Russia’s Bright Future (Putin 4.0)

Member of HRC Describes Putin’s New Term: Everything under the Sun Will Be Banned
Alexei Obukhov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
October 10, 2017

Pavel Chikov argues Russia will become isolated internationally, and federalism and regional economies will be jettisoned.

Pavel Chikov, member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, has forecast what politics in Russia will be like if Vladimir Putin is re-elected to another term. According to Chikov, the situation in the country will deteriorate rapidly, and more and more areas of public life will be off limits.

1a1bb3f8a345889fc79a754c4ae35c6dPavel Chikov. Photo courtesy of Facebook/MK

Foreign mass media will be the first to be banned. This has been borne out, says the human rights activist, by the threat to shutter Radio Svoboda, which the media outlet received from the Justice Ministry last Monday.

Following the media, “the political arena will be mopped up: the current persecution of Alexei Navalny’s employees and Open Russia’s employees is a harbinger of this.”

In Chikov’s opinion, the country will also be stripped of religious freedom, as witnessed by “the huge criminal cases against and expulsion from the country” of members of various non-traditional religious movements, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been declared “extremist” banned in the Russian Federation, to supporters of non-mainstream Buddhist and Muslim groups.

These measures, writes the human rights activist on his Telegram channel, will be paralleled by Russia’s renunciation of its international commitments. It will exit the Council of Europe and end its cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights. (Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, said yesterday this was a probable scenario.) Russian’s relations with many European countries, from the Baltic states to Germany, will deteriorate, and their embassies will be closed. Restrictions will be placed on Russian nationals traveling outside the country, and the practice of stripping refugees and asylum seekers of their Russian citizenship and confiscating their property will be broadened.

Meanwhile, Russia will succeed in isolating its segment of the Internet and instituting a Chinese-style firewall to censor content.

Finally, Chikov writes, the country’s economy and domestic politics will deteriorate. The regions will lose the last remnants of their autonomy (Chikhov cites Vladimir Vasilyev’s  recent appointment as acting head of Dagestan, although the United Russia MP has no experience in the republic), and the assets the regions have left will be placed under the control of Putin’s inner circle.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Vasily Zharkov for the heads-up

This Is Russia

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“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galereya shopping mall, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.

The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.

Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.

Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.

But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.

Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Mall, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.

To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.

On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.

Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.

Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.

I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.

Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR

Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

 

 

Barnaul: Living under the Threat of Demolition

Living under the Threat of Demolition
Andrei Bespalov
Takie Dela
September 20, 2017

Around 200 residential buildings have been deemed unfit for habitation in Barnaul. But people have gone on living in them for many years. 

Four years ago, in July 2013, an apartment building collapsed in broad daylight. A 64-year-old woman and 60-year-old man died under the rubble. The other residents were “only” deprived of their papers and property, left without a roof over their heads. The neighboring houses are still standing, although they are much more dilapidated.

Currently, Barnaul, the capital of Altai Territory, has officially deemed around 200 apartment houses dilapidated or unfit for habitation. No one can tell you the exact number of buildings that could collapse at any minute. It would be a huge exaggeration to say that officials at the mayor’s office are worried about preventing another tragedy.

In 2013, the ruins of the house on Emilia Alexeyeva Street were hurriedly demolished, and now the local boys play football on the empty lot. A criminal investigation into “official negligence” was opened, but quickly closed.

“We were unable to find anyone at fault or evidence of a crime,” Yevgeny Dolgayev, head of the investigative department in the Russian Investigative Committee’s Altai Territory office said at the time.

Пустырь на месте рухнувшего дома в 2013 годуEmpty lot where the house collapsed in 2013. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

But people live in their collapsing houses, afraid of the spreading cracks in the walls and accustomed to picking up chunks of façade that have crumbled and fell to the ground. Residents of the dilapidated buildings see no way out of their circumstances.

Quite Tolerable
A huge number of houses have been condemned in Barnaul’s Potok microdistrict. They are primarily two-storey buildings, with one or two staircases, built after 1945 in the 1950s, mainly by Japanese POWs. The city grew rapidly in the postwar years. It was built quickly as well, and the builders did not especially bother to observe construction standards.

