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 Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant