Sergei Kanaev, 45, president, Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia (FAR), Interviewed in Kemerovo and Moscow.
"If all this qualifies [FAR] as a cell of civil society, then please count us in, by all means, I'd be delighted! I can't say that what we've done so far amounts to changing the system. We have not yet reached that level. However, more and more often a situation arises when after succeeding in defending their rights in one small case people realize that they must go further." -- Sergei Kanaev, in an interview to a Russian newspaper.
Kanaev is head of what is likely the largest non-governmental organization in Russia. According to him, there are 36 million cars in Russia as of last summer and 30 million car owners. Since 2001, FAR has championed better roads, traffic safety, and lower gasoline prices. But it is far more that. "The Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia is a fellowship of free people, for whom the rule of law, justice and equality is not an empty sound but a part of the life's path," reads the FAR statute. "[It is an organization of those] for whom public interests are above the personal ones and who understand that the responsibility for one's freedom rests on their own shoulders…For FAR, equality and respect on the roads is one of the key priorities of its activity, along with the lowering the cost of car ownership."
Accordingly, FAR's most popular campaign has been against one of Putinism's most offensive hallmarks: flagrant inequality before the law. In this instance, it is Article 3.1 of the Traffic Regulations Code which permits vast and ill-defined categories of government officials to drive with blue flashing lights [migalki] and violate the rules, including driving on the wrong side of the road against the traffic. Routinely abused, the law has been blamed for many accidents, quite a few of them lethal. FAR has led the national campaign for the law's repeal. In Sergei's own words: "Until the law is on the books, we are saying that a government functionary has the right to kill people on the roads."
FAR has failed in its quest to annul the law thus far, but the campaign has expanded into a broader affirmation of civic dignity. One of FAR's most popular national campaigns has been the "blue buckets" protests: On car antennas and roofs or on the heads of the protesters throughout the country, blue buckets -- no more than children's beach toys -- mock the migalki of the Russian mandarins' corteges. Popular bumper stickers in FAR's headquarters in Moscow told a similar story: "For Equality and Security," "I don't give bribes!" "Flashing Lights are Russia's Shame!" Shortly before our visit, FAR had released a letter to Putin, telling him to resign if he is unable to meet FAR's demands and to improve the country's economic condition, in general.
Sergei's cramped two-rooms office in central Moscow was also his apartment. With rents astronomically high and buying a place out of the question (his apartment would cost over a million dollars), that is all he and FAR can afford. Sergei's wife and older daughter were still in Sergei's native city of Kemerovo, in southeast Siberia. But his eight-year-old daughter, Sanechka, polite and serious, lived with her father and was reading quietly while we talked.
On the way to lunch at a huge beer house on the Novy Arbat thoroughfare a few blocks away, Sergei proudly reminded us that his neighborhood was Sivtsev Vrazhek -- a place known to all literate Russians as the stage for one of greatest Russian novels of all times, Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. It is here that Voland the Devil and his gang settled when then came to stay in Moscow. And it is here, in the darkness of Stalin's purges, that Bulgakov chose to unfold his tribute to the human spirit's innate and irrepressible thirst for freedom and dignity and its eventual triumph over totalitarian lawlessness and brutality. On Dec. 10, 2011, FAR joined the first mass protest demonstrations.
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"This case has turned upside down my entire life." Until this happened, I had not the slightest inkling of ever going into public activity. I was the director of the meat-processing plant, then I had my own business [a grocery store]. And it made no difference to me who was ruling the country. I knew that under any circumstances I would do my best to ensure that my family lived well. I had not taken part in any political or social organizations. But this case has turned my life upside down.
I had a friend, Andrei, and one day we were driving in separate cars. First, I was in front; then, at a traffic light I told him: "You drive ahead and I will follow you." So we switched. Two traffic lights later, a drunken GIBDD [traffic police] officer drives right into him, and killed him and his daughter, Anya. This was in 2000 -- after that everything has gone in a different direction for me. I then organized [a local group of automobile owners] and in 2001 we had our first protest rally in which 150 cars took part.
"We are citizens!" When people see that we've succeeded in something, it gives them faith: why not try this and that now? Someone has to do something and to show that we are citizens here! But when we just sit and wait for civil activity to fall from the sky, it will never happen. It cannot appear out of nowhere.
"To unite like in organic chemistry." There are people in our state that do everything to divide us so that we never unite. And we will remain stupid until we realize that we have to unite no matter what…But to unite like in organic chemistry when one atom, when it joins, brings with it more atoms.... It's like a human DNA which in the end results in something good…It is, you see, a live, organic way. It is a chain that continues to add links ad infinitum. And what's interesting is that a person who was a link is no longer important. If you remove him the chain [of the molecule] will still be there…It will be replaced by others…Unlike inorganic chemistry where if one atom, or one molecule, becomes ambitious and quits the entire substance falls apart.
"They can arrest us all." That's not a problem for them. [The Great Purge of] 1937 is gone but it can return quickly and easily. But even if they arrest us, there are more people further down the line. It's like a cancer growth, from the regime's point of view. So they are not sure. They cannot be sure, objectively, that if they cut it out, nothing will remain. On the other hand, they are not sure that cutting is out is the best thing for them because they will be cutting out the indicator [of societal trends]. With the radicals, such as [the freedom of demonstration movement] Strategy-31, they understand that, yes, they have to cut them out, to discredit them. But with us, they don't know if they should discredit us or not.