People have fought for years to have their homes declared dilapidated. Those who have succeeded are far and few between.

As late as last year, the residential building at Timurovskya Street, 44, was in excellent condition, according to inspectors. This year, on the contrary, it was declared 86% dilapidated.

You would imagine the building should be demolished, its residents moved out, and a tragedy avoided, but that means looking for funding and building new housing.

It is much simpler to feign, year after year, that these houses and people do not exist. However, sometimes, the so-called populace is made vague promises so they will stop pestering officials for a while.

At first glance, nothing has changed on Timurovskaya Street over the last four years. The dilapidated houses with missing chunks of plaster that has fallen off still stand where they stood then. They are not ruins. But if you look a little closer you will notice the foundation has crumbled in one part of the house, while the brickwork has disintegrated in another, and a crack runs from the sidewall through the entire building.

“That’s nothing! The juicy parts are inside,” says an elderly man who looks like a local. We introduce ourselves. Alexei Oleynik is 76 years old, a retired electrician who worked for nearly fifty years in the trade. He was allocated a flat at Timurovskaya, 44, in the early 1970s when his son was born.

Алексей ОлейникRetired electrician Alexei Oleynik. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

It really is “juicier” inside the building.  A piece of fiberboard has been glued to the ceiling in the entryway.

“The ceiling beams here collapsed in winter,” explains Oleynik. “Workers cleaning the snow from the roof were careless and caused the accident.”

According to Oleynik, they were not all that much to blame: the ceiling beams had rotted long ago. The management got a dressing-down from city bosses and sent over other workers, who patched up the hole with fiberboard and left the site with a clean conscience.

Oleynik’s neighbor Olga Pautova is indignant.

“Well, of course, it’s no one’s fault! The heating system had burst in the attic again. The ceiling beams sagged for three months or so, gradually swelling, until they collapsed. People from the management company and city hall would come and look at this bubble. They would say, ‘What can we do? You all don’t have it bad. It’s much worse in other buildings.’ That was really comforting, of course.”

Pautova bought a flat in the building ten years earlier. The house had seemed quite tolerable. But soon it crumbled right before her eyes. First, there were small cracks, then the cracks became more serious.

“I have no light in either room,” says Pautova. “The wiring short-circuited and burnt out. It was a good thing I was home. I turned off the power and called an electrician. He went up into the attic. He said there were moisture and leaks everywhere up there, so it was pointless to install new wiring. It would also short-circuit and burn, and it would be a good thing if that was all that happened. A year and a half ago, large chunks of the ceiling collapsed in the living room, right on the sofa, where my brother, who was visiting me at the time, had been sleeping. It’s a good thing it didn’t happen at night. My brother had already got up.”

Ольга ПаутоваOlga Pautova. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“I patched up the hole. It didn’t last for long. The ceiling collapsed again. The management company offered to cover the hole with a piece of fiberboard, as they had in the entryway. I rejected their offer. It’s utter rubbish. I have been up in the attic. Everything up there really has rotted. The ceiling beams have been fastened to something with wire. There’s still a hole in the living room ceiling. Rubbish and leaks are constantly pouring through it. I sweep and wash it all up every day, but what is the point? There are mushrooms [sic] growing there,” says Olga.

As a rule, old residential buildings have a single-pipe heating system installed in the attic rather than the basement. The pipes are old and rusty, and they burst often, leaving the ceiling sagging in five minutes and flooding the flats with boiling water. It is a good thing if someone is at home. They can run up to the attic and switch off the water.

Will It Collapse or Not?
People are eager to discuss the topic of when the house will collapse. They say the building at Emilia Alexeyeva Street, 33 (a mere two minutes’ walk from their house) looked better, but it collapsed anyway.

