Russia Year Zero

Cat eating scraps from pizza box. May 24, 2016, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
Cat eating scraps from pizza box on May 24, 2016, in Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Zero Sum
When nothing is produced, all power belongs to the man who divides and distributes
Maxim Trudolyubov
Vedomosti
May 27, 2016

It is probably already clear to everyone that the implicit “social contract,” about whose existence it was customary to natter in the fat years, was a hoax. Rejecting political subjectivity, ordinary folks and not-so-ordinary folks, big business, and regional elites were able to enrich themselves and, in the consumerist sense, converge with Europe.

It was not, however, a one-off deal with a perpetually fixed rate of profit, but a protracted process. We voluntarily became political zeroes. We gave up free speech, the right to elect and be elected, and the right to demand accountability from our politicians, and part of the population gave up the right to funded pensions. But the unit of prosperity we got in return was given to us not as property but was lent to us. Now the government has collected the debt. The zeroes remain, but the unit will soon run out. The government has no other sources for funding projects, but unpredictable and expensive projects—military campaigns as in Syria, for example, and infrastructural projects like the Kerch Strait Bridge—are the whole point of Russian politics.

The authorities supported the population during the crisis of 2008, but by 2011, dissatisfaction with government policy and the Putin-Medvedev castling move had sparked protests. The Kremlin learned its lesson, and it is ordinary people who are now primarily bearing the burden of the crisis, not the state. Having surrendered their rights to the Kremlin, people will now have to surrender not only their pension savings but also their savings accounts and, so to speak, the fat they have saved up on their bodies if they do not decide to take back their political rights. People’s well-being is, in fact, the “source of growth” that President Putin has asked his economic advisers to find. Actually, he was kidding: the source has never been lost.

When the president, in May 2016, summons his economic council, having forgotten about its existence for two years or so, and says the country needs new sources of growth, how are we to understand this? How were we supposed to understand his proposal to reduce economic dependence on the oil price, which he voiced in the autumn of 2015? It is like offering to grow oneself a new liver after sixteen years of binge drinking.

The Kremlin has created the current situation by consistently rejecting any measures that could have, long ago, reduced dependence on oil and generated stable sources of growth beyond the extractive and defense industries. It is impossible to fix in a month what has been done over sixteen years. Moreover, the very same people have been summoned to do the fixing, people still divided by irreconcilable contradictions. What joint effort at seeking ways out of the crisis are Alexei Kudrin and Sergei Glazyev capable of mounting? The sum of their efforts will inevitably be zero.

It would appear this zero quite suits the Kremlin, as economist Konstantin Sonin argued in a recent interview with Slon.ru. Incidentally, efforts are also needed to maintain zero growth, and those efforts are being made. Certain malcontents might not like the “zero” economy, but the Kremlin really likes it, because it strengthens the power of the front office, where decisions about redistribution are made. When nothing is produced, all power belongs to the man who divides and distributes.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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