Russia Set to Fall Further Behind US in Terms of Living Standards

DSCN2995“Change Yourself for the Better.” If you read the following article, about the OECD’s forecast for economic growth in Russia, between the lines, you will discover a takeaway message that has been apparent to numerous observers for a long time. Until Russia does away with official kleptocracy, rampant corruption, outrageously bad governance, and the shock-and-awe policing of politics and business by the siloviki—i.e., unless it renounces Putinism and all its ways—there is little chance the living standards of ordinary Russians will improve much in the next forty years. Photo by the Russian Reader

Russia Set to Fall Further Behind US in Terms of Living Standards
OECD’s Experts Have Predicted the Futures of the World’s Major Economies
Tatyana Lomskaya
March 7, 2018

Russia is one of the few member states and parters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in which real per capita GDP will fall by 2060 relative to the benchmark, the United States, according to an OECD reported entitled “Long-Term Prospects: Scenarios for the World Economy, 2060.” Vedomosti has had access to the eport. A source at the OECD confirmed its authenticity while noting it was a preliminary draft.

In the absence of reforms, Russia’s per capita GDP will grow only 0.7% in the next twelve years, predict OECD economists. The stumbling block is low workforce productivity. In recent years, it has not increased at all, and it will accelerate to a mere 0.5% in the period 2018–2030. Another brake on economic growth is poor demography: the economically active and able-bodied segment of the populace has been declining. By way of comparison, due to its positive demographic circumstances, Turkey’s standard of living will increase considerably by 2060 to about three fourths of the figures for the US, write the report’s authors.  In Russia, it will increase to 40% of the benchmark before decreasing slightly.

It is hard not concur with the diagnosis, notes Alexander Isakov, VTB Capital’s chief economist for Russia. Demography and workforce productivity are the biggest constraints on economic growth in Russia.

In his March 1, 2018, address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin promised to increase per capita GDP by 50% by 2025. He said = Russia must firmly gain a foothold among the world’s top five economies by then. Putin meant GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP), Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin explained on the TV program Pozner. According to the IMF, Russia is now in sixth place in terms of GDP (PPP), four percent points behind Germany. The goal is to “bypass Germany,” explained the minister.

The goal can be brought within reach by applying active budgetary (e.g., tax cuts and increases in oil and gas costs) and monetary (e.g., lending) stimuli, says Kirill Tremasov, director of the analytics department at Locko Invest, but this is fraught with great risks.

Without reforms, Russian and the other BRICS countries will slow the growth of the world’s real GDP for forty years beginning in 2019, warn the report’s authors. To accelerate growth, they must increase workforce productivity by reforming governance, increasing the duration of schooling, and reducing trade tariffs.

If during the period 2020–2060, the BRICS countries develop the rule of law (which the World Bank evaluates on a scale from minus two to plus two), increase schooling to the median level of the OECD countries, and decrease trade tariffs to OECD median levels by 2030, the growth of per capita GDP will be 25% to 40% higher than in the baseline scenario. A key factor is governance reforms: combating corruption, improving law enforcement and the judiciary, increasing the efficiency of the civil service, and involving ordinary citizens more actively in politics.

The report notes this is especially important for Russia. Among the BRICS countries, Russia has the worst score for rule of law (-0.8) and the best score for average length of schooling (10.8 years). The Russian civil service has been adapted to the current political system, which assumes maximum centralization and the absence of political competition. Tremasov is skeptical: it is impossible and pointless to reform the civil service without democratizing the political system.


“How Living Standards Will Change: The OECD’s Baseline Scenario. Real Per Capita GDP at Purchasing Power Parity in 2010 Prices (US=100).” The blue horizontal lines represent predicted outcomes for 2018; the red lines, predicted figures for 2060. The countries included in the survey, as  listed from top to bottom, are Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Poland, Italy, France, Great Britain, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Ireland. Source: Preliminary Calculations from the OECD. Courtesy of Vedomosti

In his May 2012 decrees, Putin charged the government with increasing workforce productivity by one and a half times by 2018, but it had increased only by 3.8% as of 2016. Minister Oreshkin listed the obstacles: underinvestment, insufficiently developed infrastructure, and a lack of resources to upgrade productive assets.

Managers do not have a “culture of constantly improving efficiency and productivity,” he complained.

Workforce productivity is indeed the main obstacle to economic growth, but an increase of investments is needed in order to increase it, notes Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank. In 2017, about 50% of the increased investments in Russia were due to the extractive resources sector, although the bulk of GDP is generated in other sectors, says Orlova. Investments in agriculture grew by a mere 1.3%, fell in manufacturing and construction, and the commercial sector crashed altogther, falling 9.7%. Investment growth has been hindered by economic and geopolitical uncertainty, and the government has an ever harder time of reducing that uncertaintlywith sanctions in place, notes Orlova. Business, on the contrary, needs guarantees the rules of the game will not change for a long time.

Growth in productivity is impossible without increased competition, Tremasov points out. It is competition that compels companies to introduce new technology, reduce costs, and improve management. The more intense the competition in a sector, the higher the productivity, he notes, citing the retail trade and metallurgy as examples. Therefore, the main means of increasing economic efficiency is reducing the state’s share in the economy, argues Tremasov, as well as attracting foreign investors, reforming the judiciary, and reining in the security services [siloviki].

Measures to improve the country’s demographic circumstances will bear fruit in twenty-five years, when the corresponding generation enters the labor market, notes Isakov. The authorities should thus concentrate on increasing productivity.  If the market functions smoothly, the difference in productivity between companies in the same industry decreases, he argues, because they borrow technology and methods from each other, while inefficient companies are forced out of the market. In Russia, on the contrary, differences in productivity within industries are some of the highest in the world, due in part to gray sector employment practices, Isakov concludes.

Economic growth could take off if reforms are implemented, argues Orlova. The Russian economy is currently so inefficient that the jumpstart supplied by reforms would be huge.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Rate This Translation”

I didn’t ask for the wildly inaccurate translation, screenshotted below. It just showed up on my Facebook newsfeed from RBC as is, yet inadvertently hinting at the real state of affairs in the Kingdom of Denmark.

I wonder how Google Pixel Buds are going to do anything but confuse the hell out of the people who wear them if their translations are similarly brilliant.

Believe me, only trained, experienced human interpreters and translators are capable of making sense out of nonsense.

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This Is Russia


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

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galeria Shopping Center, 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 Center, 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




Valery Brinikh: The News from Adygea


Valery Brinikh

Valery Brinikh
September 9, 2017


I wrote a report on this Sunday’s elections. Don’t be lazy and read it to the end. You’ll learn a lot of new things.

Who Elects the Head of Adygea: A Political Portrait of the Republic’s Parliament

As you know, on Sunday, September 10, the State Council of the Republic of Adygea (in Adyghe, the Khase) will elect a new head for the republic. There are three candidates, but the outcome is predetermined. Who would doubt it? Correct me if I’m mistaken, but in the history of modern Russia this was probably the first instance when the outgoing head of a Russian region brought his own kinsman to Moscow so that Putin could view the bride, i.e. his chosen successor. Nor, we must note, were he and his kinsman immediately shown the door. This was probably taken by the petitioners from Adygea as a favorable sign.