A year ago, the residents of Timurovskaya Street, 44, chipped in and commissioned a private inspection of their building, hoping it would be declared dilapidated and they could count on resettlement. They got the results of the inspection back quickly, but they were just the opposite of what they had hoped for. According to residents, the inspector hastily examined the house and issued a finding it was in “excellent” condition.

Olga Pautova decided to fight till the bitter end and paid Tercet, a design and engineering company, for another inspection out of her own pocket. Their analyst took three months carrying out his inspection. He measured the size of the crack running through the entire building and recorded its growth. According to his calculation, the house was 86% dilapidated. 65% dilapidation is enough for a house to be deemed dilapidated and unfit for habitation.

Дом № 44 по улице ТимуровскойTimurovskaya Street, 44. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

According to Pautova, the municipal interdepartmental commission for housing assessment, at which the outcome of Tercet’s inspection were presented, was dead set against granting Timurovskaya, 44, the status of dilapidated building. However, Tercet’s analyst had fight in him.

“According to my calculations,” he insisted, “it is dangerous to live in this building. I’ve done my job. It’s up to you to react to the outcome of my evaluation, to declare the house dilapidated or not. But you will be responsible for what happens.”

The commission’s members had no desire to take on that kind of responsibility, and in June of this year the house was declared dilapidated. Residents have been receiving “letters of happiness,” signed by Barnaul’s Deputy Mayor Alexander Alexeyenko, in which he demands the house should be demolished no later than June 21, 2018.

Galina Buloychik is skeptical about the news from the mayor’s office.

“I don’t believe they will demolish the house and issue us new flats. It’s useless. The house will collapse with me in it, and that will be the end of it. That is what is meant to be,” says the 69-year-old woman, who shares a flat with two of her children and her grandchildren.

“I do give a damn,” says her daughter Anna, interrupting. “I have children, and the building is crumbling right before our eyes. You always hear a creaking sound, as if the house were not standing still. My brother installed a PVC window. It would close at first, just like it should have, but now have a look. You cannot close the sash. That means the building has sagged, but somehow crookedly. Don’t pay any mind to the fact the walls in the rooms are even. We covered them with gypsum plasterboard, as if we were doing real repairs. But there is a nightmare underneath them. I saw you taking a picture of the crack that runs from the sidewall of the house. It’s hidden beanth the plasterboard, as if it weren’t there.”

When we were saying goodbye, a photo fell from a chest of drawers. I picked it up and put it back.

“That was me when I was young,” Buloychik explained. “Was I beautiful?”

“You were.”

“Really?”

The Sky in Diamonds
House No. 38, also on Timurovskaya Street, is even famous in a way. In April, the roof beams collapsed and you could see the sky through the hole that formed, as if the building had its own planetarium. Reporters came, TV channels shot footage, the city bosses made calls, all to gaze through the hole. It was also patched up with fiberboard, but not in one piece. Several overlapping pieces were used. When it rains, you do not leave your flat and go into the stairwell without an umbrella.

But to get such minimal care the house’s tenants had to bow and scrape to the management company and city officials. They could have done nothing at all. So, the verdict of the officials in the mayor’s office was that the collapse of the roof beams in the stairwell occurred, most likely, not because the house was dilapidated, but due to repairs: the beams in the attic were being replaced. Since, at the time, the building had not been officially deemed dilapidated, it was the responsibility of residents who owned their flats to fix the problem or the management company’s, seeing as how residents pay them for the building’s maintenance. Only how much money can you make off a two-storey house inhabited primarily by pensioners? Besides, the companies responsible for the maintenance in their building change so rapidly you don’t have time to remember what they are called.

Svetlana Balchis, a resident of Timurovskaya, 38, recounts the accident.

“I got a call at work. I came running home. Horror of horrors! The stairway was piled up to the railings with chunks of slate, broken brick, mangled boards, slag, and shingles. I live on the second floor, and I barely made my way through the wreckage. My youngest daughter was supposed to come home from school at the time. I nearly lost my mind until I got home.”

