Marrying the Mob

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On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

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Plato Re-Elaborated

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That city would not lack a yacht club, would not lack

a soccer club. Noting the absence of smoke from the brick

factory chimneys, I’d know it was Sunday,

and would lurch in a bus across town, clutching a couple of bucks.

 

I’d twine my voice into the common animal hoot-

ing on that field where what the head begins is finished by the foot.

Of the myriad laws laid down by Hammurabi

the most important deal with corner kicks, and penalty kicks to boot.

 

—Joseph Brodsky, “Plato Elaborated,” trans. George L. Kline, New Yorker, March 12, 1979, p. 40

 

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It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to be a regular guy, to immerse oneself in enjoying life, in a pleasant job, and forget that a dictatorship for life has taken root in our country? It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to forget the dictatorship wages war against neighboring countries? It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to forget it has destroyed all constitutional rights, the freedom of speech, secularism, the right to a pension, the right to one’s native language, and the right to forget things and be happy?

—Sergey Abashin, Facebook, June 24, 2018

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Grigorii Golosov: Democracy without Democrats in Russia

Democracy without Democrats: The Prospects for Parliamentarism 
Under a well-functioning system, even the current parties can be a good defense against autocrats
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
August 25, 2017

As hopes for Russia’s becoming a democratic country in the foreseeable future fade, the question of the institutional structure of a future Russian democracy is overstated. Even the best-intentioned commentators often argue that none of the conventional mechanisms fit Russia. A presidential system would not do, because it concentrates too much power in the hands of one man and his retinue, leading directly to dictatorship. That sounds plausible. However, as Alexander Morozov recently wrote on Facebook, a parliamentary system would not do, either. If I understood him correctly, his main argument was that the roster of political players would be maintained under this system, and so “the same fools from the current parliamentary parties would remain in power.” That also sounds plausible.

One of the problems with such dramatic assessments is obvious. They imply that Russia’s current political trajectory is unique, and the systems of governance tested and proven workable in other countries would thus never function in Russia. Theoretically, we cannot exclude such options. North Korea, for example, has now generated a political configuration I am willing to acknowledge unique both in terms of structure and possible consequences. However, there is no mystery as to the miserable country’s future. If it is destined to rid itself of the Kim dynasty, it will have to associate itself with South Korea under conditions acceptable to China and the US. It would be pointless to go into the details, but the overall picture is quite clear.

Russia is a different story. I do not see anything unique about Russia’s circumstances. By world standards, we have a quite ordinary authoritarian regime. All the signs point to the fact the regime is in the upward phase of its trajectory, that is, in the process of consolidating. We are thus unable to say anything definite about how it will cease to exist.  Hardcore opposition politicians (of whom, I think, Alexei Navalny is the last man standing) have it simpler than analysts. Politicians simply fight the good fight, using any means available. They do not need to gaze far into the future. But analysts do need to see into the future and would like to see in the future. They are not very good at it, however.

Hence the cognitive error they make, an error best described by the classic metaphor of the black box. There is an initial state and a set of possible outcomes, but the box conceals its interior from us, what is in the middle. Since the initial state makes optimism groundless and has not even fully manifested itself, an optimistic assessment of possible outcomes seems implausible. It is impossible to avoid the error, but we can minimize its consequences if we ignore what might be inside the black box, that is, if we temporarily forget about “progressive” generals, lizards from the planet Niburu, and even about Navalny and other possible drivers of democratization in Russia. Instead, we should focus on democracy’s structural features.

Yet, the first hypothesis we have to take into account is that liberal democracy, regardless of its institutional shape, entrusts the decision of who holds power to a majority of voters. Hence, if the absolute majority of votes in an election are conferred on a potential dictator or his party, the return to authoritarianism is a question of time, and it matters not a whit whether the potential dictator holds the office of president or prime minister. Recent events in Turkey vividly bear this out. The country’s parliamentary system, which had existed for several decades, was unable to withstand a head-on collision with a single-party monopoly. The fact that Erdogan did indeed become the full-fledged president merely capped off the transformation, but the process itself took place within the parliamentary system.

The Turkish Parliament in Ankara. Photo courtesy of Umit Bektas/Reuters

It follows that the main danger to a democracy under a parliamentary system consists not in the absence of succession among parliamentary elites, but in the establishment and long-term reproduction of a political monopoly in parliament. The experience of many countries, from Eastern Europe, where it was neutralized by the project of joining the EU, to Africa, where it has not been neutralized and has caused efforts at democratization to fail on several occasions, testifies to the fact that the danger is quite real. It is natural, after all, that at the first elections after democratization people vote en masse for the most persuasive opposition party and hand it a majority in parliament. The country’s main democrat then becomes a dictator, since there is no institutional counterbalance to prevent it.