Everything kicked off when, in March of last year, as it was about to give up the ghost, the members of the Adgyean parliament’s fifth convocation nearly unanimously voted (fifty yeas, four nays) to abolish direct, popular elections of the republic’s head, adopting a special law and making the relevant amendments to the Adygean Constitution. Having denied Adygeans the right to vote directly for head of the region, the “people’s” elected representatives formally explained their decision as a means of making the electoral process less expensive. However, no one abolished another law, a law of everyday life: cheaper doesn’t mean better.

So elections to the sixth convocation of the Adygean Khase, in 2016, took place with the understanding that it would be the new parliament, not the people, that would be picking the republic’s new head. So, the requirements for sifting out the winners were tougher than usuaul. It was boom or bust, literally, all or nothing. The powers that be backstopped its chosen candidates to the hilt, and the elections took place in a stifling climate of lawlessness, generated by the acting executive branch and the local office of the United Russia party. Functionaries of the Rodina (Motherland) party did everything they could to force the Adygean Central Elections Commission to remove the opposition party’s entire regional list of candidates from the ballot, although the party had a good chance of taking several seats in parliament. The billboards, posters, and flyers of all candidates and parties except United Russia and LDPR were destroyed hours, if not minutes, after they were posted. The vote tallies at the polling stations were skewed, and the votes received by candidates and parties that are not part of the so-called parliamentary grouping (United Russia, CPRF, A Just Russia, and LDPR) were totally nullified. The latter parties divvied up their shares of the vote totals in keeping with quotas that had been agreed in advance in Moscow. So, the current Adygean Khase consists of 38 MPs from United Russia, four MPS each from the CPRF and LDPR, and two MPs from A Just Russia. Two more MPs have to be elected in by-elections on September 10. There is no doubt that one of the two will be a United Russia member. Thus, MPs from United Russia make up 80% of the republic’s parliament, while the CPRF and LDPR have 8% of MPs each, and A Just Russia has 4% of MPs. Now let’s compare these proportion with the spread of MP mandates in the Russian State Duma. United Russia’s MPs occupy 76% of the seats; the CPRF, 9.5%; the LDPR, 8.7%; and A Just Russia, 5.8%. The Duma also has two MPs who are not members of these parties. One of them is a member of the Rodina party, the party that was successfully sent packing in Adygea. The outcomes are quite similiar, don’t you think? It’s as if the same templates had been used.

The lineup of MPs running in the 2017 elections has been thoroughly purged. Anyone who provoked the slightest doubts has been removed from the lists. Only five people who have been MPs for more than three convocations are left, and only nine MPS from the last three convocations are still in the running. Two of them are from the CPRF’s faction (Adam Bogus and Yevgeny Salov), while the rest are from United Russia. The other thirty-four MPs (out of a total of forty-eight) were elected during Aslan Tkhakushinov’s last two terms as head of the republic [he resigned in January 2017, after ten years in office], under the watchful eye of his team. In fact, they are part of his team.

Clearly, they express not the will of the people, but the will of their true masters, the men who got them elected. Thus, the clearly unelectable United Russian candidates Sergei Belokrys (District No. 16) and Rustam Kalashov (District No. 21) got the cherished mandates. During their party’s so-called primaries [the English word is used in Russian], they both took an honorable third place in their districts with 7% and 27% of the vote, respectively. Even more unelectable pawns were kinged after winning spots on United Russia’s party list.

They hardly all have the right to be called people’s representatives, if only because not all the MPs in the Khase’s sixth convocation were elected by the people on the new single voting day. Thus, seven of the winning candidates from United Russia list soon resigned for different reasons, and their mandates were automatically handed over to five new MPs from the party list (Yuri Gorokhov, Yevgenia Dyachkova, Zurab Zekhov, Azamat Mamkhegov, and Murat Shkhalakov). Two more MPs will be selected on September in single-mandate constituencies. LDPR’s list of of winners included party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the party’s regional leader Denis Ogiyenko, neither of whom took their seats in the Adygean parliament. Why Zhirinovsky did this is clear enough, but Ogiyenko works as an aide to an MP in the State Duma, where everything is grown-up and they feed you caviar sandwiches. The two LDPR leaders were replaced as Khase MPs by Valentina Chugunova and Tembot Shovgenov, thus technically bypassing the will of voters.

It is interesting to compare how much the majoritarian MP mandates in the republic’s urban districts and rural districts are worth in terms of votes cast by voters. Thus, Maykop, the capital city, is divided into nine electoral districts, inhabited by a total of 132,890 voters. One majoritarian mandate is thus worth, on average, 14,776 potential votes.  The Maykop Municipal District [not to be confused with Maykop per se] has three electoral districts and 46,111 voters, so an MP’s mandate is worth slightly more there: 15,370 votes. The Teuchezh District has only one majoritarian mandate, worth 13,549 votes. The Takhtamukay District is home to 51,840 votes, and so its four majoritarian mandates are worth an average of 12,960 votes. In the Giaginskaya District, the mandates are worth a bit less (12,563 votes on average), while in the neighboring Shovgenovsky District, it is worth 12,482 votes. Adygeysk’s single majoritarian mandate is worth 12,029 votes, while the Koshekhabl District’s two mandates are worth 11,407 votes apiece. The Krasnogvardeyskoye District has the “cheapest” mandates: two at 11,013 votes apiece. But strangers do not roam the homeland of the sweet couple of Aslan Tkhakushinov and Murat Kumpilov [Adygea’s acting head and Tkhakushinov’s chosen successor]. They elect only their own people and only on the advice of their superiors.

It was not entirely accurate to distribute MP mandates generally (whether from majoritarian single-mandate constituencies or party lists) in terms of the number of voters in the districts. The largest number of voters lives in Maykop (39% of all voters in Adygea), and its goes down from there. The Takhtamukay District has 15% of voters; the Maykop District, 13.6%; the Giaginskaya District, 7.4%; the Koshekhabl District, 7%; the Krasnogvardeyskoye District, 6.5%; the Teuchezh District, 4%; the Shovgenovsky District, 3.7%, and the town of Adygeysk, 3.5%. Meanwhile, the MPs from Maykop have only 30% of the mandates in the Khase; Takhtamukay District, 20%; Maykop District, 14%; Giaginskaya District, 6%; Koshekhabl District, 10%; Krasnogvardeyskoye District, 8%; Teuchezh District, 6%; Shovgenovsky District, 4%; and the town of Adygeysk, 2%.  The imbalance is obvious.

The sixth convocation of the Adygean Khase has only eight MPs (16.7% of the total number) employed in the state sector. Six MPs (12.5%) are party officials. The remaining MPs (over 70%) run businesses in different sectors of the economy. The largest number of them (21 MPs out of a total of 48) earn their money in construction, commerce (including wholesale commerce), and services. Four MPs (8.3%) get their income from agriculture. Three MPs (6.3%) work in banking and investing, while two MPs each (4.2% each) are involved, respectively, in the hotel and tourism business, logging and extractive industries, and industrial manufacturing. Yet the CRPF and A Just Russia factions are dominated by party officials (four out of six), while members of United Russia have a clear advantage in all other lines of work.

