Thousands of Russians have joined something called the ‘Union SSR’ trade union, calling themselves Soviet citizens and refusing to pay their bills
A former oil trader founded an organization called the “Union SSR” trade union, whose members believe the Soviet Union never legally collapsed
If you call the telephone number listed on the website for the “Union SSR” trade union, a friendly woman answers the phone. For some reason, the first question she asks is “What do you do for a living?” Then she invites you to join. In her words, the organization’s focus is “helping people.” Membership in the group has some unusual perks, including not paying for electricity and other public utilities, “in accordance with the officially functioning social contract.”
The woman on the phone says you can review the trade union’s membership terms on its Vkontakte page, where there is indeed an immensely detailed description. Future members must pay an initiation fee of 1,000 rubles (about $15), followed by monthly fees of 200 rubles (about $3), transferable through direct deposit to a bank card or Yandex’s electronic payment service. At the time of this writing, the union has more than 15,460 members on Vkontakte, with branches (regional groups) in dozens of cities across the country, as remote as Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Nakhodka. Participants are actively involved in several discussion groups at the same time. For example, the union has a “Debt Management Committee,” where you can find precise instructions on how to avoid paying bank loans by finding faults in bank contracts (the group’s activists assert that the banks “do not have lending licenses”).
The “Union SSR” trade union is the brainchild of St. Petersburg native Sergey Dyomkin, who says he got his start as an oil trader selling Russian fuel abroad, after serving in the army in the 1990s. He later managed the construction company “Mostekhnostroi,” working with Russian Railways and as a permanent subcontractor for the Baltic Construction Company. According to the Spark-Interfax database, Sergey Dyomkin owns the company “RSD” in Russia’s Lipetsk region and served as director of a company that dealt with services related to electrical grids. In 2012, that latter business bid on a contracts to maintain the air conditioners at the Moscow University of the Interior Ministry and provide interior design services to the office of Yakutia's permanent representative in Moscow. (Dyomkin confirms that he owns RSD but denied any ties to the second firm.)
In August 2016, Dyomkin says he founded the “Union SSR” trade union after “realizing that something wasn’t right.” “Everything was good, and then it was like a lighting bolt over my head: I realized that tomorrow everything could be taken away from me, and then how would my children live?” explains the former businessman. (Dyomkin says he now devotes all his time to the trade union.) “But I can't bring myself to leave. You know, Lenin and Stalin depended on trade unions. You don't need a revolution. You need a revolution of consciousness.”
And then Dyomkin turned his attention to another businessman: Sergey Taraskin, the former owner of a dental clinic, who believes that the USSR and Tsarist Russia continue to exist de jure. (Taraskin has also declared himself the head of both “states.”) According to Taraskin, the Soviet government will pay 14 billion rubles to anyone with a Soviet passport, once “legal order” is restored. (Meanwhile, journalists and some of Taraskin’s own relatives revealed that his followers were being compelled to re-register their property under the name “president of the USSR.”) Dyomkin attended two meetings with Taraskin and his government, and realized that this “was not the way,” he says. “They're over there selling packs of documents to grandmothers and making promises they can't keep,” Dyomkin explains. He decided “something else is needed.”
That something else turned out to be a trade union. “I watched the cooperatives and the non-profit organizations, and realized that it’s all nonsense,” Dyomkin says. “Only a trade union can do something within a legal framework.” He claims that unions can refuse to register with the state without losing any rights or powers. (Dyomkin is correct that trade unions are legally permitted to exist without formal registration, but this does in fact deprive it of the rights it would enjoy as a legal entity.) “And no one can shut it down — except a prosecutor on some kind of extremism incitement charges,” he explains, adding, “But we don’t do anything like that.”
“President” Sergey Taraskin, incidentally, is suspected of such offenses. In July 2018, federal agents raided his home in Zelenograd.
“Union SSR” trade union published a “presidential agreement” allowing members not to pay their home utilities bills. Members actually stopped paying their bills.
On January 13, 2018, in the newspaper Khochu v SSSR!, Dyomkin released a “public contract for the supply of public utilities and other civil services for members of the ‘Union SSR’ trade union.” Dyomkin says copies of the newspaper edition “went to 16 libraries around the world.” The agreement — officially between Dyomkin and Russia’s “Constitution Guarantor” — stated that the Russian Federation will carry out the “free delivery of utilities and other services” to each member of the labor union. In Dyomkin's words, since the “Constitution Guarantor” (that is to say, Vladimir Putin) did not respond to the document’s publication, the contract is in force, giving all union members the right to ignore their utility bills.