This should make us look at the prospects of the current parliamentary parties after democratization.  One of them, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), is bound to survive, while two others, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the so-called party of power, United Russia, have good chances of surviving. It is unlikely they would enjoy idyllic relations with a new regime. Then, as becomes clear from the argument I have made, above, the survival of these parties would serve as a positive factor in democratization. They themselves are unlikely to become advocates of democracy, but that does not matter. What matters is that their presence in parliament, if it is considerable, would help restrain the authoritarian impulses of the new ruling group, if they manifest themselves.

I believe the MPs in the current parliamentary parties are neither fools in the mundane nor the political sense. Mainly, they are cunning, experienced wheeler-dealers who have managed to maintain their places at the top of Russia’s turbulent political heap. Clearly, however, they have used their tenure in parliament to preserve features of the current system that benefit them. In other words, they would lobby against progress under a new system, and this would indeed inject a hefty dose of stupidity into the work of building democracy in Russia. The dilemma is this. To stave off the new regime’s authoritarian impulses, they would have to be influential, but they would fritter away their influence on impeding reform.

Hence, I am inclined to think that a semi-presidential system would be optimal in a democratic Russia. The president would have serious powers, albeit powers severely limited by the constitution. Structurally speaking, it would approximate the European parliamentary system more than the presidential system of the US and most Latin American countries. However, it is now utterly useless to go into the details of this system, because they would depend greatly on the transition to democracy, now concealed from us by our imaginary black box.

However, I do not see any particular problems with a parliamentary system in a future Russia. Democracy is not only the rule of “democrats” as a party (a truth we in Russia have already swallowed, it seems), but nor is it necessarily the rule of politicans who adhere to democratic views. The presence of such politicians is extremely beneficial. But views are a shaky thing, and what matters more in a democracy is the structure of political competition. We know several examples of successful democratization, from late eighteenth-century France to modern Bangladesh, in which the role of card-carrying democrats in the initial state of the transition was extremely modest, and the main fight took place among several dictatorial factions. What mattered was that they successfully prevented each other from establishing a new dictatorship.

Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

The Best Russia Experts Don’t Live in Russia, or, Crypto-Putinism

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“There’s a more likely possibility, and it doesn’t hinge on accumulated historical trauma or some irrational longing to go back to the Soviet system. With the USSR’s fall came the loss of many other things Russians valued: their country’s stature in the world, decent living standards, the welfare state, education, even a sense of community and collective identity. Putin’s apparent promise to restore some of these things is a far better explanation for his widespread popularity at home than the theory that most citizens have been too brainwashed or traumatized to think for themselves.”

But he’s been eighteen years “in office” and he hasn’t restored any of these things really, and he never really promised to restore most of them, not that you would notice if you hadn’t lived here during those eighteen years, as the author of the book review, quoted above, has signally not lived here.

Nor, as far as I know, did the author ever live in the Soviet Union he misses so much, but which lots of former Soviet citizens I know don’t miss at all.

Go figure why the western left misses a country most of its current supporters never lived in or visited for a millisecond, but which millions of its actual former inhabitants don’t miss for a second. It says something slightly disturbing about the intellectual integrity of the western left, doesn’t it?

As for brainwashing, I can’t say anything about Russians, but I know a lot of foreign so-called Russian experts and reporters covering the Russian beat who have been brainwashed by the triumvirate of dishonest Russian pollsters known as FOM, VTsIOM, and Levada Center into believing that Putin enjoys “widespread popularity at home.”

In fact, this popularity is a lot less apparent when you’re actually on the ground day after day for years on end, conversing and dealing with lots of different people who say lots of different things but somehow usually fail to express their ardent love of Putin. Here, in the actual Russia, not the imaginary Russia inhabited by the Russia experts, his “popularity” looks more like a dictatorship for life, reinforced by brute police force, flagrant corruption, major TV channels that have been nazified to the point that almost no one I know has watched them for years, and selective but regular show trials in case anyone has forgotten where they really live.

Why do so-called Russian experts, like the author of the review, quoted above, believe every poll about Russia those shysters and shills publish, including the pap about Putin’s rampant popularitry?