The sixth convocation of the Khase includes two high-profile businessmen with criminal pasts (according to the media): United Russia member Gissa Baste (aka Voloskevich) and non-partisan MP Adam Bogus (aka Mazai), who blocks with the CRPF faction. Several well-known businessmen from United Russia have close ties with different dubious firms and people with criminal pasts. In particular, nine deputies (six from United Russia, two from the LDPR, and one from the CPRF) are involved in the construction business in the Takhtamukay District, run by Azmet Skhalyakho aka the Foreman. According to the media, he earned the nickname not on the fields of his native Takhtumukay District, but by shaking down market traders in Krasnodar during the “wild” 1990s. The notorious prosecutor Murat Tkhakushinov, son of ex-republic head Aslan Tkhakushinov, worked in the same district until recently. The Takhtamukay District’s proximity to Krasnodar, the much lower prices for land in the district than in Krasnodar, and the total control over the black market for land plots by criminal gangs, who have fused with Adygea’s government agencies, have made the construction business in the district quite profitable. Especially if you are not bothered by the legality of particular transactions, do not waste money on pollution treatment facilities, and pay no mind to the quite costly environnmental requirements.

Questions also arise when you take a closer look at the life and times of Vladimir Narozhny, head of the United Russia faction and chair of the republic’s parliament. There are strange blanks in his CV from 1981 to 1991, which for some reason he does not particularly advertise. Judging by occasional references, he ran various agricultural businesses during this period. Currently, he is associated with a number of firms, also involved in agrobusiness, in Adygea and Krasnodar Territory. They have different names and legal addresses, and yet they have the very same Primary State Registration Number and Taxpayer Identification Number. Obsessive thoughts of criminal money laundering schemes come to mind, but I have probably read too many detective novels.

As a final touch to my sketch of the current Adygean Khase, I want to focus on yet another imbalance, which testifies to a deeply embedded problem, if not a chronic disease, that affects the regional authorities in Adygea. I have in mind the distortions in personnel policy that favor the so-called titular ethnic group, the Adyghe. This phenomenon, which I would dub the Adyghization of power in the republic, was especially rampant during Aslan Tkhakushinov’s second term and has kept evolving in the present. I would not argue it has anything to do with ethnic conflicts between two great peoples, the Russians and the Adyghe, but has been caused only by attempts by specific members of the so-called Ulyap clan, who have ruled the republic for the last ten years, to ensure they will stay in power for the indefinite future. This is done both by depriving the Adygean populace of the right to elect the republic’s leaders and local government officials in direct elections, and through a deliberate personnel policy of giving preference to members of the titular ethnic group when filling vacancies in state and municipal agencies—if possible, to members of one’s own clan and numerous kinsmen. This cup has also touched the republic’s legislative branch. Whereas the republic’s population consists of approximately 63% Slavs, 25% Adyghe, 3.5% Armenians, and 8.5% other ethnic groups, the Khase is dominated by members of the titular ethnic group, who hold 28 seats (or 58.33%), while the Slavs are represented by 19 MPs (or 39.58% of seats). There is also one Armenian MP in the parliament, and no one else. I do not insist on introducing ethnic quotas. (God forbid, we have already been through such attempts at achieving parity.) I merely want to draw attention to this obviously non-random outcome as the inevitable side effect of dishonest elections.

Valery Brinikh, Chair of the Adygean Regional Branch of the Greens Russian Ecological Party, September 8, 2017

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Bellona

“We Are Treated like Schmucks”: Why Volga Region Pensioners Have Rebelled against the Regime

“We Are Treated like Schmucks”: How and Why Volga Region Pensioners Have Rebelled against the Regime
Yeveniya Volunkova
Takie Dela
April 4, 2017

What Happened?
Certain benefits for pensioners, disabled people, and other beneficiaries were cut in Samara at the beginning of 2017. Monthly payments for housing services and utilities were replaced by compensation for actual expenses. People now have to pay their bills first, then show the authorities the receipts, and only after that, if they have no debts, are they compensated for their expenses. The system has not been put through its paces and does not function, so there have been problems with assembling documents and getting compensation. In addition, a charge for major renovations has been added to the housing maintenance bill, a charge that many people do not pay as a matter of principle. Also, free public transportation for working pensioners has been abolished, and the number of free rides on the subsidized transport pass has been limited to fifty. This lasts many people two weeks; moreover, people complain the “rides” disappear more quickly. The frosting on the cake was the cancellation of monthly cash payments for working pensioners, who number 175,000 in Samara Region. People have lost their supplementary pensions, which ranged from 600 to 1,200 rubles. Non-working pensioners, whose pensions are over 19,500 rubles, have also been stripped of supplementary payments. The Samara administration did not give permission to hold a protest rally on the city’s central square, allowing it only in a remote neighborhood. Despite these precautions, the protesters packed the square.

The fourth large-scale protest by pensioners took place in Samara on April 2. The old folks first rebelled against Samara Region Governor Nikolai Merkushin in early February, when around 300 people attended a protest rally. The number of protesters has grown each time, and yesterday, according to unofficial statistics, around 4,000 people gathered on the square near the Athletics Palace. The protesters told our correspondent Yevegniya Volunkova what they were protesting and how they had succeeded in coming together when the rallies have not been mentioned on television at all.


Nina Dmitrievna and Tamara Petrovna

Both women are seventy-nine years old. They heard about the rally from flyers and the internet. Their main complaints are Mordovian produce in the city and a fountain during the plague.

We’re upset about our poverty, the judicial system, and very many other things. But first of all, we want to see Merkushkin replaced. He squanders money and imports everything from Mordovia, including crushed stone, paving tile, and cement. Whatever shop you go to, the produce is all Mordovian. It’s no wonder his nickname is the Mordvin Pasha. During these hard times for the region, he wants to build the best fountain in Europe on the river embankment. Is now the time for it? Replace the pavement and benches, sure, but why the heck do we need a fountain right now? My friends and two children live in poverty, and it’s hard to buy bread. But this stadium [Samara is one of the host cities for the 2018 World Cup — TD], good God, how much money they’ve embezzled, and it’s not clear whether they’ll finish it or not. They took their kickbacks, but there’s no money left to build the thing. If we could see that everything was being done on behalf of the people, we would put up with it, but they have been stealing. Merkhushkin pumped three million into the wall on Samara Square [the Wall of Honor on Glory Square, which cut off a beautiful view of the Volga and Zhiguli Mountains, popularly known as the Wailing Wall — TD). It’s in terribly bad taste! And so much money was spent.

Mikhail Viktorovich

Seventy years old, he heard about the rally from friends. His main complaint: how can he survive on his pension?

How the mean regime deals with veterans! Yesterday, villagers told me their family had a monthly pension of 8,000 rubles [approx. 133 euros] or so. What is that? How can a person survive? Today, I went to get milk and bread. I also bought some biscuits and something to put in a soup. 600 rubles [approx. 10 euros] was gone just like that. Is the governor here? He didn’t show up? Shame on him! He stole kopecks from pensioners. Down with our government! They have not made a single effective move to improve the well-being of veterans.

Irina Olegovna

Sixty years old, she heard about the rally from a girlfriend. Her main complaint is that she has been forced to work to survive.

My monthly pension is 7,700 rubles, and I used to get a veteran’s bonus. I worked as an educator my whole life. Merkushkin took way the 621 rubles I got as a veteran’s bonus. I have no husband and no support. I’m forced to work to survive, but I have a whole passle of ailments. Should I approve his policies? He can go back to his native Mordovia. Besides, he lies and lies and lies. He shamelessly lies that he gives us a pension. I wrote a letter to him asking him to help me find work. Do you think he helped me? He didn’t do a damn thing for me.

Valentina Andreyevna

Sixty-three years old, she found out about the rally from the internet. Her main complaint is shamefully low pensions.