Fortunately, her daughter arrived home later. Subsequently, Balchis learned that shortly before the beams collapsed, two young mothers had agreed to take their toddlers out for a walk together. One of them, Balchis’s next-door neighbor, was held up at home for five minutes or so. If she had left earlier, the ceiling would have fallen on her and her toddler in his stroller.

Жилец одного из домов в БарнаулеResident of a house in Barnaul. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“Before that, I don’t know many times we called the management company and the mayor’s office: the roof leaked as if there were no roof. In winter, it was still okay, but the snow began to melt in February. There was a lot of it on the roofs: it had been a quite snowy winter. The day before, the Emergencies Ministry guys had done a drive-through inspection, and they ordered the management companies to clean the snow off the roofs right away. The workers fell through the roof! Everything up there had rotted, after all. We have been fighting to get it fixed since 2001,” recounts Balchis.

Balchis has lived in the building since birth. She was brought there from the maternity hospital in 1959. She grew up there, then had three kids, two of whom are grown-ups and live on their own. It was her father who was allocated the flat as an employee of  Central Heating and Power Plant No. 2, which, in the 1950s, built several houses for employees. Balchis says it was a fine house as long as the power plant’s own maintenance office took care of it. The dilapidation began when the building was turned over to the city.

“Do you know how the furniture in our flat stands? At an angle to the floor. That’s the only way to keep the doors shut, because the floor slopes, although it used to be as even as could be. If we put something under one edge, the doors don’t jam. It doesn’t last for long, though, and then we have to put something else under it, something bigger,” says Balchis.

Some tenants of Timurovskaya, 38, decided to replace their old windows with PVC windows. Measurers came to have a look.

“You don’t need to replace your windows,” they said. “If we touch the wall now, it will collapse.”

Elena Romanova has joined the conversation.

“Until the roof started to collapse, and the boiler rusted, it was tolerable. But, in the winter, boiling water poured into the basement, sent off steam, and the walls would freeze. All that needed to be done was change the boiler valve. But we were told they didn’t have the money to do it. So the foundation burst. The building literally came unravelled. I have a crack in the wall in my hallway. I could run my hand through it. They covered it with plasterboard, but what’s the use?” she says.

“I have the same trouble,” says Balchis.  “Between my flat and the neighbor’s flat you could suddenly hear everything perfectly. I removed the rug from the wall, and there I found a crack as wide as the palm of my hand.”

It’s Your Problem, So You Demolish It 
The tenats of Timurovskaya, 38, also received notifications their building had been deemed dilapidated and should, therefore, be resettled. But hardly anyone believes it will happen. They doubt they will get new housing a year from now. They say that other buildings that received similar letters have been waiting years for demolition.

“The building next door has also been declared dilapidated, but hasn’t been resettled. And in that one, too, and that one, and that one. The tenants in that building way over then have been evicted, but I don’t where they went, since they were not allocated flats and are waiting for them,” Balchis says as she points in different directions.

“But we must do it ourselves!” says Romanova. “We have to find a developer ourselves who would buy the land plot under the house.”

Дом № 38 по улице ТимуровскойTimurovskaya Street, 38. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

It is true that, in the letter from the mayor’s offices, it says in black and white, “Dear Housing Owner Elena Pavlovna! In accordance with Article 32, Paragraph 10, of the Russian Federal Housing Code, we demand that the dilapidated house be demolished before June 21, 2018.”

“Meaning, the city demands that I demolish my own building. Should I make my own arrangements with a construction company? Hire an excavator? Where should I move all my neighbors? If they sent a letter like that, it’s pointless to expect help from the mayor’s office,” Romanova argues.

No one here counts on help from the federal program for overhauling apartment buildings, either. They do not believe such happiness will shine on them. Several years, when the federal program had just been launched, the tenants of Timurovskaya, 38, were told they had been slotted into the program for 2018.  That is, they should have only a year left to wait. Recently, however, they decided to check up on the program’s progress. They called the mayor’s office and were told they had been rescheduled for 2025. The overhaul of Timurovskaya, 44, had also been postponed (to 2022), although right after the collapse of Emilia Alexeyeva, 33, the mayor’s office had promised to resettle the tenants of the building next door, Emilia Alexeyeva, 31, and the tenants of Timurovskaya, 44.