I’ll tell you why.

Because the world’s greatest Russia experts do not live in Russia, nor do they want to live here (they’re not stupid!), but endlessly citing so-called Russian public opinion polls as if they are the gospel truth gives their specious, highly partisan arguments an air of scholarly or empirical knowledge, of “knowing what Russians really think.”

The subject of today’s Russia and what Russians really think is way more complicated (and, sometimes, way more simple) than the certified Russia experts suspect or want to admit, however. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Extreme Makeover: Russian Home Edition

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Ty Pennington

This is what is meant by ruchnoye upravlenie or “hands-on governance” in Russia.

“In a stage-managed gesture of benevolence a year ahead of a presidential election, Russia’s Vladimir Putin flew 1,200 km (750 miles) to call in on a woman living in squalor and ordered her to be rehoused immediately” (Gleb Stolyarov, “Eyeing election, Russia’s Putin stages visit to voter’s rundown home,” Reuters, June 28, 2017).

None of the other candidates (?), especially Alexei Navalny, who was officially sidelined by the Central Electoral Commission the other day, can hand out new houses and trips to Sochi to the needy. If they could and did, they would probably be brought up on charges for influence peddling or something like that.

But Putin can do it. The problem is that he cannot and will not do it for everyone, and certainly not in the systematic way implied by the clause in the 1993 Russian Federal Constitution that declares (emptily, as it would turn out) that the Russian Federation is a “social state,” i.e., a welfare state in the best sense of the word. That would mean bankrupting the current Russian state, i.e., the capitalist oligarchy run by Putin and his cronies in “manual mode” for their own benefit and one else’s.

I love the headline: “Eyeing election…” There are virtually no real elections in Russia, and in the few elections where a real, well-meaning person might, theoretically, be able to sneak past the watchful eyes of the elections boards—say, if she ran as a candidate in a lowly municipal district council (not even for city council or regional legislative assembly, where the winners do have nominal or real power and, at least, in Petersburg, personal discretionary budgets for spending on pet projects)—she would end up serving on a entity that has almost no budget (to hand out largesse, like Putin did in this case, or to do something that benefits all or many of her constituents) and no power whatsoever.

Putin will limit his campaigning to a few feel-good demonstrations of “manual control” like this one, where he unwittingly reproduces the role played more cheerfully and persuasively by Ty Pennington on ABC’s popular reality TV program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which probably did more for the needy than Putin has ever done and ever wants to do. TRR

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Miru Mir (We Don’t Care)

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“Peace to the world.” Central Petrograd, December 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

Andrey Loshak
Facebook
December 25, 2016

I will perform my familiar role as Captain Obvious. The Alexandrov Ensemble, Doctor Liza, the ambassador to Ankara, and the two hundred and seventeen people flying back to Petersburg from Egypt over a year ago would still be alive if President Putin had not personally ordered our troops into combat in Syria.

It is impossible to calculate how many Syrian women and children were killed by Russian bombs, but nobody in Russia gives a shit about it. The Vesti TV news program said they were smearing their faces with tomato juice instead of blood, and everyone believed it, because it is easier that way. But it is odd that over the past year no one has bothered to ask Putin what higher purpose was served by the death of the twenty-five Russian children flying in the plane from Egypt that was blown up by Islamic State. It was possible to explain the Chechen terrorist attacks in Moscow by invoking the battle for Russia’s so-called territorial integrity. The hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine had something to do with Ukraine’s being our nearest neighbor and the so-called Russian world. (Although that would be cold comfort to the families of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, blown to smithereens by a Russian rocket.) But no one in Russia has any clue why our army has put itself in the middle of the latest bloodbath in the Middle East. Ask anyone on the street. They won’t know what to say: I have checked. No one believes in the fairy tale about fighting Islamic State.

People believe more in the spiel about supporting the vampire Assad, but it doesn’t come across as persuasive either. After all, Assad is not Yanukovych, who, at least, was right next door and bought natural gas from us. More people believe we are involved in a tactical war with America. We have supposedly shown the Yanks we know a few tricks ourselves. That was the explanation given to me by a guy in Michurinsk. Yet he felt no indignation whatsoever, by the way. Hundreds of Russians have been killed in this war, a war the country is fighting the fuck knows where and the fuck knows why. You have to be utterly brainless, of course, to know everything we know about Afghanistan and get bogged down in the same deal again. But that is the saddest part: no one could give a flying fuck.