I came out of a sense of solidarity. I don’t receive any discount benefits: my length of service was too short. There should other slogans here: “Decent pensions!” Give us a decent pension and we wouldn’t need discounts. We’ll pay for public transport passes, for apartment maintenance costs, and so on. But it’s impossible to live on our miserly pensions.

Valery Remizov

Twenty-two years old, he found out about the rally from the internet. His main complaint is bad roads.

I came to the rally to voice my dissatisfaction with Nikolai Merkushkin’s social policies. It’s a pity our pensioners have to stand in the cold, demanding a few miserable kopecks. I’m sick of the state of the roads in this country. I’m tired of the fact the regime treats me hypocritically not only as a disabled person but also as an individual. It treats everything as a resource that can be sent off to war, god knows where. And yet it cannot organize a decent urban infrastructure, a decent life. I think the government needs to revise its policy of restricting the number of rides on public transport one can take if you have a discounted travel pass. I ride public transport all the time and I travel around town more than the authorities think I do.

Emma Viktorovna

Seventy years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is that the governor was decorated “for his contribution to cosmonautics.”

Merkushkin is impudent. He’s an outsider in Samara. My colleagues, who have worked all their lives at the cosmodrome, were decorated for their service. But why the hell did they did stick an honorary pin on him for his contribution to cosmonautics? He has made no contribution whatsoever to cosmonautics. A persons should be more modest. Yet our colleagues where shown on TV standing off to the side, while he was shown in close-up. How did Samara manage without Merkushkina? Probably, it didn’t manage. But little Nikolai showed up, and it has been once achievement after another since then.

“Roads are Samara’s second misery. The fools in power are the first.” Roads are one of Samara’s worst problems. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela


Sixty-five years old, he heard about the rally from his grandson. His main complaint is that the restricted number of trips on the discounted public transport travel pass make it hard for him to travel to the Volga.

Can you deceive people like that? They compare us with Penza, where forty-eight rides is more than enough, supposedly. Samara is a huge city: fifty trips a month is not enough here. When I’m traveling, all my rides get eaten up by he transfers. It’s a huge city. In the summer, I want to go to the Volga to swim. How many transfers is that? Fifty trips runs out in two weeks. Then there are housing services and utilities. We are forced to pay for utilities, but the discounts come later, after we’ve paid. Yet officials have included a fee for major house renovations in our bills. I don’t want to pay it. What am I paying for? I’ve lived half my life in the same building, which is falling apart at the seams. Major renovations have never once been carried out in that building.

Samara Subway and Tram Map. Courtesy of CartoTalk

Nadezha Fyodorovna

Sixty-nine years old, she heard about the rally from reading flyers. Her main complaint is how the money owed to pensioners has been used to pay for the governor’s palaces and the World Cup.

That scumbag Merkushkin took away all our benefits. How did he dare? He built himself palaces on Rublyovka, four palaces at three hundred million each. Does he have a conscience? Today, he was on Channel Two saying he built all the roads for us. The roads are all good, and everything in Samara is good. Only our pensions will have to pay for the World Cup. He’s a real bastard, a scumbag. We should send him packing back to Mordovia, where he can choke on his sons and relatives. Let’s keep coming out for protest rallies and demanding he resign.

Irina Olegovna and Lyubov Andreyevna

Forty-six and seventy-seven, they heard about the rally on the internet. Their main complaint is that the regime embezzles money and treats people like schmucks.

Irina Olegovna: I’m not a pensioner, but I came to stick up for them. I’m outraged by the injustice that flourishes in our country. The authorities have found the right people to rip off: pensioners. They holler about being a super power, that they defeated the fascists. Who beat whom? What’s the standard of living in Germany and the standard of living in Russia? Who did they defeat? Pensioners and sick children?

Young people attended the rally this time to support the pensioners. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Lyubov Andreyevna: We’ve been spat on from all sides. You cannot get in anywhere to talk to anyone, whether it’s housing services and utilities or healthcare. Everywhere they could not care less about us. I’m seventy-seven. I use the internet and I know everything. I was a decision-maker when I was employed, but now I’ve been utterly humiliated. Thank you, Navalny, that you exposed Medvedev. We must send him packing

IO: It’s absolutely clear to everyone that regime embezzles money, and the fact they are silent is additional proof that thievery is going on. What happened to Serdyukov and Vasilyeva are proven facts. There was a trial, and they were let go. They sold off the property of the defense industry and lined their pockets. I don’t understand who needed this demonstrative flogging. They pulled out their dirty underwear, showed it to everyone, and put it away. I’ll be damned!

LA: Because they consider us idiots.

IO: Stupid schmucks!

LA: Stupid schmucks, cows, that’s who we are!

IO:  I agree with you completely. But ultimately they have to understand a point of no return will be reached, when it all goes to hell. What, are they waiting until people come after them with pitchforks? The country has already reached the boiling point. What the heck do we need Crimea for when our country is poor? I used to support Putin. He inherited a heavy burden, the country was in ruins. He seemed decent. I believed he’d put the country in shape. But then I realized what was what.

LA: Putin works for the oligarchs, not for himself. And we cows will all die off.

Vasily Petrovich

Eighty-two years old, he found out about the rally from a flyer. His main complaint is that payments have not been made to people who went through the war as children.

Look, I’ve brought a newspaper from 2014. Merkushkin promised to make monthly payments of 1,000 rubles to people who went through the war as children. But he didn’t give us fuck-all. We spent the war on a collective farm. Cold and hungry, we supplied the front and the cities with produce, while we ourselves ate grass and dirt. We survived, we were victorious, and now what? Now we are dying in poverty.

“Stop Making Fools of Russian Dudes!” Protest rally in Samara. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

Lydia Nikolayevna

Sixty-eight years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is that her family has been stripped of all benefits, and that the regime takes people for idiots.

I’m a history teacher, I worked my whole life. Three years ago, my daughter died, leaving me to take care of my granddaughter Lada. She’s thirteen and in the sixth grade. By order of the city administration, the city paid the difference in the housing services and utilities bills for her as an orphan for the whole of 2016. The payment was small, but it made a difference. I’m a veteran of pedagogical work and disabled. We were supposedly divided into two groups: “rich” pensioners, who got 19,000 rubles a month, and poor pensioners. Money was taken away from us under the pretext of giving it to the poor. Money was taken from 175,000 people and then returned, allegedly, but we still haven’t got the money back. I don’t think they took the money in order to give it back. I take my granddaughter to school. I have to transfer, and I use four rides on my discounted travel pass. When they limited the number of trips to fifty, they took us for idiots. They also sucker us out of rides. My friends recorded every trip and noticed that they were shorting us by ten rides. They run out before the month ends, and they kick us off public transport. They’re secretly stealing even from these crumbs, from the fifty rides, as if we couldn’t check how many rides we were getting. I feel ashamed of this regime. We worked honestly our whole lives, and now they’re punishing us, punishing orphaned children and disabled people. It’s disgusting.


Sixty-one years old, she heard about the rally on the internet. Her main complaint is the thieves in the government.

I have been denied the chance to travel by public transport. I need to drop off and pick up my granddaughter nearly every day. Of course, the number of rides on the travel pass is not enough. It’s just digusting. Why did they decide to limit us? What made them think fifty rides was enough for us? Merkushkin says that somebody made a thousand trips in a month on a seasonal pass. That’s utter rubbish. Even if it’s true, does that mean everyone has to have their benefits slashed? How many crooks and thieves are in the government? How many cases of corruption have been proven? In keeping with Merkushkin’s line of reasoning, all governors should be hauled into the Investigative Committee, no?

