Voices of Russians, Unsorted into Boxes

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Two Russians walking down a sunny street in central Petersburg, 17 September 2017. Do we know what they’re thinking? Unless we talk to them and get to know a good deal about them and their lives, of course we won’t know what they’re thinking. And there are 144 million other Russians like them. Each an individual, not a statistic, they are complete mysteries, like people anywhere else in the world, unless we spend a lot of time in their company, talking to some of them, and living lives much like they live. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Contrary to what Samuel Greene wonders in his recent blog post, namely, “Can we learn to listen to the voices of Russians without first sorting them into boxes that reflect our own insecurities more than their complex realities?”, most “Russia experts” are only interested in listening to other “Russian experts” (especially the ones they agree with) and otherwise promoting themselves as “Russia experts,” a term I define broadly, because it includes, I think, not only the usual suspects, but the relatively small cliques of activists, journalists, writers, scholars, and artists who try very hard to control the discourse about Russia to their own advantage.

I think the best thing I’ve ever done on a blog is this long piece. I won’t say anything more about it here. You can either read it or not read it. But you might notice, if you do read it, that it is chockablock with raw Russian voices, unsorted into any boxes, although I don’t hide my own views in the piece in any way.

But when the group of activist artists whose name the blog on which the piece was first published bore had the chance to do a big show at a super famous contemporary art institution in London, my request to include this piece in a journal of texts by the art group’s authors (which, supposedly, included me at the time) that would accompany the show, I was flatly turned down by the group’s leader, who explained this text didn’t “fit the format” of the publication they were planning.

Not only that but I was later disinvited from attending the show with the group by this same leader.

After you’ve had several dozen experiences like that, you realize that the vast majority of “Russian experts” are in the business for their own professional advancement, not in order to give anyone a clearer picture of the real Russia, which, I’ve discovered over the years, interests almost no one, least of all the tiny cliques of “Russia experts” in academia, art, and journalism.

People like the ones depicted and heard in the my blog post from nine years ago actually frighten most “Russia experts.”

And yet there they are, real Russians, willing to fight the regime tooth and nail, and perfectly clear about the regime’s true nature.

At least half of the world’s “Russia experts” don’t understand even a tenth of what these “simple” Russians do.

So what do we need “Russia experts” for? TRR

Immigrant Song

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You can learn more about the “real,” “nuanced” Russia by gazing into this shop window than you can by reading all the crypto-Putinist “Russian experts” in the world. Central Petersburg, September 19, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

In 2014, the well-known Russian journalist and editor Leonid Bershidsky emigrated to Germany. In an short article, published at the time on the website 72.Ru, Bershidsky explained he was not a political emigrant. Rather, he was leaving Russia because he saw no more point in launching big media projects in Russia, since the country no longer had major media performing what he regarded as the media’s main function, “defending the weak from the powerful.”

It is hard to disagree with his sentiments.

So what has Mr. Bershidsky been up too lately, in his principled exile?

He has been publishing op-ed columns on the Bloomberg website hotly defending a “weak” Russia from a “powerful” west.

In a column published in September, Bershidsky had the chutzpah and stupidity to claim Russia was an emerging global agriculture superpower because “climate warming” was making it possible to relaunch farming in areas of the country that had been given up for lost in earlier decades because the climate there was too cold, while exponentially increasing yields in areas that have long served as Russia’s grain belt.

He wrote this during the official 2017 Environmental Year in Russia, which I was made aware of only the other day, when I saw a billboard, advertising a new production at the the Young Spectators Theater, that was, somehow, part of this mostly invisible Environmental Year’s slate of events.

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“2017, Year of the Environment in Russia. Premiere! September 7, 8, 28, 29. ‘The Face of the Earth. A Play about the Planet.'” Fontanka River Embankment, Petersburg, September 19, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader.

I guess Mr. Bershidsky’s “climate warming is good for Russia” column was another event in a calendar chockablock with consciousness-raising of the same obscurantist variety.

You do know that Russia’s economy is massively dependent on selling gas and oil, and that it is nearly the last country in the world that, officially or unofficially, is going to make any effort to tackle climate change? Whatever treaties, protocols or agreements Russia has ostensibly signed, the country’s message to its own population is that climate change is either a hoax or will be wildly beneficial to Russia, even as it destroys or submerges whole other countries.