On television, they ramble on about GEOPOLITICS. It is now the magic spell, the national idea, the new Russian god that has replaced hydrocarbons, which have proved unreliable. It works like a charm, because any crap on either side of the border can be explained in terms of geopolitical interests. The majority of Russians still imagine that geopolitics is something remote and boring, something Pyotr Tolstoy would discuss on his talk shows, but in fact it has now made itself at home in nearly every Russian household in the shape of incipient poverty, inflation, unemployment, deteriorating medical care and education, rising utilities rates, and, more and more often, the violent deaths of loved ones.

The most surprising thing, however, is that Russia’s so-called geopolitical interests, to which so many victims have been sacrificed, is a myth, a fiction, the latest of Putin’s simulacra. You and I have no interests in Syria, and neither does Russia. All of Russia’s major foreign policy decisions, from the annexation of Crimea to the war in Syria, have initially been made by one man on grounds known only to him. Were rank-and-file Russians terribly worried about whether Crimea was part of Russia or Ukraine until the president took care of the problem? This is not to mention Syria, whose existence was a mystery to many Russians until we launched military operations there.

There is no separating Putin from geopolitics. Putin is geopolitics, and Russia’s so-called geopolitical interests are mainly the interests of Putin, who is guided by a rationale known only to him. God knows what is going on in his brain, but after sixteen years of individual rule, anyone’s brains would warp. This is a typical problem of authoritarian regimes: the illusory reality in the dictator’s overindulged, fevered brain becomes everyone else’s reality, and real people die.

A dictator thinks a thought, and it immediately becomes the national idea. We know that our dictator has long been uninterested in anything except self-assertion in the international arena. At home, he has everything sorted out (he even erected a monument to Prince Vladimir recently), but when it comes to authority on the world stage everything has been totally fucked. He has played the big shot every which way to Sunday, but it has only made those sordid faggots in other countries frown even harder. They have got Putin stuck on the fourth rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the need for reverence and respect. He cannot move on to the highest stage, the stage of spiritual development, where a lonely Gandhi and the coveted Nobel Peace Prize have long been waiting for him.

Putin sees geopolitics as a gamble in which he has been trying to beat the West by desperately conning it. He sees us as bargaining chips. It is clear he will continue to solve his profoundly personal problems using the entire country as a hammer. Of course he claims to be acting in Russia’s interests, but the trouble is that after so many years of unchecked power it is hard to separate national interests from personal interests. Putin has so fused with the system, he has short-circuited so many public institutions, that you pull him out of politics now and Russia really would crumble. Putin does in fact now equate with Russia, and if you oppose Putin, you oppose Russia—in the shape in which it now exists.

So you won’t get any optimistic pre-New Year’s predictions from me. The Napoleonic tricorn, propped on the head of Little Zaches, will grow so large it will soon completely obscure his view. The quantity of insanity and victims will thus naturally increase.

Andrey Loshak is a well-known Russian journalist. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to a number of friends for the heads-up

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UPDATE

Andrey Loshak:

“I wrote a post in which I said Putin was responsible for the crash of the Defense Ministry plane.  There was no malice or disrespect for the memory of the dead in what I wrote, just a take on well-known facts. A hour later, a hellish orgy kicked off in the comments section in which wishes for my immediate death were expressed. Who the heck knows whether they were trolls or not. Some of them were definitely real people. I think that if I had been tied up and handed over to them at that moment, they would have skinned me alive, ripped out my heart, and stomped on it. Such orgies had occurred before, as soon I would write something critical about Putin. You cannot imagine how many insults I have had to read, written by aggressive assholes who had never met me in real life but who nevertheless called me all the names in the book and dispensed idiotic jokes about my surname and my loved ones. I used to take such things ironically, but after my son was born, I have felt like personally smacking everyone in this pack upside the head. My ‘liberasty’ lasted for a long while. For almost eight years, my Facebook page was as open and pluralistic as the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. I thought it was vital to maintain the possibility of interacting with people who held different views. Unfortunately, however, the absolute majority of them proved capable only of insults. This audience is, probably, what is pejoratively dubbed the vata: an aggressive, mentally limited pack, willing blindly to follow the alpha male anywhere, whether to the edge of the precipice or over the edge. Today I couldn’t stand it and acted liked Putin. I changed the comments settings: now only Facebook friends can leave comments. I must admit my little sociological experiment in establishing a dialogue with society has failed.”