Organizing People through Their Wallets

“Let’s Reforge Medvedev’s Palaces into Unlimited Rides for Veterans.” The fifty rides they get on their free transport passes is not enough for residents. Photo courtesy of Yevgeniya Volunkova/Takie Dela

The main organizer of the rallies, Mikhail Matveev, a Communist MP in the Samara Regional Duma, is certain that his best organizer, the person who gets people out to the protest rallies, is Governor Merkushkin himself, the man whose decisions have driven people to the edge.

“Our old ladies don’t just read newspapers and watch TV. They’re not as backwards as they seem. They read social networks and blogs. Young people tell them things. Plus, we leaflet mailboxes and residential building entryways. We printed around 15,000 leaflets for the March 19 rally. The printing was paid for by the party and by ordinary people. It’s not a lot of money, but we don’t have anymore. Residents help us by leafletting for free and printing the leaflets at home on their printers. But the main organizing factor is people’s wallets, and the main organizer is Merkushkin. It used to be that pensioners weren’t aware that the number of trips on public transport was limited, but suddenly they were kicked off buses. The pension checks arrived, they were 700 rubles less, and so on. Dissatisfaction has been growing. We are grateful to Governor Merkushkin for the fact that his blunt propaganda pisses people off. There are all the phrases he tosses off at meetings with constituents, like, ‘It was you who did it so that we did nothing for you,’ and so on. They make the rounds. There will be more protest rallies until we get the pensioners their benefits back and send the governor packing.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Authoritarian Democracy”: Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom

“I Don’t Impose My Opinion”
Maria Bobylyova
Takie Dela
April 11, 2017

Just as in Soviet times, schoolteachers are now forced to hold political information lessons, to talk with schoolchildren about the current political conjuncture. But a new generation of savvy schoolchildren has emerged. We talked with two teachers about their political stances and how they argue with pupils.

“We Must Raise Mentally Healthy Children with Traditional Family Values”
Thirty years old, Natalya lives in Stavropol, where she teaches history and social studies at school. She supports the current regime and teaches children to think freely, love the Motherland, and practice correct family values.

I support the current regime and the policies of our president. I don’t like everything that is done. For example, I don’t quite understand why the regions are not entirely rational in spending federal money. But basically I’m satisfied with everything, especially our foreign policy. I’m insanely proud that Crimea is now part of Russia. I believe this is historically just. If you look at past wars, about forty percent of them were over Crimea. I believe that when Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, it was a big mistake. Crimea is strategically important to us and we cannot let our enemies make the region a sphere of their influence.

You don’t think it was done illegally?

Why illegally? Ninety-three percent of Crimeans voted in a referendum to join Russia. There was no pressure or coercion.

Are the subsequent sanctions fair?

They are inevitable consequences. If you want to take something, you have to understand there will be consequences. We are paying for them even now. But they’re trivial compared to the benefits: the Black Sea, Sevastopol, and the navy. We didn’t annex Crimea forcibly. We didn’t send in troops. There’s a propaganda campaign against our country underway in the world. We live in the provinces, but we have free access to all sources of information, and that’s good. Generally, having access to information is empowering, and the recent elections in the US have shown that.

You’re happy with the outcome?

Very much so. I supported Trump from the beginning. He didn’t voice such an anti-Russian stance as Clinton did. I don’t like her at all.

You weren’t embarrassed by his sexist attacks?

They’re trifles. He’s such an eccentric, extravagant man. Moreover, this is not only America’s sin but Europe’s as well. Things are far from normal when it comes to morality there. Their so-called tolerance alone suffices. They call it tolerance. I would call it something else.

They didn’t call Trump’s outburts tolerant.

It doesn’t matter. They’re in a state of degradation. Take, for example, all those same-sex marriages. They will cause the death of mankind, although I can’t say I’m against such relationships. Everyone has the right to a private life, and I won’t be the first to cast stones at such people. By the way, this topic really interests my pupils as well. For example, in social studies, we cover the topic of marriage, and we say that it’s a union between a man and a woman. Yet every time in class there is someone who says, “But what about same-sex marriages”?

How do you reply?

That it absolutely contradicts our country’s and our mentality’s moral foundations. And that it will cause mankind’s extinction.

But same-sex couples can also have children.

I believe this is wrong and has a bad effect on the children. If a child grows up seeing this example, he will think he can repeat it, too, and that there’s nothing wrong about it.

You believe homosexuality can be taught?

Yes, to a large extent. Even if there is something innate about it, it can either emerge or not under society’s impact. So society is obliged to beat it in time.

Do you have any LGBT pupils?

Absolutely not. I would have noticed. A girl once came to me for tutoring who didn’t hide the fact she was a lesbian, and she was clearly different from other children.

In what sense?

She openly told me she believed same-sex unions were normal.

What would you do if there were a same-sex couple in your class?

I would definitely tell the parents, as I did in this girl’s case. But her parents were aware: her family had given her a liberal upbringing . If parents consider it normal to raise their child that way, there’s nothing I can do and I won’t intervene, nor do I have the right.

What if you had the right?

I would talk with the teenager and find out the cause of the problem, probably more for myself, so that I would know how to raise my own children later. Because I really wouldn’t like my future child to turn out like that.

What would you do then?

I would have a talk with him. I would take him to a psychologist. I would do everything possible to fix it.

What if nothing helped?

That wouldn’t happen. In adolescence, children don’t have a clear position that cannot be broken. I would break it.

What if you found out a fellow teacher was gay?

It wouldn’t affect my relationship with him, but I wouldn’t let our families become chummy so my own child wouldn’t be exposed to his example. Children really do copy the behavior of adults. We must raise mentally healthy children with traditional family values. There are things we had nothing to do with devising and that we have no right to change: family, patriotism, and decency.  What kind of family can there be without children?

As I already said, same-sex couples can and do have children.

How is that? How can two men have a child? Only through a surrogate mother. But I don’t think you’ll find many women willing to bear a child for two gays even for money, not in our country, at least.

What about adoption?

That’s impossible in Russia, thank God. I think it is extremely wrong. Children should be raised in normal, full-fledged, traditional families.

What if you had to choose between an orphanage and same-sex parents?

Who said that an orphanage is necessarily a bad thing? I know many children from orphanages, and they are full-fledged individuals who are grateful to their minders and to the state, which provides them with both real estate [sic] and material support.  Many of the children in our school come from orphanages. They are all well adapted both in terms of education and in terms of socialization with other children. Our work involves smoothing out the differences and avoiding bullying and conflicts. We’re good at that here in the Caucasus.

You probably have multiethnic classes?

Yes, and different religions. It’s a very complicated topic, because we have many different ethnic groups. Turkmen, Chechens, Armenians, and even Syrians go to our school. Teachers have to deal with the topic of religions and ethnic groups delicately. Someone puts on Alisa‘s “Sky of the Slavs,” and you’re immediately on the lookout, because the song can provoke very different reactions and feelings from children. You always have to think before speak. Children react instantaneously. You aren’t able to reverse time or take back what you said. But religious topics really interest children.

Alisa, “Sky of the Slavs” (2003, dir. Oleg Flyangolts)

What exactly interests them?

They closely monitor the material well-being of priests, for example, the story about Patriarch Kirill’s watch and all that. They come to me and ask whether it’s true.

What do you tell them?