Mr. Bershidsky’s latest op-ed on the Bloomberg website sees him hopping on the old “anti-Russophobia” train, the immediate occasion being the creation of something calling itself the Committee to Investigate Russia, which somehow involves Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman, two beloved figures in American culture whom Mr. Bershidsky immediately derides as second-rank hacks, when, in fact, the latter is a terrific actor loved by literally every American, even by white supremacists, I suspect, while the former is not primarily an “actor,” as the ignorant Bershidsky claims, but a mostly former actor, the co-star of what many regard as the best, most politically charged situation comedy of all time, All in the Family. After he left the show, Reiner launched a directing career that has included such stellar films as Stand by Me and This Is Spinal Tap. Neither Mr. Morgan nor Mr. Reiner has ever struck me as an idiot, which is what Mr. Bershidsky immediately wants his readers to imagine.

This is not to dismiss Mr. Bershidsky’s reasonable point that the committee sounds hokey and pointless, and has no real “Russia experts” among the members of its advisory board.

The real “Russian experts” are both in short supply, he argues, and roundly ignored. To make his point, he cites “America’s Russia Blind Spot,” a blog post written by Samuel Greene, author of a book entitled Moscow in Movement: Power and Opposition in Putin’s Russia.

Mr. Greene does indeed echo many of Bershidsky’s complaints about the US and the west not seeking advice from real Russian experts and avoiding listening to the voices of real Russians.

But he begins his remarks with a proviso, a proviso that Bershidsky pointedly avoids making.

“There is no serious dispute about whether Russia tried to influence the American election: It did. And the British ‘Brexit’ referendum. And the French election. And the upcoming German vote. There is also no doubt about the role Russia is playing in eastern Ukraine, or in the world more broadly. Russia is a challenge, and we are right to worry about the fact that we don’t have an answer.”

Bershidsky, on the contrary, is loath to admit the anti-Russia hysteria that bothers him so much was provoked by real actions and decisions undertaken by the people currently running the country of his birth.

That is the real problem with so-called expertise on Russia. Half if not more of the west’s card-carrying “Russian experts” are incredibly quick to absolve “Putin’s Russia” (when can we ditch that phrase? Putin doesn’t own Russia, his ambitions and those of his Ozero Dacha Co-op buddies to the contrary) of all its crimes against its own people and its new drive to regain supah powah status on the cheap, by fucking with everyone’s elections, flooding the airwaves and internets with fake news and anti-immigrant hysteria in differents shapes and sizes, and worst of all, serving its own population a steady diet of anti-Americanism, anti-westernism, xenophobia, and racism, especially on its national TV channels, for nearly the whole of Putin’s eighteen-year reign.

Think of Stephen Cohen, a “Russia expert” of high standing, who has been stalwartly defending every creepy, aggressive move the Kremlin has made over the past several years.

And there are whole battalions of other credentialed and self-made “Russia experts” out there like Stephen Cohen, more or less toeing the Kremlin’s line.

As for listening to the voices of the Russian people, that sounds like a great idea, but a) most so-called Russian experts don’t live in Russia itself and thus have little opportunity to listen to real Russian voices; and b) many Russian voices have either been badly singed by the relentless propaganda they have been subjected to in recent years, or their voices have literally been drowned out by the din of that propaganda.

There is also the troubling tendency that many so-called Russian experts, when they want to evoke the “voices of the Russian people,” take the absolutely discredited shortcut of citing Russian public opinion polls, as carried out by the country’s three leading pollsters—FOM, VTsIOM, and the especially insidious Levada Center, which has a liberal, “dissident” street cred it does not deserve, painting its conclusions about “ordinary Russians” and what they think in the darkest terms possible, seeing them as benighted, dangerous creatures, akin to the zombies on The Walking Dead.

Why do the “Russia experts” they take these shortcuts? Because they don’t live in Russia and actually have no clue what real Russians really think.

One way to find out what some very different Russians think would be to read this website, which has been mostly devoted to translating the voices of people who have really been involved, usually at the grassroots, in dealing with their country’s problems or thinking through them in an eloquent way, a way not tainted by the thought patterns the powerful Putinist propaganda machine has been keen to implant in the minds of Russians too weak or too compromised by their stations in life to think for themselves.

There are lots of such people in Russia, unfortunately, including the men and women who serve the country’s bloated bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies, and secret services. Such people are several times more numerous under the current “liberal capitalist democracy” than they were under the Soviets or the tsars.