Dyomkin argues that customers have the right to sign to their own contracts with the state, because utility companies set service prices through public contracts with consumers. If Vladimir Putin doesn't agree with the text of his published document, Dyomkin says the president can challenge it in court. Dyomkin insists that the government already spends enough of its budget on housing and public services, arguing that it’s wrong to charge people privately for these expenses. Asked about the threat of eviction for failure to pay utility bills, Dyomkin says the state still has to prove that it in fact owns the property in question. “My house isn't on the city's balance sheet,” he says. “The land, for example, hasn't been transferred from the jurisdiction of the USSR to the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. If it was transferred, where's the deed of transfer?” (Last October, Russia’s Justice Ministry published documents explaining in detail “the succession and transfer of powers or property between the USSR, the RSFSR, and the Russian Federation.”)
Despite his questionable grasp of the law, Dyomkin has found followers. Citing the supposed contract with Russia’s “Constitution Guarantor,” people across the country have refused to pay for electricity and water. In Amur and Kamchatka, for example, energy companies have raised complaints about this trend. The public joint-stock company “Kamchatskenergo” even issued a special statement pointing out that “Union SSR” membership does not exempt customers from paying their power bills.
Dyomkin stresses that his organization’s goal is to ensure that everything is done “according to the law.” “Our weapons are the head, the pen, and paper,” he says. “[There will be] no rallies or protests — there's no point to them.” Dyomkin claims that his trade union is already represented at the United Nations’ international labor bureau. He says his organization has 170 branches across Russia. "We're all over the country."
Utility companies are trying to recover unpaid bills through the courts, but members of Dyomkin’s trade union reject the legitimacy of Russia’s courts
Sergey Kus, who heads the trade union’s Primorsky branch, told Meduza that “Union SSR” has fewer members in the region than Dyomkin’s rhetoric suggests. All in all, Kus says, the group has just a few dozen people in Primorye.
Kus is a veteran of the trade union movement. Even in Soviet times, he was an activist and worked on a union committee. Today, he says he fully supports Dyomkin's position, arguing that “Union SSR” members should simply ignore court orders that they pay their utility bills. Kus believes that judges aren’t real judges without certifications bearing the Russian president’s official seal and signature. He also questions the formal legitimacy of the judiciary as a whole. “All the different district courts are separate subdivisions or branches, but they have the same state registration number and tax registration number,” he explains. “And in the [Primary State Registration Number] tax numbers, these branches aren’t specified. In other words, they don’t exist.”
Kus doesn’t recognize Russia’s Constitution, either, arguing that it was “promulgated but not published.” He says laws need to be published in an official newspaper of record within 10 days of adoption, but this procedure wasn’t observed with the Constitution, supposedly meaning that the Soviet Constitution is still active in Russia. (In fact, Russia’s Constitution states that it entered force on the day of its official publication, and there is no language about a 10-day period.)
“People need to unite and boot out all of them — the mayors, bureaucrats, police,” continues Kus. “They're all just imposters and racketeers.” To support his ideas, he cites a federal law passed in 2009 that introduced new regulations on accepting payments from individuals. Kus says this legislation states that the numbers on utility bills should start with “40821,” but they actually begin with “40717.” He believes this is evidence that the payments are going “into the pockets” of corrupt civil servants.
Kus says he also plans to ignore bailiffs, if they try to collect his overdue utility payments. "They’re required to provide power of attorney. They should provide credentials, which they don't have. If they want to do something, like seize property, they must provide a permit from the city's Chief of Police,” he says. “Not only are they uneducated, but they're also exceeding their official authority.”
But Kus hasn’t had any run ins with the bailiffs, yet, and he fails to cite any specific cases where these officers would actually side with the “Union SSR” members.
Ninel Khizhnyak, the trade union’s head in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, refused to explain to Meduza how the organization protects its members’ rights. In some cases, people have been left quite literally in the dark. Alexander Davydov, who manages the group’s Nakhodka branch, says one woman who joined the trade union and stopped paying her utility bills temporarily lost her electricity. Her large family lived without power for 28 days. On orders from the local district attorney, who argued that her family’s rights had been violated, the woman’s electricity was later restored, but this was because the power company failed to send the proper notifications and obtain a court order — not because she was a member of the “Union SSR” trade union. Davydov says he doesn't pay his communal services bills, either, calling the utility companies “extortionists.” He hopes “everything will become clear in time.”
Sergey Dyomkin, meanwhile, has amassed his own mountain of utility debts — more than 200,000 rubles (almost $3,000), so far. He says he’s received one debt-collection court order, but he “overrode” it, telling the judge that his hearing failed to recognize the “principle of adversarial proceedings.” “I have an original Soviet order from the USSR for the apartment, I haven’t privatized it, and neither the house nor the land is on the balance sheet of the Russian Federation,” Dyomkin explains. “The question arises: whom am I paying? Is this some kind of charitable donation?”
Bailiffs haven’t yet come knocking on his door, but the police have repeatedly asked him in for questioning. “The anti-extremism center has summoned me so many times!” Dyomkin says. “I start telling them everything, and they always crack up. And then they let me go.”
Denis Dmitriev contributed to this report. Translation by Sharon Lurye.