Thursday, April 30, 2020

Sakha Gas Field Protest Shows How Pandemic and Economic Crisis Can Combine to Produce an Explosion

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 28 – Several hundred oil and gas workers protested yesterday in the Chayan oil and gas field in the Sakha Republic against the failure of managers and officials to protect them from the coronavirus and the horrific working conditions they have long suffered, an example of the ways in which these twin challenges can combine to produce an explosion.

            This is perhaps why an event in a place so far away that most Russians have never heard of it has attracted so much attention (,,  and

            Workers at the site have long been unhappy with their working conditions, food supplies and isolation, but Gazprom which controls the place has done almost nothing to meet them except make promises which it then doesn’t keep. The same thing is now happening with the deadly pandemic (

            In normal times, the company and not the republic government has the power to act at this federal site; but the coronavirus has upended this arrangement and prompted the Sakha authorities to get involved, imposing ultimately an isolation lockdown and evacuating some of the workers while introducing more medical help (

            The reason for this intervention was that the workers demonstrated and also took the now-customary step of posting their complaints online in an open letter with all their signatures, two actions that ensured that officials even in Moscow would have to take some notice (

            In reporting all this, Olga Slabada of Svobodnaya pressa says that “the main thing which disturbs the workers now is the unknown. No one knows whether his neighbor is ill or he is threatened by the illness himself and no one knows when something will change (

            Fedor Tumusov, a Duma deputy from Sakha, asks Russians to imagine: “you live in a closed space, in a barracks where there constantly exists the danger of infection, and no real help is being offered … For the last two weeks, the situation has not changed radically” despite some evacuations and many promises.

            Gazprom could have organized things and taken measures, he continues. “But it didn’t. I think that thanks to the effort of the leadership of the republic, measures are being taken. It is very sad that the situation has reached this point.” Other local people, such as activist Stepan Petrov, say the same (

            Moskovsky komsomolets commentator Aleksandr Minkin argues that this event highlights an even deeper problem in Russia today: people in Moscow whether they are in the government or in giant corporations only pay attention when people go into the streets and make demands (

            Across the country, there are “thousands of cases of the crudest violation of the law, thousands of cases of crimes against the environment, and against the lives of people” that “become known only because citizens in despair begin to rise up, in defense of the forests, the rives, Golunov, Baikal, the parks” or their own lives.

            “The long-haul truckers, the academics, the doctors, the teachers, and the mothers of those under arrest have protested. But always, the protests end either because money is handed out or people fall under the clubs of the police or they are deceived” or they cannot figure how to take the next step, Minkin says. 

            But “all these risings have one thing in common: society doesn’t join them. The workers in Chayan did not say a word in defense of Shiyes, and Shiyes is silent about them.” The authorities count on this “lack of solidarity” because they know they can crush any one rising as long as it doesn’t grow into a rising of the people as a whole.

            “It is well said,” Minkin continues, “’don’t fear your enemies: in the worst case, they can kill you. Don’t fear your friends: in the worst case, they can betray you. Fear the indifferent: they do not kill and do not betray but only with their silent assent can betrayal and murder take place.” 

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