I have no doubt that, among these millions of officials, there are a good number of intelligent, decent people capable of thinking for themselves. Many of them are, I assume, not terribly happy with the road the Kremlin has led the country down and the roles they have been made to play in this deliberate degradation.

For example, would you like to be a district court judge who has to wait for a phone call from “upstairs” before rendering verdicts in high-profile cases? But this is what happens on a daily basis in the country’s judicial system.

In fact, if you listen to the voices of Russians who actually try and tell their stories—via Facebook and other social media, as well as the remaining online and print outlets where good journalism is practiced at least some of the time—and you listen to lots of these voices over an extended period of time (for example, I have been writing and translating this website and, before that, Chtodelat News, for the last ten years) and take to heart what they are actually saying, your hair will stand on end.

You will also be filled with intense admiration for the activists, researchers, and journalists who care about their country and have the courage to tell these stories.

You will not, however, come to the sanguine conclusion suggested by the last paragraph of Mr. Bershidsky’s latest op-ed.

“But Russia will still be there when this phase is over—resentful and hungry for Western praise, defiant and confused, thuggish and loftily intellectual, muscular and aggressive and weakened by graft and incompetence. Someday, the pieces will need to be picked up, and only people capable of taking in the nuance will be able to do it. These people have been ‘investigating Russia’ all along. It’s just that a less thorough and more politicized ‘investigation’ is temporarily supplanting their work.”

First of all, I am not sure Russia will still be there when this phase (of what?) is over, nor is Andrey Kalikh, whose alarming Facebook post from what have amounted to the frontlines of the Zapad 2017 War Games I posted yesterday.

Second, Russia’s problems are not the problems of a troubled teenager, as Mr. Bershidsky implies, but of a country ruled by an boundlessly greedy, ambitious tyranny that has had to test-run various sham ideologies (including homophobia, anti-Americanism, Russian Orthodoxy, xenophobia, migrantophobia, rampant state capitalism, etc.) in order to justify its continuing and, apparently, perpetual rule.

As Mr. Kalikh wrote on this website yesterday, this makes the current regime extremely dangerous primarily to Russians themselves. His argument has been borne out by the increasingly intense “cold civil war” the regime has waged not only against outright dissidents and oppositionists like Alexei Navalny, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov, to name only a few people, but against otherwise ordinary Russians who have posted the “wrong” things on Facebook or Vkontakte or, much worse, have banded together to solve their own problems, problems caused, as often as not, by their own local authorities or national government, which has not introduced “stability” after the chaotic years of Yeltsin’s rule, but has instead instituted “legal nihilism” (ex-President Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase) as its fundamental principle of bad governance.

If you deny all these basic facts about Russia today and, to boot, you do not listen to voices of active, thoughtful Russians, unfiltered by sham opinion polls, and finally, if you are not on the ground in Russia itself or have not spent oodles of time here talking to oodles of people and getting mixed up in oodles of different situations, I am afraid your Russian expertise is just a species of sophistry.

“Nuance,” after all, is a weasel word. Anyone with any feeling for English knows that.

Why was it that Mr. Bershidsky had to leave Russia only to land a job at Bloomberg supplying us with “nuanced” apologies for the current Russian regime? I really would like an answer to that question. TRR

On the Warpath

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Andrey Kalikh
Facebook
September 19, 2017

They are f***ed in the head. They are flying in droves over our house. They are launching rockets at random. They are Soviet rockets and they might fall on somebody. The wife urgently wants us to insure the house and wonders whether insurance would cover a chopper crashing in the garden.

Rusty jet engines are now roaring at the long-mothballed airfield in Siversky.

The roar of explosions is audible forty kilometers from the Luga Firing Range.

The apotheosis happened on the afternoon of the fifteenth, when Pavel Antonov and I were having a round table on Skype with European prosecutors. (A little cheeky, of course.) Suddenly, the house shook with a roar, black shadows flashed on the ground, and a multi-gunned monster flew out of the Mshinsk Marshes. Our sons counted twenty-four fully-equipped battle helicopters.

You in the west are quite right to be tense. But hang on. This country will destroy itself. That is how it has always been.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of the author

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One Solution: Demolition

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Sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov putting the final touches on his monument to weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov. Photo courtesy of Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
September 19, 2017

Everything about the new monument in Moscow is disgusting. Once again, it is huge, and it shows us a non-military man holding a rifle. As an obvious symbol of militarism, it looks savage in the downtown of a major city. And then there is the very man the monument commemorates, who besides giving his surname to a lucrative arms brands apparently did nothing else for his country, let alone for a city in which he never lived.

