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For Protesting Russian Truckers, A Christmas Far From Home


Orthodox Christmas At Moscow Truck Protest
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WATCH: Orthodox Christmas At Moscow Truck Protest

KHIMKI, Russia -- After dark in the frigid parking lot of an Ikea outlet north of Moscow, in the trailer of a grubby white truck heated by a generator, a dozen men are sitting in winter coats and hats watching a Soviet blockbuster on a projector.

The cramped space has been a living room, a kitchen of sorts, and, more recently, the center of New Year festivities for a small group of protesting long-haul truckers who have lived in this parking lot since December 3. They intend to stay until spring -- or longer -- to protest a new road-tax-collection system called Platon that they say will drive them out of business.

With Russia's economy staggering through a dark time brought on by dropping oil prices, and no sign that Western sanctions over Moscow's interference in Ukraine will be lifted soon, their unusual blue-collar protest is a sign of strain on President Vladimir Putin's working-class support base.

"[Putin] has lost all 10 votes from my family, that's for sure," says Ivan Alutai, a 31-year-old trucker from Petrozavodsk, far north of Moscow, smoking a cigarette outside the vehicle.

The ranks of the protesting truckers at this encampment have thinned to less than a dozen rigs since they set up base last month -- although some of them have been joined by their wives and children so they can celebrate the New Year and Orthodox Christmas together. Russia's main faith marks Christmas on January 7, and the official holiday stretches from December 31 to January 11 this year.

Inside the truck, up a wooden pallet used as a stepladder, a small electric stove sits next to some tea bags. The walls are draped with tinsel and a hat for Grandfather Frost, the Russian Santa Claus. The men are watching a black-and-white Soviet film -- Optimistic Tragedy, a popular 1963 movie about the Bolshevik Revolution -- beamed onto the far wall by a projector.

Illuminated in the glow are a sack of potatoes and plastic bags filled with supplies brought to them as holiday gifts by supporters in Moscow.

Forlorn Sight

With its 10 or so parked trucks draped with banners lambasting the road tax and the state media that has largely ignored their protest action, the encampment in Khimki, 20 kilometers north of Moscow, makes for a forlorn but defiant spectacle.

In this filthy urban sprawl next to a massive road junction flanked by tower blocks and commemorative tank traps marking the point where Nazi forces were stopped during their assault on Moscow, the truckers while away their time.

Young activists from the capital have put on a series of film nights for the truckers using a projector in the back of a truck. The truckers have accordion sessions, as one of their number plays the instrument. On December 17, they were treated to a visit from Russian rock legend and protest bard Yury Shevchuk, who performed for them:

Alutai's wife and 3-year-old son, Lavrenty, were visiting for Orthodox Christmas, and his mother dropped in at the New Year. Until recently a staunch supporter of Putin, Alutai's mother had been fiercely against the protest and her son's participation -- because of state television, he believes.

"She came here and everything in her head changed," he says. "What they show on TV, it isn't true at all. It's all lousy lies. Until you actually come here, the moron box has its effect."

Uncle Vova

Alutai says he has no intention of abandoning his protest in the face of the cold temperatures that have dropped to -16 degrees Celsius. "I've already got nothing to lose," he says.

Alutai, who owns his own truck and is self-employed, says that the tax will severely erode his profits. He's also angry that the payment collection system is run by a company controlled by a son of Arkady Rotenberg, an old friend and judo sparring partner of Putin.

Alutai blames Putin for his predicament. "To be honest, I thought until the very last moment that Uncle Vova was going to say there had been a mistake. And then it turned out that he had known about this all the time," he says.

"Uncle Vova has lost my trust," he adds, using a diminutive form of the name Vladimir.

Days in the truckers' protest camp are bookended by police checks. "They come and note down the number plates of the vehicles," he says. The truckers, meanwhile, are convinced they are closely watched and listened to by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and police.

"We started drawing out plans in the snow, and the next thing, there was a police build-up," says Sergei Gorodishenin, a 33-year-old trucker from Vologda, a small city northeast of Moscow.

Russian long-distance truck drivers gather to protest against the Platon truck taxation system at a truck parking lot along the M-51 highway in Chelyabinsk on December 11.
Russian long-distance truck drivers gather to protest against the Platon truck taxation system at a truck parking lot along the M-51 highway in Chelyabinsk on December 11.

The truckers say it has made it hard for other drivers to join them, or for those in Khimki to stage protests such as the "Snail," in which truckers have driven in convoys at minimum speed, clogging up highways.

Gorodishenin, who has fallen ill during the cold snap in Moscow, says that some truckers' families have been pressured back home, and they themselves fear that they could be punished by the authorities for their protest.

Despite all these factors, the truckers assert they are intent on maintaining their encampment. "Naturally, we're not going to reveal what our plans are," Gorodishenin says.

"And there are FSB agents sitting over there in the corner," Alutai chips in with a laugh, adding, "They're warming their ears" -- a Russian idiom for eavesdropping.

Before long, Alutai's wife returns from Auchan, the French hypermarket across the huge mall from Ikea, along with 3-year-old Lavrenty. As they posed together for a picture, Alutai jokes darkly with his wife, "We'll have something to remember in the gulag."

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