Take the Old Woman Outside at Least Once in a While
Every weekend, Lydia Kostomarova is a hostage. The building is empty: all her neighbors are at their dachas, everyone in Timurovskaya, 38. Kostomarova is ninety. She lives alone. She has been living in the building since it was built in 1957.

“I haven’t complained to anyone my whole life or asked for help. My husband died when he was forty-eight: cancer consumed. I have loved only one man in my life. Then Mom passed away. She lay paralyzed on that bed over there for seven years. She forgot how to talk. I bought her an alphabet and taught her to talk again using letters and pictures.

Лидия КостомароваLydia Kostomarova. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

“I looked after her, worked, and raised the kids. It was tolerable: it was all part of life. But then I had an accident. I went to the shop when the ground was covered in black ice. I fell and broke my hip in three places. The doctors said I couldn’t have an operation, because my heart couldn’t take it. Lord, why, oh why did you not take me away then? Now I am shut in here. I haven’t been outside for two years. But I can’t die just yet. I cannot afford it. Of course, I had been saving up for my funeral, but I spent it all on a caregiver. I paid her five thousand rubles a week. That’s more than my pension. Now I’m saving up again. Renovations? No, I’m not going to repair anything. What’s the point? The ceiling leaks, but you can’t patch it up anymore. The tank in the toilet should be changed. It’s quite old. They don’t make them like that anymore. It’s the kind that hangs on the wall over the toilet. A repairman came to look at it and said to install a new toilet he would have to pound holes in the floor and ceiling, but since the house was old, it couldn’t withstand it and would collapse.”

Kostomarova walks around the flat very slowly, leaning on her walker. Although it is painful, she walks. I ask whether the local social workers come to visit her. Maybe they bring groceries and help with the cleaning?

“Good Lord, what good am I to the social workers? Although no, that’s not true. They inquired about me once. They called from the medical clinic. They said, ‘Get a chest X-ray done, grandma.'”

“Are you making fun of me?” I said to them. “How can I go to the hospital when I can’t leave my flat and get downstairs from the second floor? And what will I take to get to this X-ray of yours?

“They were stubborn. They told me they wouldn’t give me orthopedic shoes if I didn’t do it. But it was so very painful to walk. Did I really need those shoes? Oh, those shoes came at a hefty price. I had to rent a special Italian device to get downstairs. It cost me two and half thousand rubles. But they did give me the shoes. Then I would daydream all the time about renting the device again so I could at least putter around the entryway, touch the flowers and the earth. But where would I get the money?”

“But when that building collapsed, why didn’t you move to your daughter’s place? She lives nearby. You really are like a hostage here.”

“How can I put it to you? It’s hard with her. She’s already sixty-eight, and she gets angry with me all the time, saying I love my son more. She’s stupid. How could I love him more? They’re both my kids. I’m just not used to people helping me. I’ve always counted only on myself. Dad was shot in 1938. Mom, my sister, and I lived in a bathhouse after we were kicked out of our house. Then we built a byre. Things got better and we didn’t starve. I raised kids. I used to ask the Lord to take me away, but now I think that no, I have to wait until my daughter’s house is resettled. They have it worse than we do. It’s like a barracks over there. Nine-storey buildings have been plopped down on either side, and their house is like an eyesore. When they give them new housing, I’ll die in peace. But for now I’ll go on living, because I have to. I also have grandchildren. They work in Moscow and Petersburg as managers? Did I get that right? I’m hanging in there. What else can I do if the Lord won’t take me. Look what cucumbers have grown on the balcony? I love the earth so much, and flowers, but you see I’ve been locked up inside four walls.”

I left. Kostomarova was already out on the balcony, standing and smiling amid the lush thickets of her cucumbers. It was a mere three meters, no more, from the front garden under her windows, with its luxurious golden balls of gladioli, to Kostomarova’s flat. Three meters to happiness. You would imagine social services could have helped. All she needed to get downstairs was that same Italian wheelchair. They could take the old woman outside at least once in a while.