That I don’t know myself. Like them, I read the same news. But I think when it comes to religious issues there can be no freedom of interpretation.  No wonder we have a law against insulting the feelings of believers. Believing or not believing is a personal stance, but there shouldn’t be any blasphemy or mockery. What happened to Pussy Riot is indicative in this sense.

You think the verdict was fair?

One hundred percent fair, of course. If anyone would be able to go into a church and do as he wishes, what would become of us? We need to respect the feelings of believers, especially in our country, where Orthodoxy has always played such an important role. Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality: that’s how it was, and it’s still that way to some extent. Yet all religions are respected equally in our great country. I’ve never heard Vladimir Vladimirovich give a single speech in which he called on everyone to become Orthodox.

Do you like Putin?

A lot. He’s a charismatic leader, in my opinion: this is obvious to everyone. He arrived at a complicated moment and immediately won people over. There is something attractive about him. He always finds a way to get out of any complicated situation gracefully. He can joke or scold, but he always comes out the winner. He deserves to be the most influential politician in the world, and he is the most influential politician. The western media accuse him of being an authoritarian, but I would call it authoritarian democracy. It’s not the worse option for Russia.

Do you following the corruption scandals plaguing the regime?

Of course. Be we have to understand that corruption is a mindset in Russia. In my history lessons, I always tell the children about how Peter the Great decided to eradicate corruption and asked Prince Alexander Menshikov’s advice. Menshikov replied, “You’ll run out of rope and be left without subjects.” We know that Menshikov was the biggest embezzler in Peter’s court. So there has always been corruption and there will always be a corruption. Do you think that if Navalny took power he would beat corruption without getting bogged down in it himself? On the other hand, these stories are not always true. They are often just PR campaigns to tarnish someone who has fallen out of favor. Besides, I think corruption thrives partly due to our political passivity and popular legal illiteracy. If you decide to go with the flow, don’t be surprised when you get to the river bed and see what you see. You have to start with yourself.

How do you start?

Don’t give bribes, for example, even it makes things simple and quicker. Obey the law even in those particulars where you imagine you can violate it. However, there is much more order than before. I remember what happend under Yeltsin. [Although she would have been twelve when Putin took power — TRR.] Those were horrible times. I grew up in a village. There were five children in our family, and Mom traded hand-me-downs with the neighbors. We took turns wearing them out. Dad wasn’t paid his wages for months at a time, Mom couldn’t find a job, and Grandma wasn’t paid her pension. We had a garden. We grew what we could, and it was our only means of survival. I remember well how everything changed with Putin’s arrival.

In the material sense as well?

Of course. When I went to work at the school, I got a young specialist’s bonus for three years. Although I didn’t go to work at the school right away. I put in time as an administrator and a real estate agent, and I worked in management. So I have something to compare it with. I have worked at the school for six years and I sense the state’s support. I get a decent wage and I am able to satisfy most of my material needs. I feel calm and confident. I live in a country where there is no Chechen War to which soldiers could be sent.

Soldiers can now be sent to other wars.

If you mean Ukraine, I have no information our troops are fighting there, except for professional or special units. All the rest is western propaganda. I don’t like the war in Ukraine, just as I don’t like any war.

What about Syria?

What about Syria? Yes, we’re fighting there, but it’s not our country. Everything is calm within Russia. There are no longer any separatists sentiments, as there were under Yeltsin, and I am personally grateful to Vladimir Putin for this. Historically, we have been attracted by strong individuals who can establish order by any means. In this sense, I see Putin as a man of his word. He never makes promises he doesn’t keep.

Who is your favorite historical leader?

Peter the Great. Russia flourished under his reign. We got a navy and an empire, and we were victorious in war. Of course, there were excesses, but there is not a single politician in the world who doesn’t have them. Basically, you should always look at things objectively. So when we cover Ivan the Terrible, I always teach the children that besides the bad things there were also good things: centralization, the annexation of Astrakhan and Kazan, and the conquest of Siberia. Expanding territory is a good thing. It means resources, people, culture, borders, and a geopolitical position.

Do you think that Russia has its own way?

I really like the position of the Slavophiles. I like thinking that our history and our people are typified by a certain exclusivity. History proves it. We have never been ready for a single war, but we win all the wars we fight. This makes me proud, and I teach the children to be proud of this, to be proud of their country, its heritage, and its great culture. That’s what real patriotism is about. My pupils and I look at the facts together and learn to analyze rather than just label things and divide them into black and white. My job is to provide the children with full access to all historical information. I never impose readymade conclusions. For example, in the tenth grade we’re now studying the Emperor Paul. My children love him terribly and feel sorry for him. They say he was unloved by his mother, and then he was killed. Although I relate to him coolly, to put it mildly.

Do discussions arise a lot during your classes?

Constantly. I think it’s very important to let children speak. Our job, after all, is to educate individuals, not homogeneous clones. Our country needs strong, independent people who are able to think. Teachers who don’t let children speak undermine their own authority. If you’re not willing to argue, you’re a despot who imposes her own opinion, not a teacher. Children fear and hate you, and I don’t want that. One of the places that history happens is right outside the school building. So I never stop lively discussions, because they teach children to think and analyze. Of course, if a discussion goes on for three classes in a row, I’ll find a way to get back to the lesson plan. But I really like lively discussions. It’s so great when you see individuals growing up right before your eyes.

Are your pupils interested in politics?

Very much so, especially the upperclassmen. They watch the news, ask questions, and argue. Political debates happen both during lessons and recesses. They are interested not only in politics but also in everything that is going on, for example, the recent story of Diana Shurygina really agitated them. But they are also interested in the elections. They can’t wait to vote for the first time.

Do you voice your own political views to them?

I express my viewpoint, but I never impose it. I think children have a right to their own opinions, so I let everyone speak. There are lots of different children among my pupils, and I wouldn’t say all of them support the regime. They read RBC and Life and Meduza. I have a boy in the ninth grade, Yegor, who is an ardent oppositionist, and I find it fairly interesting to discuss things with him. He never descends to demagoguery,  but reads and watches lots of things, and supports his opinion with facts. I also watch TV Rain and listen to Echo of Moscow to be familiar with a different point of view and be able to rebut Yegor.

Are you trying to change his mind?

He and I just discuss things: he’s not going to change his mind, nor should he. It’s not my goal to impose my opinion. Although, of course, when my pupils grow up and become patriots, I’m pleased. It happens that a child transfers from another school. He sees everything in a bleak light and is quite unpatriotic. But then he learns to think critically and gradually realizes what a great history Russia has and what a great country it is. When I took over my own class from another history teacher, the children constantly referred to our country as “Russia.” But when, several months later, they said “We” instead of “Russia,” I was so proud I got goosebumps. Fifteen Armenians, three Turkmen, and five Russias are seated in front of you, and they all say “we.” They’re genuine patriots.

“I Feel Lonely, Insecure, and Misunderstood”
Olga lives in a regional capital in the central part of European Russia. She is fifty-four years old, and she has taught at a pedagogical college her whole life. Students are admitted to the college after finishing the ninth and eleventh grades, which means that Olga deals with teenagers between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. She is a liberal, but she tries to hide it, because most of the people around here don’t understand her.

I didn’t always have liberal views. When the Soviet Union collapsed and life got bad very fast, I was opposed to it and voted for the Communists. But then there was some trouble in my family and I came face to face with the system and the state. I saw from the inside how the laws and state agencies function in Russia, and my eyes were opened as it were. I realized what mattered is that a person has freedom and should have freedom. People in Russia are fond of saying that what matter is one’s health, while we can put up with the rest. I think that people should not have put up with anything and then they’ll be healthy. But if there is no freedom, health won’t be of any use to them.