Debates are underway about what to do with monuments when the context in which we view them has changed. Should we demolish them? We are not obliged to destroy them: we could move them to places where their symbolic baggage vanishes. Or would it be better to recode monuments where they stand by building something around them and thus imparting a new meaning to them? In my opinion, we have no choice in this case. There is no way to remedy this abomination. It can only be demolished.

Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Moscow To Unveil Statue Of AK-47 Inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov
Tom Balmforth
RFE/RL
September 18, 2017

75AC53AB-0E8F-47DE-BC13-452E78BD5FBF_w1023_r1_sThe 7.5-meter tall statue to Mikhail Kalashnikov, which stands on a northern intersection of the Garden Ring around central Moscow.

MOSCOW — After several false starts and some grumbling from locals, a prominent statue of a gun-toting Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of one of the world’s most ubiquitous weapons of war, is set to be unveiled in an official ceremony in the Russian capital on September 19.

The 7.5-meter metal likeness — still covered in plastic — features Kalashnikov cradling his eponymous AK-47 assault rifle and looking west down the Garden Ring that loops around central Moscow.

The statue was hoisted onto its plinth over the weekend beside a new business center.

A second metalwork sculpture, of St. George slaying a dragon with a spear tipped with a rifle sight with AK-47 written on it, stands nearby.

The Kalashnikov statues’ sculptor, Salavat Shcherbakov, is also the artist behind a towering 17-meter statue of Prince Vladimir the Great that was erected — amid controversy — outside the Kremlin in November at a ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin.

A4E87823-7F31-405E-A58C-7FE440CBDC33_w650_r0_sRussian sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov presents a model for a monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russian designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, at his workshop in Moscow on November 10, 2016.

Shcherbakov told TASS news agency that the rifle was added to his original plan for the Kalashnikov statue because people might not recognize him without his signature contribution to the Soviet Army.

“So we dared to include the rifle after all,” Shcherbakov said.

Other prominent statues in the vicinity include statues to poets Alexander Pushkin and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky presented plans to Putin for the Kalashnikov statue in September 2016 during a tour of the Kalashnikov arms manufacturer, headquartered in Izhevsk, the capital of the republic of Udmurtia.

The project was backed by the Russian Military-Historic Society, which is chaired by Medinsky and Rostec, the state weapons and technology conglomerate run by powerful Putin ally Sergei Chemezov.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Medinsky, Chemezov, and Kalashnikov’s daughter, Yelena Kalashnikova, were expected to attend the unveiling ceremony on September 19.

The statue was originally meant to be unveiled on January 21, marking the day in 1948 when Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov signed a decree ordering the construction of an experimental batch of Kalashnikov rifles.

But the ceremony was moved because of inclement weather to May 8, ahead of Victory Day, and then to September 19, Gunmaker Day.

Not everyone is on board with the project.

7926FEAF-D770-479A-84A0-0FB57CC87D96_w650_r0_sMikhail Kalashnikov with one of his fabled assault rifles in 2006.

Veronika Dolina, a local resident, posted a photograph of an apparent protester at the still-shrouded Kalashnikov statue holding a sign that said, “No to weapons, no to war.” She wrote: “Man at Kalashnikov pedestal. Humble hero, no posing.”

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“No to weapons, no to war.” Photo courtesy of Veronika Dolina/Facebook

Resident Natalya Seina told 360, a local media outlet, “This is not artistic, to put it mildly. This is trash. It’s loathsome.” She also noted how Kalashnikov had lived his life in Izhevsk, not Moscow, unlike playwright Anton Chekhov and poet Aleksandr Pleshchev. “These are probably more worthy people than the creator of a rifle.”

There are estimated to be as many as 200 million Kalashnikov rifles around the world —prompting one expert to label it “the Coca-Cola of small arms” — and they are manufactured in dozens of countries.

Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 2013 at the age of 94.

