Internationale Rescue

The year is 1996, and 21-year-old Ilya Ponomarev, typical of Russia's new breed of young entrepreneurs, is making the most of the market opportunities opened up by perestroika. At 15 he had set up his own computer-programming company, achieving a $10m turnover in two years. At 24 he became the youngest ever vice-president of the giant Russian oil company Yukos.

September 1, 2004
7 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.

Eight years later and Ponomarev is a founder member of the anti-capitalist coalition the Youth Left Front, and a leading figure in the revived Komsomol (Russia’s Young Communists). He has given most of his money to the Moscow-based NGO the Institute of Globalisation Studies (Iprog), which works as a catalyst for new left thinking in Russia. “I still have ambitions, but they are for a new politics, not for business,” he explains as we wait for the rescue vehicle to pick up the broken down Iprog car taking us from Ivanovo, the site of the first soviet in 1905, to Togliatti, a car city on the Volga where we are due to discuss participatory democracy with local councillors and trade unionists.

Ponomarev’s experience of politics began when he was young. As a six-year-old he spent his holidays with his grandfather, the first secretary at the Soviet embassy in Poland. It was 1979, at the height of the Solidarity rebellion against Poland’s Communist state. “The whole country was on strike, red flags everywhere, demanding bread and meat,” remembers Ponomarev. He was more than an observer. His grandfather, Nickolai Ponomarev, was a friend of both Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Poland’s Communist president Wojciech Jaruzelski; he acted as a go-between between the two, and tried to persuade the then Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev to negotiate with Solidarity. It was a delicate moment, and any exodus of children from the Soviet embassy could have hinted at preparations for a Czech-style invasion. The young Ponomarev’s month-long holiday became a two-year residence. He even had a walk-on part in the historic events, adding authenticity to the “fishing trips” staged to disguise his grandfather’s secret meetings with Walesa. The invasion was prevented, and for his part in that the Poles made Ponomarev Sr an honorary citizen. Brezhnev cast him into exile.

“I learned that change is possible and individuals can play a crucial role,” Ponomarev says of those times. The lessons that he drew from them seem to underpin his immense energy and determination to build a nation-wide democratic opposition with strong international links in Russia today.

He threw himself into organising for change at the age of 10 by joining the Pioneers: the Soviet Communist Party’s organisation for young people prior to their joining the Komsomol. It was 1985, and perestroika was in the air. Things were opening up and Mikhail Gorbachev was trying to persuade the Communist Party to embrace the necessity of change. One of Gorbachev’s ambitions was to create a new generation of intelligent, well-educated people who would modernise the party and its ideology. This, Ponomarev thinks, explains the amount of licence given to the Pioneers. “We spent a lot of time discussing what Lenin really meant, what the true role of Trotsky was, how to understand Stalin, what modern socialism should be. Before each meeting, we sang dissident ballads, like those of Vladimir Vysotsky (a sort of harsh, Russian version of John Lennon). The authorities knew this was an act of rebellion but they let it happen.”

Political gradualism, however, could not cope with the pressures of the market economics that Gorbachev’s reforms had unleashed – without any alternative economics in place, or even in preparation. “It’s a sad fact,” reflects Ponomarev (as we enter our sixth hour waiting for the rescue vehicle), “that leaders are not markets and economics can move faster than politics.” Komsomol leaders were “already looking out for ways to make money”. These leaders included Mikhail Khodorkovsky: now Russia’s oligarch in chief (and in jail); secretary of the Moscow Komsomol back in the 1980s. “[They] had no ideology. They were just plain bureaucrats who did not care,” says Ponomarev.

Gorbachev, in his view, was too weak and indecisive to stop the apparatchiks’ abuse of their positions. Moreover, he had no viable social democratic economics to match his opening up of politics. “People complained that there was a lot of freedom but no food, and they blamed it on socialism.”

Market ideology and market reality became overwhelming. “It was impossible to deal with. We shared the mood,” remembers Ponomarev, as we hear that rescue vehicle number two has broken down (number one got lost). At school, however, perestroika was still alive. Ponomarev was involved in starting and then chairing a school soviet, with both teachers and students involved. “We did some serious things. We abolished uniforms, we increased the numbers of lessons each day but had school only for five days, not at weekends.”

In 1990 he set up his computer-programming business. The computerisation of Russia was just underway. Ponomarev’s father, who founded an institute researching the consequences of nuclear disasters, which used computers to help avoid them in the future, was one of the first people to bring a personal computer into the country. Ponomarev soon became a computer whiz kid.

By 1995 he was moving rapidly away from his Communist past. He was developing computer programmes for the oil industry and accelerating up the Yukos ladder. Politically, he pinned his hopes on Boris Yeltsin. “He seemed a man of action, fighting bureaucratic privileges. I thought a genuinely free-market economy was the only alternative to the deadening rule of bureaucracy. I thought it would mean that everyone would have equal opportunities. We took social services for granted. We thought that if everyone worked there would be taxes enough for pensions, healthcare and education. We thought the army should be got rid of and the resources used for public purposes. We thought only of the opportunities that would be unveiled. We didn’t think of the price.”

The first costs were democracy and fairness. For Ponomarev, Yeltsin’s behaviour during Russia’s 1996 presidential election campaign was the final straw. In the build-up to those elections, there was a lot of privatisations. The companies that benefited were those run by Yeltsin’s supporters. Ponomarev had had enough of politics. “These guys are all the same. All Russian politics is a game of crooks. Some pretend to be communists or liberals, but in fact they have no ideas whatsoever.”

Ponomarev devoted himself to business. But politics could not be ignored. His company was working with TV, particularly on the development of interactive TV news, which would enable viewers to access the news they wanted, using their TVs like computers. “TV is authoritarian by its nature,” Ponomarev says. “We wanted to make a tool for real democracy.” The project stimulated much interest from international media businesses. By this time Vladimir Putin was Russia’s president, one of whose fiercest critics was the owner of the TV channel NTV. Putin broke up NTV. “That was the end of all international interest in investing in anything to do with TV in Russia,” declares Ponomarev. Certainly, it was the end of his new project.

Anger and frustration rekindled Ponomarev’s political drive. Now he thinks strategically. “It’s important to have a position, not to be isolated. That means making alliances.” He joined the Communist Party and started working on two fronts. First, he joined with others – the modernised Komsomol, independent trade unionists and anti-globalisers – to create the Youth Left Front and to organise agitprop street protests and debates. (He and his colleagues were arrested for a street action in which they lampooned Putin during the campaign for March’s presidential elections). He is also working with Iprog, members of Russia’s increasingly divided Communist Party, the left of the liberal Yabloko Party and independent trade unions to build a joint-left forum to stimulate the unification of the country’s democratic left.

These projects are up against impossible odds. Yet Ponomarev and Iprog colleagues like Boris Kagarlitsky and Alla Glinchikova have a sober optimism. “Russia is moving very rapidly from underdeveloped democracy to a habitual totalitarian, centralised society. The Russian new left is the only force that can stop that. So far, this task looks like mission impossible. Our resources are negligible. I can see no sources of real help, except maybe the Western left. This is one reason why the European Social Forum is so important for us.” And as if to confirm his optimism, our rescue vehicle (number three) arrives. Finding a repair service at 1am, however, is quite another matter.


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute.


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