Why do you hide the fact you’re in the opposition?

At first, I tried to talk with my colleagues and voice my disagreement with the current regime. They didn’t understand me. They would say, “Aren’t you Russian? Aren’t you a patriot?” Initially, I would argue. I’d say I was in fact a real patriot, and that Pushkin, Akhmatova, Vysotsky et al., were on my side, while they had only one person on theirs. Then I realized it was pointless. They are seemingly decent, pleasant people, but completely alien. Or I’m talking to a colleague who tells me how a friend of hers has made it big. He works in a company that produces asphalt. They’ve learned to dilute the asphalt somehow to produce twice as much so they could sell it under the table. This same colleague of mine claimed to be a patriot, yet she also was a driver and had to drive on those roads. I don’t understand that. I’m surrounded by people who watch the national channels and don’t want to know a thing. They have university degrees, but they watch Kiselyov and Solovyov and listen to them like zombies. So there is no one with whom to talk.

No one at all?

There are one or two people who will hear me out, and I’m grateful for even that much. However, sometimes I’m aware I’m not alone. Recently, during a continuing education course, I was pleasantly surprised by the progressive woman teaching the course. She talked about our regime’s idiocy and that we had to filter what the leadership was sending down to us from above, because we were responsible for the kind of teachers we graduated. She also advised us to watch Dmitry Bykov’s lectures, can you imagine? I was simply amazed there were people like that in our region.

Who do you vote for?

The last time, I just crossed out my ballot so no one would get my vote. I voted for Prokhorov during the last presidential elections, although everyone tried to prove to me he was a pet project of the Kremlin’s. Now they say Navalny is a pet project of the Kremlin’s,  although I have a hard time believing it. I read and listen to all the opposition politicians, including Navalny and Yabloko. My day begins with Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow. I don’t watch TV except for RBC’s channel. When I catch Mom watching Channel One, I chew her out. But lately I’ve weaned her off it, thank God.

Do you broadcast your views to your students?

Directly, no, and besides, I can’t do it because I could be punished. Yet if you support the regime you can say anything at all. Like the school principal from Bryansk in that video. I’m 100% sure she was completely sincere. People like that can speak out, but I can’t. All I can do is introduce the younger generation to some works and give them the freedom to speak their minds and think. Making someone think like you is the biggest crime. They should think as they see fit. But our teachers sin by imposing their views. I teach Russian and teaching methods, and my students are future primary school teachers. So I can influence them only though quotations and by asking them to read things. Recently, I asked them to listen to Vasya Oblomov’s song “A Long and Unhappy Life.”

Vasya Oblomov, “A Long and Unhappy Life” (2017)

What political views do your students have?

They have different views, but many of them sincerely upset me. Recently, they asked me whether I would steal food and take it home if I worked in the cafeteria. They think there is nothing wrong about it. Everyone does it and it’s normal. I wonder where a sixteen-year-old gets this view of the world. Obviously, at home, although my past communist views had their origins in school. I remember our teacher telling us we had to be like Volodya Ulyanov [Lenin], and I really wanted to be like him. I would go to the library and ask for a book about Lenin, but the librarian would be surprised and suggest a book of fairytales. Later, when the teacher said I was like the young Volodya, it was the highest praise I could imagine.

Do you experience any pressure from up top in terms of what you can say and what you can’t?

There’s no direct pressure. The fact is we have quite heavy workloads. I think it’s done on purpose so we don’t have time to think and approach the work creatively. I’m buried in papers and forms, and there is no time to do anything worthwhile. Plus I’m forced to work one and a half to two jobs just to earn something, and that isn’t conducive to quality, either. Sometimes, we’re asked to go somewhere. Three years ago, we were ordered to attend a pro-Crimea annexation rally, and although I was against it I went anyway. But I don’t go to May Day demos. They ask me to go, but I say I don’t support the goverenment. They look at me funny and leave me alone.

You’ve never thought about changing jobs?

I have thought about it, and more than once, but it’s not so easy to find a job in our region. I really wanted to leave ten years ago or so, when we were buried in paperwork. But now I think, why the heck should I go? I love my work and I’ve been at it thirty years.

Has your life changed since Putin came to power?

You know, I did alright in the nineties, if it’s possible to say that. We got paid on time, and as for everything else our province is half asleep. But in the noughties I started to feel personally uncomfortable. When the old NTV was dismantled, and the news program Nadmedni was shut down, it made me tense. And then there have been all these strange laws, Crimea, and sanctions. I have no hope at all that anything will change.

So you watched the old NTV and yet voted for Zyuganov?

Yes. I arrived at my liberal views the long way around. On the other hand, if a person doesn’t change, she stagnates. Only there is no point in these changes. I feel lonely, insecure, and misunderstood. I look at the people around me, and they’re in a patriotic euphoria. Ninety percent of them really support the annexation of Crimea. I have always traveled to Crimea and I’ll keep on going to Crimea, because I love it and I have family there. But I try and avoid discussing the topic with them. They’re happy: they got a rise in their pensions. I agree that Crimea has always been ours, but the way it was annexed was wrong.

Does your liberalism extend to all areas of life?

Generally, yes. But there should be moderation in all things. For example, it’s wrong if a young woman with tattoos and a shaven head plans to be a primary school teacher. In any case, I imagine freedom as a certain set of internal constraints. Teaching is a conservative profession, and if you choose it, you have to agree to certain restraints.

What other things should teachers not let themselves do?

Rather, they shouldn’t demonstrate them openly. You remember how in Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, the sister-in-law tells Katerina she can do anything as long it’s hush-hush. If this is what our society is like, you shouldn’t rub someone the wrong way. It’s a private matter for everyone. If I were principal, I would not care less about sexual orientation. But I’m against making it a matter of public record and discussing these topics widely. It’s the same thing with religion.

What about religion?

In our country, if you’re a religious person, you can speak your mind freely and often impose your opinion as well. If you’re not, you are forced to keep your mouth lest you offend, God forbid, the feelings of believers. So I keep my mouth shut. I keep my mouth shut about one thing or another. Basically, I’m a cowardly person.

Translation and photography by the Russian Reader

Alexander Morozov: The So-Called Partners

The So-Called Partners: How the Kremlin Corrupted an Unimaginable Number of People in the West
Alexander Morozov
March 14, 2017

Vladimir Putin and Michael Flynn at TV channel Russia Today’s birthday party, December 2015

Before Crimea, everyone “cooperated” with the Russians. Until mid 2016, there was confusion about this past. The sanctions did not almost nothing to change this mode of cooperation.

But since the elections in the US, quite significant changes have been occurring that are hard to describe accurately and identify. Outwardly, this is encapsulated in the fact that people accused of communicating with the Russians have been losing their posts, and all this comes amidst public scandals. It’s not that people cooperated maliciously, but they were involved in what Russian gangsters call zaskhvar, “getting dirty.”

No one doubted Flynn’s loyalty, but he resigned due to “contacts.” The deputy speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas, Mindaugas Bastys, resigned the other day. He resigned because the Lithuanian secret services refused him access to secret information, although the list of Russians with whom he palled around at different times doesn’t contain anyone special: employees of Russian state corporations in Lithuania, crooked local Russian businessmen, and so on. Recently, the mailbox of an adventurer who has worked for the Kremlin in four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary), and the Balkans to boot, was hacked. It transpired that Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev had discussed or conducted ops of some kind during the elections in Bosnia and Poland.