Grigorii Golosov: Democracy without Democrats in Russia

Democracy without Democrats: The Prospects for Parliamentarism 
Under a well-functioning system, even the current parties can be a good defense against autocrats
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
August 25, 2017

As hopes for Russia’s becoming a democratic country in the foreseeable future fade, the question of the institutional structure of a future Russian democracy is overstated. Even the best-intentioned commentators often argue that none of the conventional mechanisms fit Russia. A presidential system would not do, because it concentrates too much power in the hands of one man and his retinue, leading directly to dictatorship. That sounds plausible. However, as Alexander Morozov recently wrote on Facebook, a parliamentary system would not do, either. If I understood him correctly, his main argument was that the roster of political players would be maintained under this system, and so “the same fools from the current parliamentary parties would remain in power.” That also sounds plausible.

One of the problems with such dramatic assessments is obvious. They imply that Russia’s current political trajectory is unique, and the systems of governance tested and proven workable in other countries would thus never function in Russia. Theoretically, we cannot exclude such options. North Korea, for example, has now generated a political configuration I am willing to acknowledge unique both in terms of structure and possible consequences. However, there is no mystery as to the miserable country’s future. If it is destined to rid itself of the Kim dynasty, it will have to associate itself with South Korea under conditions acceptable to China and the US. It would be pointless to go into the details, but the overall picture is quite clear.

Russia is a different story. I do not see anything unique about Russia’s circumstances. By world standards, we have a quite ordinary authoritarian regime. All the signs point to the fact the regime is in the upward phase of its trajectory, that is, in the process of consolidating. We are thus unable to say anything definite about how it will cease to exist.  Hardcore opposition politicians (of whom, I think, Alexei Navalny is the last man standing) have it simpler than analysts. Politicians simply fight the good fight, using any means available. They do not need to gaze far into the future. But analysts do need to see into the future and would like to see in the future. They are not very good at it, however.

Hence the cognitive error they make, an error best described by the classic metaphor of the black box. There is an initial state and a set of possible outcomes, but the box conceals its interior from us, what is in the middle. Since the initial state makes optimism groundless and has not even fully manifested itself, an optimistic assessment of possible outcomes seems implausible. It is impossible to avoid the error, but we can minimize its consequences if we ignore what might be inside the black box, that is, if we temporarily forget about “progressive” generals, lizards from the planet Niburu, and even about Navalny and other possible drivers of democratization in Russia. Instead, we should focus on democracy’s structural features.

Yet, the first hypothesis we have to take into account is that liberal democracy, regardless of its institutional shape, entrusts the decision of who holds power to a majority of voters. Hence, if the absolute majority of votes in an election are conferred on a potential dictator or his party, the return to authoritarianism is a question of time, and it matters not a whit whether the potential dictator holds the office of president or prime minister. Recent events in Turkey vividly bear this out. The country’s parliamentary system, which had existed for several decades, was unable to withstand a head-on collision with a single-party monopoly. The fact that Erdogan did indeed become the full-fledged president merely capped off the transformation, but the process itself took place within the parliamentary system.

The Turkish Parliament in Ankara. Photo courtesy of Umit Bektas/Reuters

It follows that the main danger to a democracy under a parliamentary system consists not in the absence of succession among parliamentary elites, but in the establishment and long-term reproduction of a political monopoly in parliament. The experience of many countries, from Eastern Europe, where it was neutralized by the project of joining the EU, to Africa, where it has not been neutralized and has caused efforts at democratization to fail on several occasions, testifies to the fact that the danger is quite real. It is natural, after all, that at the first elections after democratization people vote en masse for the most persuasive opposition party and hand it a majority in parliament. The country’s main democrat then becomes a dictator, since there is no institutional counterbalance to prevent it.

This should make us look at the prospects of the current parliamentary parties after democratization.  One of them, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), is bound to survive, while two others, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the so-called party of power, United Russia, have good chances of surviving. It is unlikely they would enjoy idyllic relations with a new regime. Then, as becomes clear from the argument I have made, above, the survival of these parties would serve as a positive factor in democratization. They themselves are unlikely to become advocates of democracy, but that does not matter. What matters is that their presence in parliament, if it is considerable, would help restrain the authoritarian impulses of the new ruling group, if they manifest themselves.

I believe the MPs in the current parliamentary parties are neither fools in the mundane nor the political sense. Mainly, they are cunning, experienced wheeler-dealers who have managed to maintain their places at the top of Russia’s turbulent political heap. Clearly, however, they have used their tenure in parliament to preserve features of the current system that benefit them. In other words, they would lobby against progress under a new system, and this would indeed inject a hefty dose of stupidity into the work of building democracy in Russia. The dilemma is this. To stave off the new regime’s authoritarian impulses, they would have to be influential, but they would fritter away their influence on impeding reform.