Двор в БарнаулеA yard in Barnaul. Photo courtesy of Anton Unitsyn/TD

An old woman in a colorful flannel dressing gown calls to me.

“Did you go see Kostomarova? The whole neighborhood knows you. You want to help resettle us? Oh, you’re so young and naive. Here is what I have to say to you. Those guys from the mayor’s office are only waiting for everything here to fall to pieces. You saw that building over there collapsed? The people who died there were young: a man and woman who were in their early sixties. They had years ahead of them. It’s terrible to remember how the children crawled in the ruins and howled. I think that if all our buildings, these ones here, built after the war, were to collapse the same day, and we all died under the ruins, those guys from the mayor’s office would only rejoice. The excavators would have the bricks and us cleaned up in a jiffy, and they could build nine-storey buildings to their heart’s content. People are moving to the city: they need a place to live. But we are a burden to them: we old people and our old houses. What is my name? I don’t want to tell you. I don’t need the trouble. But I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Every time we get together, everyone says in unison, ‘If we and our houses vanished, they would be so glad.'”

Blame It on the Snow
According to official data, 319 residential buildings have been declared dilapidated in Altai Territory, 183 of them in Barnaul. All of them are subject to demolition, since they are unfit for habitation. Most of these buildings are in the Potok and VRZ districts, the old city center, and Soviet Army Street. There are also many dilapidated houses in Biysk and Rubtsovsk.

In 2017, there were particularly many emergencies in February and March, when a lot of snow had amassed on the roofs, snow packed down by above-freezing temperatures. The old housing stock cracked at the seams. In Barnaul, the roof of the two-storey building on Telephone Street, 30, collapsed under the weight of snow. In Biysk, part of the wall of Leningrad Street, 22, collapsed, while part of the wall and facade of Socialist Street, 34, collapsed. These are only a few examples of the houses that were destroyed.

“After we got the letters, we called the mayor’s office,” says Svetlana Balchis. “We were told that if Putin extended the program, they would begin resettling.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

The 1600th: Futurama

This is my 1600th entry since I started translating and writing articles about modern Russian politics, society, economics, art and culture, history, social movements, grassroots endeavors, and everyday life on this website nearly ten years ago.

My first post, dated October 23, 2007, was a translation of an excerpt from Viktor Mazin and Pavel Pepperstein’s fantastic 2005 book The Interpretation of Dreams. Provocative and surprising as ever, Mr. Pepperstein argued that

[o]nly the interim between Soviet socialism and capitalism was ecological. It was a time of crisis: the factories stood idle, and the air became cleaner. It is a pity, but those days (the nineties) came to an end, and now (under cover of patriotic speeches) our country is becoming a colony of international capitalism. They try and persuade us this is success, but it is not true. We should (my dreams tell me, and I believe them) put our beautiful country to a different use, for example, by turning it into a colossal nature and culture reserve. (After all, our country, like Brazil, produces the most valuable thing on Earth: oxygen.) We should close the borders to foreigners (but let anyone leave as they like), carry out a program of deindustrialization, and limit the birth rate.

Shortly thereafter, I was offered the job of editing another website, Chtodelat News, where I volunteered for nearly five years, publishing 740 posts and slowly figuring out what I wanted to say with this hybrid of translation,  editorializing, and media collage, and how I could say it.

After the long stint at Chtodelat News, I revived the Russian Reader, trying to make it as pluralistic, polyphonic and, occasionally, as paradoxical as I could, while also fulfilling the brief I have tried to keep to the fore from the very beginning: covering stories about Russia which no other Anglophone media would bother with (although they thus miss tiny but vital chunks of the big picture) and giving my readers access to Russian voices they would not otherwise hear.

I had meant to celebrate my 1500th post on this beat, but that make-believe anniversary came and went without my noticing it. It was all for the best, however, since now nearly ten years have passed since I set out on this unpredictable journey.