Source: Facebook

The Lowdown

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Despair as a Sign of the Times
The general mood of discouragement has been growing because Russia has shifted into idle, and it is unclear when and how it will end
Nikolay Mironov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
September 6, 2016

Pain and despair have seized the country. Russians are losing their jobs. They cannot pay back their debts and feed their children. Due to constant problems and the lack of apparent prospects, families are falling apart. Some make desperate decisions, finally putting an end to their lives. Russia is losing people.

In July, an employee at a sports school in Trans-Baikal Territory committed suicide after he was not paid. In early August, a married couple in Blagoveshchensk, who were up to their eyeballs in debt,. jumped from a fourteenth-floor window, leaving their young child orphaned. This spring, a father of five in Kiselyovsk in Kemerovo Region hung himself because of debts. Large numbers of similar reports have been coming from different parts of the country.

Can you live on a wage of 10,000 to 15,000 rubles a month when prices are rising continuously? [15,000 rubles is currently equivalent to approximately 200 euros. — TRR.] Or on a pension of 8,000 rubles a month? How do you raise children on this kind of money? And what if, God forbid, you have emergency expenses, for example, for expensive medical treatment, whose cost exceeds the family budget many times over? Well yes, Russia has free medical care, so to speak, but we all knew what it is really like.

It has terrible consequences. The wave of cancer patients voluntarily departing from life continues. After a series of well-publicized cases in  2014–2015, the situation has not improved this year. In mid August, a man suffering from the cancer in the Moscow Region committed suicide with explosives. In June, another cancer patient committed suicide in Yaroslavl. Despite numerous similar suicides, the Russian Health Ministry continues to claim there is no link between the suicides of cancer patients and a deficit of pain medication. Just as there is no link, of course, between the despair felt by cancer patients in our country and the state of Russian medical care, which generally gives little chance to defeat the disease to those who have no money.

According to Rosstat, 24,000 to 26,000 people take their lives each year in Russia. But the causes of this and the means of remedying the situation are not discussed seriously. Instead, Rospotrebnadzor (Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare) have drafted recommendations for reporters on how to cover suicides.

Fewer and fewer people in our country know what they are going to live on tomorrow, how they will pay for rent and medical care. Russia is plunging into poverty. People have lost their sense of stability and security. The government, on the other hand, ignores these problems. It clearly has no strategy or even tactics for solving them.

There are a gazillion “public servants” in Russia, more than in the Soviet Union, but they serve only themselves and their bosses. High-ranking officials and the business clans that have fused with them live in a secure and comfortable world, whereas the common people are forced to survive alone. The civil service has lost its effectiveness. It has turned into a caste of masters and lords from whom we cannot defend ourselves, because they are the power, while we are “cattle.”

Can fear of policemen really be a norm of a civilized life, of a civilized country? Yet lawlessness on the part of the police has remained. All the talk about combating it has been just that—talk. Here is a recent case. Igor Gubanov, a resident of Magnitogorsk, protested against police lawlessness by cutting off two of his fingers. He could find no other way of making himself heard. In January, Gubanov and his wife, who live in a communal flat, were taken to a police precinct where, according to Gubanov, policemen raped his wife. A criminal investigation was launched, but soon the police investigators closed it, accusing the victimized woman of making false charges.

Despair is felt not only by people who have decided to commit shocking acts. The overall mood of discouragement has been increasing due to the fact Russia has shifted into idle and got stuck in the doldrums, and it is unclear when and how it will end.

The national anthem and memories are all that remain of the once-great country: outer space, victories, and prestige. The country’s most recent major achievements happened fifty years ago. The “unbreakable union” has been replaced by “our great power Russia,” but what is next? Great and poor, great and impoverished. Do these notions go together? How long can we live like this?

The Russian welfare state exists only on paper. Such declarations, by the way, have also been inscribed in the constitutions of Latin American, African, and Asian countries. A Brazilian in his favela reads that he lives in an wonderful welfare state, and he is amazed. The same is true of our fellow Russians, with their miserable wages and pensions. True, unlike their brothers from the country “where many wild monkeys live,” they do not live in huts yet. But, as they say, the night is young.