Hence, I am inclined to think that a semi-presidential system would be optimal in a democratic Russia. The president would have serious powers, albeit powers severely limited by the constitution. Structurally speaking, it would approximate the European parliamentary system more than the presidential system of the US and most Latin American countries. However, it is now utterly useless to go into the details of this system, because they would depend greatly on the transition to democracy, now concealed from us by our imaginary black box.

However, I do not see any particular problems with a parliamentary system in a future Russia. Democracy is not only the rule of “democrats” as a party (a truth we in Russia have already swallowed, it seems), but nor is it necessarily the rule of politicans who adhere to democratic views. The presence of such politicians is extremely beneficial. But views are a shaky thing, and what matters more in a democracy is the structure of political competition. We know several examples of successful democratization, from late eighteenth-century France to modern Bangladesh, in which the role of card-carrying democrats in the initial state of the transition was extremely modest, and the main fight took place among several dictatorial factions. What mattered was that they successfully prevented each other from establishing a new dictatorship.

Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

Putin’s Heartlands Are in Your Heads

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A snapshot of Putin’s real heartlands. Zagorodny Prospect, central Petersburg, September 10, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

During Russia’s oil-fueled boom, Rashid Tamayev saw steady pay raises at his auto factory job, helping keep his family in relative comfort—and making him a loyal supporter of President Vladimir Putin. But since a plunge in oil prices three years ago, Tamayev has lost faith in the president. Last spring he and dozens of others at the Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant lodged an appeal with the Kremlin when they were fired after pointing out safety problems. They got no answer. “Putin has forgotten about ordinary people,” Tamayev says as he watches workers from the factory leave after their shifts. “We used to live well.”
Henry Meyer, “There’s Trouble Brewing in Putin’s Heartland,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 13, 2017

I don’t know who concocted the myth of Putin’s base of support among the working class in Russia’s heartlands, but it’s a convenient way of not reporting facts staring you right in the face but that you chose not to think over.

The myth is based on the big-city/intellectual worker prejudice that the working class, i.e., people who, allegedly, work with their hands, not their heads, especially members of the working class who live in little towns and the smaller cities (as described in the article, cited above) are congenitally less intelligent and more easily gulled than their big-city slicker cousins.

But where do you have to go in Russia to find the people, whole classes and stratas, who have benefited the most, materially and otherwise, from the eighteen years of Putin’s rule? (It’s eighteeen years, not seventeen, as Bloomberg Businessweek mistakenly writes in the article.) Moscow and Petersburg. That is where you shall find Putin’s real base of support and his real heartland.

Because the unfortunate worker described in Henry Meyer’s article made a slightly better living during the years the oil price was high was not due to anything clever Putin and his successive governments did. Whether the unfortunate worker and his comrades nominally voted for Putin and United Russia or not during those years does not matter a whit, because the fix has been in at the voting stations and outside them all these eighteen years. If you do not believe me, look at what has happened to real opposition candidates who have managed to slip through the Kremlin’s obstacle course and win the occasional election.

Have you ever heard of Galina Shirshina, a young woman from the liberal Yabloko party who, in 2013, was elected mayor of Petrozavodsk, a city of approximately 260,000 people in northwest Russia, by popular vote? Do you know how long she lasted in office? Do you know how she got booted out of office in 2015 and who was behind her dismissal?

What do you do with the half-baked base/heartland argument in cases like this? And this is just one instance. I could give dozens of other examples off the top of my head, and even more if I did a little research.

Opinion polls, the beloved crutch of so-called Russia experts and reporters who write about Russian politics, are also unreliable, for many of the same reasons. One of those reasons is that respondents want to give pollsters the right answer, meaning, the answer they think the regime wants them to give, because they identify pollsters (correctly!) with a schizophrenic, brutal regime that alternately faux-coddles them and then whacks them over the head in different ways, alternately claims it has improved their living standards and then engages in so much mega-corruption that any sustainable, broad-based improvement of the country’s quality of life will always be impossible as long as the regime is in power. Poll respondents thus do not identify pollsters with unbiased academic research, with “sociology,” or some such nonsense, and do not tell them what they really think. In turn, the pollsters want to ask only questions that produce right answers, not find out what people really think.