Like the very first post on this blog, my 1600th post is a glimpse into Russia’s possible futures, as imagined by Grey Dolphin (aka Vladimir Gel’man), his fellow scribbler Grim Reminder (yours truly), Russian rappers GROT, and my friends at the Moscow Times. TRR

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Russia: It Can’t Be Improved So Destroy It, or It Can’t Be Destroyed So Improve It?
Grey Dolphin
September 27, 2017

Grey Dolphin

The discussions about Russia’s prospects, currently underway among the conscious segment of Russian society, despite their public nature, in many respects resemble similar debates about the Soviet Union’s destiny, held in the kitchens of members of the intelligentsia and among politicized émigrés during the so-called stagnation. Relatively speaking, it was a debate between two parties. One party, the moderate optimists, grounded their expectations on hoped the country’s leadership would change course for one reason or another (or would itself change), and there would be a chance to change the Soviet Union for the better. (There were different opinions about what “better” meant and how to achieve it.) The other party, which included both moderate and radical pessimists, argued it was no longer possible or fundamentally impossible to improve the Soviet Union, and changes should be directed towards its total elimination. Time seemed to be on the side of the optimists, whose chances at success appeared realistic at perestroika’s outset, but in fact it was working inexorably on behalf of the pessimists. By the time the optimists seemingly got their chance, opportunities to improve the Soviet Union had largely been frittered away. History does not tolerate the subjunctive mood, and we do not know what turn events could have taken had perestroika been launched ten or fifteen years earlier. Those ten or fifteen years, however, passed only in conversations around kitchen tables, while the country’s leaders strove to prevent any change whatsoever. When the changes kicked off, the energies of both parties—the supporters of improving the Soviet Union, and the supporters of destroying the Soviet Union—had not exactly been exhaused in vain, but they had not been used very effectively.

Despite all the political and economic differences between the early 1970s and the late 2010s, the current conjuncture in Russia is not so remote from what it was then in the Soviet Union. Moderate optimists have proposed seemingly reasonable projects for improvements to the authorities and the public, but they themselves do not believe they can be realized “in this lifetime.” The moderate pessimists, if they had believed earlier in the possibility of improvement, have lost faith, while the radical pessimists never believed in improvements as a matter of principle. The optimists are waiting to see whether they will get the chance to improve at least something (and if so, when), while the pessimists are ready at a moment’s notice to exclaim, “Lord, let it burn!” For better or worse, however, so far there are no obvious “arsonists” in the vicinity who could and would want to demolish the current Russian political and economic order nor have any appeared on the distant horizon. Once again, as during the stagnation, time inexorably works on behalf of the pessimists. Sooner or later, yet another former optimist or, on the contrary, a person not involved in these debates will say something like, “Today’s Russia cannot be improved. It can only be destroyed.” (Essentially, this was what happened in the Soviet Union towards the end of perestroika. Of course, there were a different set of causes and other mechanisms in play then. What I have in mind is the rationale of transformation itself.) If and when the number of people supporting the verdict “destroy” reaches a critical mass, then the first of the questions posed in my post’s title will irreversibly be answered in the affirmative, occluding the second question altogether. The more news about events in Russia transpires every day, the more inevitable this outcome seems.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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GROT, “Fire”
If God wants to punish a man, He strips him of his reason.
I often think the whole country has been punished.
As in a fantasy story, I can see a light glowing over people’s heads.
This is not a sign of holiness.
It is a sign of moral decay,
Decay of beliefs, principles, and ideas.
The nostrils are already used to the rotting smell,
And there are cadaver spots on the faces of children and adults.
Self-destruction at the mental level,
The nation jumps into the abyss with a cry of “Keep off me!”
We will soon go extinct like the mammoths.
Young mothers with Jaguars and Parliaments.
People will have coming to them the trouble they stir up
Everyone will be punished according to their whims.

