Russia is a great place for pipelines, dirt, weeds, and skyscrapers, but it is hell on its people. Photo by the Russian Reader
Some of my friends say the regime will collapse soon, while others argue it is only picking up a head of steam. It occurred to me yesterday that we mistakenly use the word “regime” when talking about the processes taking place in our midst. A regime can last a very long time, and crackdowns, no matter how ridiculous or chaotic, are not symptoms of its demise.
Since ancient times, the state has had only two fundamental functions: defending borders and administering justice (making laws). Everything else—medical care, education, pensions, and bike lanes—is a recent superstructure. Political regimes can be different, from totalitarian to democratic, and they can forego treating people when they are ill, teaching them, and paying them pensions while still maintaining stability. But it must perform the basic functions; otherwise, it stops being a state.
In Russia, on the contrary, one of these foundations has been completely destroyed over the past decades. I am not talking about crackdowns. There has never been any justice either for so-called dissidents or people who randomly fall victim to the state apparatus. People understood this in the Soviet Union, and they understand it now: you fight the law, and the law whacks you upside the head. The majority of Russians do not dispute the state’s right to crack down on the opposition or meddle in the affairs of other countries.
I am talking, instead, about ordinary life and everyday justice, about what we find in the Code of Hammurabi, the Law of the Twelve Tables, and Yaroslav’s Law—about the promises the state makes to citizens, about the fact that you cannot just be beaten, robbed, and wrongfully accused for no reason at all.
And what about Russia? What should we think when, for example, as a friend told me, a youth gang orders food deliveries and then beats up and robs the delivery people, and they have been running this scam for nearly a year, but the police simply refuse to do anything about it? When a person cannot find protection from his bully of neighbor, who shoots at his windows? When you go to court because traffic cops confiscated your driving license for no reason and then solicited a bribe to give it back to you, and the trial drags on for a year and a half? When you even win the case but the time you spent on it was worth much more in monetary terms than the bribe itself?
I made a point of giving more or less innocuous examples. Any of us knows several such stories. What is the point of doing public opinion polls and asking people whether they trust Putin? Ask people whether they trust the Russian courts and Russian law enforcement agencies. Their answer will show you the depths of the disaster. The Russian state has forfeited its basic function, and so we are slowly returning to the state of nature. Scattered tribes roam the landscape, and whether you are safe or not depends on the biceps of your fellow tribesmen. Strong communities can defend their members, while loners and weaklings die off.
The current outrage at the prison sentence handed down to an actor is not about crackdowns, but about the degradation of the state’s basic functions. This protest will only grow because the state has been vanishing before our eyes. All that remains are armed men who have monopolized power. What will be next? No one knows.
September 17, 2019
We returned from a conference in Kyzyl (Tuva).
Two Germans, a respected professor, and his wife and colleague, had supplied the event with its international credentials. For over twenty years, they have invested both their money and their labor in research in Tuva. They had become fans of the place. They had made friends. They were friends to numerous local zoologists and zoologists from other parts of Russia. The professor is an honorary member of the Russian Theriological Society, an affiliate of the Russian Academy of Sciences. For the conference, they minted very nice commemorative medals, paying for them with their own money, to present to their respected Russian colleagues.
Local officials of the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education did not let them into the conference at the university and deleted their papers from the conference program. They were not even allowed into the building, all because of Kotyukov’s decree about interactions with foreign scientists. It is clear the decree can and should be roundly ignored regardless of whether it is legitimate or not. It is equally clear that many people will not ignore it because of the stupid need to stay on the safe side and, so, the decree will do what it was meant to do.
It is an utterly shameful disgrace.
Thanks to Natalia Vvedenskaya for her permission to translate and publish her remarks. Thanks to Victoria Andreyeva for bringing Andrey Tchabovsky’s remarks to my attention. Translated by the Russian Reader