Besides, all these eighteen years, the instability generator has been turned up to eleven, despite the regime’s loud claims urbi et orbi it has been establishing stability the likes of which the world has never seen.

A side effect of this turbulent instability has been that sometimes people actually do not know what they think or think things that are blatantly contradictory. Hence, there probably really are some number of Russians who have reapplied the old good tsar/bad boyars myth to the supposed confrontation between the well-meaning Putin and his hapless or hopelessly corrupt underlings. This myth has been reinforced by endless dressing-downs at cabinet meetings, pointedly rebroadcast on all the main evening news programs, and the occasional arrest and prosecution of a high government official for bribery or something of the sort.

Incidentally, the other thing that struck me about this article is how much time Bloomberg has been spending lately mansplaining Russia to its readers in a terribly charitable way recently, especially via the often dubiously argued op-ed columns of Leonid Bershidsky, supposedly a Russian dissident journalist in exile somewhere in Europe. I have no explanation for this overly friendly approach to a regime that has done nothing to deserve it.

In any case, Putin has no base in the nonexistent Russian heartlands. He does, however, have a considerable base in his hometown of Petersburg and the capital, Moscow. In Russia’s two largest cities, huge numbers of officials, big businessmen, and certain strata of the intelligentsia have benefited considerably from Putin’s rule, and have in turn supported it with their loyalty, although their support may be souring a bit as the regime has turned more oppressive with each passing month since Putin’s 2012 re-election.

(I write “oppressive” rather than “conservative,” which is another term that has no place in debates about the different sham ideologies Putinism has apparently embraced or flirted with over the years. These ideologies, from neoliberalism to Eurasianism to conservatism to Russian Orthodoxy, are only mummers, meant to alternately distract the public and observers from what has been really going on, and, when they are not distracted, to intimidate them into shutting up, often by creating the false impression that they are what the masses, the heartlands, the working classes or ordinary people really want, even though the latter are all fictions fashioned from whole cloth or, when they are not, the actual working masses and regular joes really do not want anything of the sort.)

Finally, there is very little evidence that trouble is brewing in Putin’s nonexistent non-heartland or anywhere else in Russia, if only because the numbers of flagrant trouble-brewers are clearly much smaller compared to the much larger numbers of Russians who, at best, are undecided as to whether they want to save their country or let Putin install himself as tsar next year and, I fear, plunge the country into a self-destructive nightmare from which it will never recover.

Putin is going to have to turn the instability generator up to twelve or even thirteen, because he will somehow have to justify his presence on the throne for what will surely be the rest of his life. This means another wave of more crackdowns on renegade individuals (that is, individuals made to look like renegades or “extremists”) and more wholesale legislative assaults on civic and personal liberties.

Tyrants usually do not justify their endless, stultifying reigns by abdicating the throne and re-instituting grassroots social democracy. They only do that if they are pushed, but right now almost no one in Russia is pushing. TRR

Eighteen Years Down the Drain

putin elections
“RT in Russian @RT_russian. Central Elections Commmission: Election of Putin will take place in March 2018, ru.rt.com/7a7j.”

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
September 13, 2017

They say that today the time the leader has spent in office has drawn even with Brezhnev’s eighteen years in power. Eighteen years. Of course, it’s a relative figure, since Putin spent six months in the role of prime minister under Yeltstin and another four years as prime minister under Medvedev. But we realize that these premierships can actually be included in the overall Putinist period in Russian history.

Many people remember the Brezhnev period with nostalgia, arguing it was the Soviet golden age, when the country’s standard of living and power undoubtedly grew. Many people think something similar about Putin’s time in office, and not without grounds, of course, if we look at GDP figures, numbers of privately owned cars, and numbers of rockets launched in Syria.

But the Putin and Brezhnev periods have been similar in another respect. Beyond the superficial prosperity, these eighteen-year periods were and have been times of political and moral degradation at home. They were decades the country lost as stepping stones into the future, in terms of establishing a (post)modern society capable of changing and progressing painlessly. The Brezhnevian stagnation inevitably led to a colossal crisis and, ultimately, collapse. I don’t know what the outcome of the Putinist stagnation will be, but we can say for sure there are new troubles ahead for the country, troubles whose growing signs we observe daily.

Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Thanks to Mark Teeter for the spotting the “blooper” on RT in Russian’s Twitter feed. Translated by the Russian Reader