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

An ancient serpent lashes the sky with a crimson tongue,
Its breath ripples over the television networks.
Through TV screens it animates the golem and generates ghosts.
In the skulls of those who ate their souls
And vomited them out indifferently with counterfeit vodka
In the snow in winter or summer in the dust.
Two abused dudes filmed it on a mobile.
Look online, search for the tags “degenerates,” “masturbate,”
“Suck,” “come,” “sex with babies.”
I’m waiting for the last fire, but you better run.
Nothing can be fixed here now. Lord, let it burn!

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

Source: rap-text.ru

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Russia could ban Facebook next year if it fails to comply with a 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian citizens’ personal data on local servers, the state media censor said on Tuesday.

The U.S. social network would follow in the footsteps of LinkedIn, the social platform for professionals that was banned in Russia last year after a September 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian users’ personal data on localized servers.

The head of Russia’s state media watchdog Roskomnadzor warned that “there are no exceptions” to compliance with the data storage law seen by some observers as unenforceable.

“We will either ensure that the law is implemented, or the company will cease to work in Russia,” Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency.

He said the watchdog is aware of Facebook’s popularity, with an estimated 14.4 million monthly and 6 million daily users in Russia as of last year.

“On the other hand, we understand that this is not a unique service. There are other social networks.”

Twitter, Zharov said, has agreed to transfer by mid-2018 its Russian users’ data to Russian servers.

“We have no plans to investigate Facebook in that regard until the end of 2017,” he added. “We will think about it in 2018. Maybe we will investigate.”

[…]

________________________

 

Grim Reminder

There are no technical or legal justifications for banning Facebook in 2018, only political considerations. The principal political consideration would be the need to find ways of “celebrating” Putin’s auto-reinstallation as president for “another six-year term” (i.e., for life).

As a tyrant who brooks no opposition to his illegimate rule, Putin would have to celebrate his hollow victory by instituting a series of crackdowns against his foes, as he did after formally returning to the presidency in 2012.

One of these crackdowns could involve banning Facebook in Russia, as is strongly suggested by the article, quoted above.

But that would be the least of everyone’s worries once Putin essentially crowned himself tsar as a gift to himself for his stunningly bad performance as the country’s leader for eighteen years.

Since his entire reign has orbited not around solving the country’s problems, but imbricating himself and his clique of “former” KGB officers into every corporate and institutional nook and cranny in Russia (and beyond) while stealing everything he can get his hands on and rewarding his satraps with the booty “for a job well done,” he has not had much time to solve any real problems.

Hence the constant need to designate enemies and cripple, vanquish, jail, disappear or murder them, be they Facebook, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Boris Nemtsov.

Anyone who doesn’t explicitly support Putin—and by definition only members of his clique really support him, in the sense that members of a mafia clan are loyal to their boss—is de facto opposed to him.

This might be especially true during this upcoming election, because, I would imagine, the majority of Russia voters are, at very least, quite weary of Putin and his oppositionless electoral “victories” by now and would be inclined to stay home on election day, even if they are not willing to march in the streets. (That might require too much effort.)

But a low turnout would still be a slap in the face to a man whose whole shtick the last eighteen years or so has been his alleged “wild” popularity, a shtick supported by the mainstream Russian press, corrupt Russian pollsters, foreign media covering Russia, and “Russia experts,” most of whom have no other gauge for measuring or probing “Russian public opinion,” so they rely on rigged, astronomically high popularity ratings.

If something around ten percent of voters in the two capitals and the non-ethnic regions showed up on polling day, the myth of Putin’s popularity would be dealt a near-fatal blow.

Putin would take his humiliation out on his treacherous non-constituency by unleashing a panoply of crackdowns, adopting a whole new raft of repressive laws at lightning speed (as happened in the wake of his 2012 re-election), and, perhaps, arresting a prominent figure from the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny, sending him down for hard time. Or worse.

Author photos courtesy of cetacea.ru and the Russian Reader

Voices of Russians, Unsorted into Boxes

DSCN0457
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 the vast majority of “Russian experts” are in the business for their own professional advancement, not 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 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 understand.

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

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.”

21731069_1536832173044144_5241152260190270688_n
“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.

Putin’s Heartlands Are in Your Heads

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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