The label from a bottle of Port Wine 777. Courtesy of Collectionerus
Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia
The Sukhoi Superjet 100’s crash shows what happens when a country isolates itself from the world while trying to keep up with the 21st century’s Joneses
May 7, 2019
Only Murmansk Region announced an official day of mourning for the people who perished at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport on May 5. There was little expectation a national day of morning would be announced, since the protocol for such things, adopted by the country’s leaders for their own convenience, do not stipulate a national day of mourning after disasters of this magnitude. It is thus neither a matter of heartlessness nor the upcoming Victory Day holiday.
The Sukhoi Superjet 100s have not been grounded, however. True, the authorities are currently pushing the hypothesis the crash was caused by pilot error. This is a more intelligible and attractive explanation than the hypothesis that was cooked up just the other day as a diversion, the one about how some passengers, allegedly, prevented other passengers from escaping because they were trying to get their luggage out of the burning plane. Nothing has yet been proven, however, although hardly anyone would argue with the fact that the first passenger jet designed and built in Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been a failure.
The Super Jet was produced long before the current falling out with the west. Its designers made generous use of imported parts, hoping the plane would sell like hotcakes abroad. Today, the few foreign airlines whom Sukhoi managed to persuade to purchase the planes, for example, the Mexicans, complain about the Super Jet’s unreliability, design flaws, and delays in procuring spare parts. It would seem they are looking for a good excuse to stop flying the planes.
The flip side of these failures has been the attempt to force Russian airlines to operate the plane, especially Aeroflot. What would grounding the plane mean now? It would be tantamount to bringing the entire undertaking to a close. Clearly, the Russian state’s ambitions and collective self-interest have coalesced to oppose this decision. The Super Jets are still flying, and we can only hope everything will work out for the best.
Such semi-Russian, semi-foreign collaborations are feasible and normal if the general contractor is not having a spat with the outside world, and airlines are free to choose which airplanes they fly. This was not quite the case from the get-go, but when Russia’s quarrel with the west gained momentum, all the worst aspects of the venture elbowed their way to the fore, turning into a self-sustaining process.
The deeper Russia sinks into isolation, the worse the links in all business chains function, while state protectionism constantly increases for anything that resembles import substitution or at least apes it. The number of failures and breakdowns in all parts of Russian society, some of them involving fatalities, sometimes without them, thank God, inevitably grows.
What is the difference between yesteryear’s Soviet isolationism and the current Russian isolationism? The former was preprogrammed to generate victims and hardship. They were merely part of the system. We need not talk about Stalin’s horrors. Even during its final decades, the Soviet Union was still typified by universal poverty, quite strong societal discipline, and the ruling class’s relative modesty. This state of affairs was maintained by a ragtag ideology and a still palpable fear of the state machine. Isolation was vouchsafed, of course, by the Soviet Union’s lagging behind the outside world. But it did not weigh heavy on every aspect of life and all at the same time. People moved into Khrushchev-era blocks of flats, regarding them as the last word in modern housing. They drank 777 brand “port wine,” having no clue how real Portuguese port tasted.
On the other hand, the Soviet military-industrial complex competed successfully with the rest of the world, at least until the early 1980s. Even though it was a byproduct of military aviation, Soviet civil aviation was quite impressive. The country’s professional communities, including the period’s passenger airline pilots, maintained a strict work ethic longer than Soviet society at large. Crashes were not so rare, however. But they were usually covered up not only due to totalitarianism but also because the information revolution had not yet happened.
The Soviet regime seemed invincible almost to the bitter end. Current attempts to resurrect it, despite their impressive magnitude, are laughable.
Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. It does not have the stamina to compete in arms races and so forth with the outside world. It has even less will to self-denial, both among the elites and the grassroots. People have been adapting to the plans of the authorities to lock them up in a besieged fortress forever, but their life hacks are completely different from what they were in the last century.
Many Russians who have the right skills, experience, and education have been leaving abroad to work. By the way, their ranks have included hundreds if not thousands of the country’s best commercial pilots. Several millions of people, each of them capable of doing something well, have emigrated from Russia during Putin’s twenty-year reign.
Meanwhile, the majority of Russians, who have stayed in Russia, have tried to make themselves as comfy as they can in their import-substitution society, hoping either for special perks or state welfare, or perks and welfare all at once.
Since isolation has kicked in, independent business, already frail, has almost gone extinct. But the bureaucratized “state-minded” capitalists who took over the entire business field have nothing in common with the dexterous captains of Soviet management. As they get filthy rich through import substitution, today’s Russian magnates would never think of depriving themselves of the outside world’s blessings. They do not pretend to be farsighted. Simple minded, they loudly demand that the isolationist feast go on, becoming more creative as it proceeds. From time to time, the peculiarity of their exclamations spices up the sad circumstances, but not much.
Many people laughed at Viktor Linnik, president of Russian agribusiness giant Miratorg, and the National Meat Association when they called on the government to ban individuals from bringing small amounts of sanctioned European produce back to Russia. They were especially amused when Linnik said, “Jamon should be eaten in Spain, while Parmesan cheese should be eaten in France.”
The most striking thing about what Linnik said was not his confusion about Parmesan cheese’s national provenance, but the ease with which one could continue his line of though by saying, for example, that Russian bread should be eaten in Russia and, consequently, it was time to stop exporting grain, one of the few export sectors in which Russia has been blossoming. Would you tell me only a crazy blowhard would suggest such a thing? I doubt you would. Many things that had seemed impossible have already happened during the current orgy of import substitution, which consists of equal portions of greed and persecution mania.
Russia’s newfangled twenty-first-century isolationism not only vouchsafes the country will lag behind others. It is a species of intellectual, moral and professional corruption. It means no lessons can be learned from accidents and disasters. It means decadence, decay, and collapse are fobbed off as a decent, normal life.
Translated by the Russian Reader