public funds and a bloated bureaucratic machine.
The mood became more combative after the loudspeaker went into “open mike” mode. The first person to speak was a feisty woman from Leigubskaya Street, a group of five-storey “khrushchevki” six kilometres out of town. A forest and Prison Colony No.7 separate Leigubskaya Street from the rest of Segezha.
The mood became more combative after the loudspeaker went into “open mike” mode
“I’m speaking on behalf of the people who live on Leigubskaya Street,” she began. “The bus doesn’t take us to town any more: it just picks up and drops off schoolchildren along its Nadvoitsy route. They get picked up at 9am and dropped off at 2.30. But young people from our colleges have to walk home, like stray dogs, though the forest and the cemetery. Would our mayor and his 26 commissars walk there and back in the winter, like our children do? People like Lotosh and his team should be chased from the town with a filthy broomstick. ‘You can’t work? Get lost, we’ll find somebody else who is capable of doing something’. They’re right when they say, ‘Don’t cry for a dead tsar – cry when the new one takes over’.”
The woman standing next to her grabbed the loudspeaker.
“I live on Leigubskaya Street as well. The conditions we live in – it’d better in a Jewish ghetto under the Nazis! All that’s missing is the barbed wire. And with the prison colony next door, that’ll be appearing as well. There are no roads, we don’t always have water, and the water from the emergency truck tastes of rust. At least they’ve dug some wells now. We’ve learned self-sufficiency, thanks to our mayor’s office. There are no buses, the children can’t get to nursery, and it’s 150 roubles there and 150 roubles back to get to work. And we only earn between 7,000-13,000 roubles a month. How are we supposed to eat and pay our rent? And all thanks to the council, and especially Mr Lotosh. I have such respect for him – we all respect him soooo much. And weep while we ask him to go.”
Someone reminded the mayor about the local TV programme, “The state and us”. “Anatoly Lotosh is forever on it, telling us what great things his office has done for the town. The programme costs 300,000 roubles of public money a year.” That news got people really angry.
By this time, people had imperceptibly pushed Rogalevich towards one of the cars parked on the square, and the protesters had formed a tight ring around him so that they could hear him and put their own opinions forward more easily. Despite the hard frost, there were plenty of people ready to openly criticise the authorities at whatever level – local, regional or national.
“Is there some way we could go back to a unified state-run housing and public utility sector? Now we have all these private firms and everybody has to pay more and more. We’re already paying taxes, and now you have to pay for health services and education as well. I can’t stand it any longer… I just want to take the car and…”
“No-no-no,” Rogalevich grabbed the loudspeaker and tried to calm the protesters down.
The poster “Return tax revenues to Karelia”. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved. The police came to his aid, reminding people that the hour and a half they had been given for the rally had passed. Rogalevich read out a resolution, thanked the public for their support and the police for not getting in the way. The resolution was evidently passed unanimously, to loud cheers and jeers. It demanded that the mayor resign his post; the assembly deputies declare his record unsatisfactory and abolish his job and the governor take “extreme measures regarding local issues” such as hazardous housing, transport and roads. The Karelian public prosecutor, meanwhile, should inspect the town administration’s record on “failing to act when housing is acknowledged as hazardous.”
This September there’ll be another mayoral election,” one of the women told other protesters as they stood round in small groups. “Think, people, before you go off and vote for Lotosh again.”
“But have you ever met anyone who voted for him? I haven’t,” said a man in a fur hat waiting in line to speak to Rogalevich. “So we need to check how he ever won the last election.”
Half an hour later, as it grew dark, the last protesters were heading off home. One of them held a homemade poster out to Rogalevich: it called for “return tax revenues to Karelia”, a reference to a new law that has led to most large companies in the republic paying tax according to where their headquarters are located, rather than to the local or regional budget.
“Give this to Artur Parfenchikov [Karelia’s governor] personally. Let him do some fighting for us,” the man said.
As Rogalevich rolled the poster up and put it into his car, he replied: “I’m a romantic. I think they should hear us”.