Malofeev is, seemingly, an extreme example of frankly subversive actions in other countries. Perusing the correspondence and knowing the atmosphere of Russian affairs in Europe, you realize that Malofeev’s strategy and tactics differ not a whit from the actions of dozens and hundreds of similar actors operating outside the Russian Federation. Before Crimea, all of this resembled benign “promotion” of their interests on the part of all those who cooperated with such people. But now retrospection kicks ins. What trouble have those who were involved in the Petersburg Dialogue, the Valdai Club, the Dialogue of Civilizations, and the dozens and hundreds of programs where the Russians either footed the bill, generated incentives or simply provided a one-time service got themselves into? I was told by people from compatriots organizations (who fairly early pulled out of Russian World’s programs) that initially they were fooled by Nikita Mikhalkov’s early cultural projects outside Russia. They sincerely supported his appeal to the descendants of the post-revolutionary emigration. Around 2008, however, they sensed they were getting sucked into a system of ideological support for the Kremlin. Many even continued to travel to Moscow to the compatriots congresses, but inwardly they already felt like observers. They had already decided then that this was a new “Comintern,” and it would be wrong to accept grants from it. But others happily kept on taking the grants and sailed off with the Kremlin for Crimea.

* * *

But all these political, humanitarian and media contacts pale next to the vastness of business collaborations. Millions of people worldwide were involved in Russian money for over a decade. After all, so-called capital flight occurred on a massive scale. This capital was then partly reinvested in Russia through offshores, and partly spent on buying various kinds infrastructure outside of Russia (firms, shares in businesses, real estate, yachts, etc.). This entire giant machine for circulating the Putin corporate state’s money was serviced by millions of people as counterparties, including lawyers, dealmakers of various shapes and sizes, politicians, MPs, movie stars, cultural figures, translators, and so on.

The outcome, when Crimea happened, was a huge spontaneous lobby. This doesn’t mean all these people had literally been bought off, to describe the process in terms of the battle against corruption. People simply “cooperated” and received various bonuses from this cooperation. It is not a matter of recruitment, but a psychological phenomenon. Any of us, having once received money from a rich childhood friend, even if we are critical towards him, would still remain publicly loyal to him. Would you want to shout to the heavens about the atrocities of a man thanks to whom, say, you had earned enough money to buy a new house? You would just keep your lips sealed.

* * *

In other words, for around ten years, beginning approximately in 2004, after the takeover of Yukos, the Russian economy “warmed up” foreign strata whose scale is hard to evaluate. It was not a matter of corruption in the narrow sense of the word. Of course, on their part it was regarded as economic cooperation with a peculiar type of “eastern” economy that involved “pats on the back,” kickbacks, exchanges of various bonuses and preferences, trips to the banya, hunting for wild sheep from helicopters, and so on. But it was not criminal. On their part, it was indulged as a “peculiarity.” Russia is hardly the only economy marked by these ways. It was a partnership in the primary sense. The world’s major companies opened offices and production facilities in Russia. Until recently, it was a privileged economy, included in the BRICS grouping.

Crimea turned all the fruits of this decade-long warming-up into a problem. It is obvious Putin used Crimea to implement an instantaneous mobilization amongst those involved in the partnership. He confronted all the partners with the need to define themselves. Putin’s use of the word “partners,” which he pronounces ironically, has often been thought to relate to the diplomatic lexicon. But in fact Putin has in mind other partners, the millions of people who have received big bonuses for dealing with Russian contracts, Russian money, and various undertakings with Russians for a decade.

* * *

Now these partners have big problems, and we must sadly note that the problems are not due to Crimea as such nor to the regime of sanctions and countersanctions, nor to the ambivalence of having been involved in toxic projects with Russians in the past.  The problems lies entirely in the fact that Putin does not want to stop.

This entire massive milieu would sigh in relief if it found out that Putin had “transferred the title to himself” (i.e., focused on Crimea) and called it a day.

But the extreme ambiguity has been maintained and even intensified from 2014 to 2017. It was not Putin who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but folks mobilized by Malofeev. It was not Putin who murdered Nemtsov, but Chechen security officials. It was not Putin who hacked the Democratic Party’s servers, but volunteer hackers, who maybe were Russians or maybe not, but they used Russian servers. The attempted coup in Montenegro was not orchestrated by Putin, but by persons unknown. It was not Putin who plotted to destroy Ukraine as a country and establish Novorossiya, but, say, Sergei Glazyev. The pro-Russian rallies in European countries were organized not by Putin, but by a guy named Usovsky, who raised money for the purpose from patriotic Russian businessmen. And so on.

The list now grows with every passing day. Yet the Kremlin doesn’t really distance itself from any of it with a vigor that would be comprehensible to its so-called partners. The Kremlin has not conducted an investigation of any of these events, but has played an ambiguous game that can be clearly read as “covering up” all of “its own” people.

So the ten-year economic warming-up has been transformed before our very eyes into “inducement to conspiracy.” Everyone is now looking back and asking themselves, “Who was it we ‘partnered’ with? Maybe it was Russian intelligence? Or, from the get-go, was it just bait to get us involved in an unscrupulous lobbying scheme?”

* * *

There is tremendously frightening novelty at play here. Everything happening before our eyes with the State Department and pro-Russian politicians in Europe lays bare a complex problem. The boundaries between lobbying, partnership, espionage, propaganda, and corruption have been eroded.

A situation is generated in which it it impossible to tell benign partnership from complicity in a politics that erodes the limits of the permissible. Just yesterday you were a Christian Democrat building a partnership with the Russian Federation, but today you are just a silent accomplice in eroding the norms of Europe’s political culture. You are not just tight-lipped, refusing to evaluate the Kremlin’s actions. On the contrary. “Maintaining fidelity,” so to speak, to the fruits of your past partnership with the Kremlin, you even raise a skeptical voice. “What’s so criminal about Putin’s policies?” And others do the same. “The sanctions have been been ineffective. Frankly, Crimea has always been Russian.”

And if you were somehow able to take in at a glance the entire so-called Kremlin propaganda machine abroad as a combination of the work of Moscow news agencies and little-visited European websites run by left- and right-wing critics of American hegemony who for that reason sympathize with Putin, it would be utterly impossible to get a glimpse of the giant roots the Kremlin has put down in the western economy. It is beyond estimation, just like the transformation or, rather, the corruption not only of its own native population but also huge circles in the west, a task the Kremlin has accomplished in ten years.

Three years ago, I imagined Putin was putting together a kind of right-wing Comintern, and I wrote about it. Now it is often dubbed the “black Comintern.” I think, however, the situation is more complicated and a lot worse. The “Putinist Comintern” is the fairly insignificant and well-visible tip of a much larger process taking place on other floors of European life, where people who are not involved in either ultra-rightist or ultra-leftist politics remain silent about the Kremlin’s actions. Condemning it, they remain loyal nevertheless. They considerately wait for Putin to return to European norms of partnership. These people cannot see and do not want to see that the ambiguity fostered by the Kremlin in the matter of responsibility for murders, paramilitary detachments, mercenaries, and destabilization of small countries is not a temporary phenomenon. It has been conceived that way. And it will continue that way in the future.

Alexander Morozov is a Russian journalist and political analyst. Translated by the Russian Reader