The main problem nowadays is that the country lacks a locomotive capable of pulling it out of crisis. The regime is concerned only with self-preservation. Officialdom is corrupt, inefficient, and lacking any strategic benchmarks. The “elite” (which I put in quotations, because they really are not the best people in the country) have been thoroughly denationalized: they have no stake in developing Russia. Until a normal and non-corrupt state makes the “elite” serve the country, it will never move it forward. In this case, what is wanted is the bloody-mindedness of a Peter the Great, who once put an end to mestnichestvo and forced the boyars and gentry to serve the country, or the statesmanship of Alexander II, who abolished serfdom over the lamentations of the landlords.

Instead, pro-government spin doctors have been increasingly ratcheing up the propaganda machine, searching for enemies, and heavily sugarcoating reality. Jingoism has already bored everyone to death. The people directing the show do not believe in it themselves, and the audience has stopped believing in it as well, despite the sunny ideology foisted on them, because Russia is running in place, and no one is solving its problems. The propaganda spiel that enemies are to blame for everything is still functioning, but even it cannot serve as a perennial explanation for each new outburst of social turmoil and, especially, the government’s extremely poor performance. So fine, Obama is a bad guy, but what does that have to do with indexing pensions?

The only thing the regime can really boast about is reinforcing itself. But it is a regime presiding over a country losing its vitality. As a priority, the self-preservation of the “elite” deprives Russia of the chance to put itself back in motion. Yet the purged political arena, in which there is almost no opposition to speak of, much less plain old independent people who think about their country, has stopped generating leaders. There is only one leader left in the country, and he presides over a multilayered horde of bosses and oligarchs, embezzlers and dolts  perched on their estates and thinking only of themselves.

Except for United Russia, a product of the same regime, Russia’s political parties have no weight nationwide. The same goes for grassroots organizations. The media have been muzzled. Those who try and shout louder than the rest face either a harsh crackdown or a trivial payoff. Many people have taken to making oppositional noises in the hope they will be paid to shut up. Imitating protest has become a business, just like imitating patriotism. Amid the mob of clowns and crooks, the reasonable speeches made by the few real patriots who are rooting not for themselves but for their country are drowned out by the overall senseless din.

By eliminating potential enemies, the regime has also destroyed the very possibility of an alternative emerging, of a reboot. The current policies are clearly ineffective, but what and who should replace them? Reasonable prescriptions, for example, for supporting the national non-oil economy and import substitution, restoring consumer demand through social assistance to an impoverished population, ending capital flight, going after offshore companies, and clamping down hard on corruption have been voiced. These ideas, however, have come from second- and third-rank players who can advise the authorities but cannot demand anything from them. So the regime has ignored them year after year, thus exacerbating the crisis.

I am not trying to whip up a frenzy. I would like to say something positive, but the situation is firmly deadlocked. It is clear what reforms are needed. It also clear how to implement them and where to begin: with the “elite,” the civil service, the budget, and the tax system. The only open question is who would be capable of doing all this. We have already talked about the government. Russia’s active middle class is small, and it is extremely demoralized. We are left with the rank-and-file population, who have suffered most from the crisis and seemingly have a stake in launching reforms. But for the time being only a few ordinary people have been willing to take responsibility, allowing the regime quickly to localize protests, as happened with the farmers.

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Nikolay Mironov. Photo courtesy of the Center for Economic and Political Reform (Moscow)

In the current environment, self-organization, society teaming up with honest people in the civil service and law enforcement, could be effective. Those honest people are undoubtedly there, but not in leadership roles. The country needs a grassroots organization, a movement, a party that could unite people and impose its own rules on the authorities. Society has to make the first move itself, which will serve as a signal to the honest people inside the system. We have to get the ball rolling.

Responsibility for what will become of the Motherland and us tomorrow lies with each of us today. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

All we have to do is not be silent, not relinquish our right to speak and act to someone else, not to count on an unknown savior of the Fatherland showing up. If he has not saved the country already, why would he do it now? And, needless to say, do not be afraid. We have to overcome our isolation to put an end to the senseless suicides, severed fingers, and broken lives, to put an end finally to the shameless plunder of the people and the export of the loot abroad. Even the smallest action, as long as it is collective, carries more weight than the most desperate individual deed.

We can, of course, wait for the moment when the country finally goes to hell in a hand basket, as in Tsarist Russia or the late Soviet Union. But do we really have to go through turmoil and destruction every time we need a new impulse to development? Are victims so necessary to the process of recovery?

The country is at a standstill, and the dump truck of history is rushing toward it. There are two options. Either we start the engine and drive, or we wait to get run over and tossed onto the roadside.

Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. I published a translation of his column “Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a ‘Bad’ Prime Minister” in June 2016. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up. Photo by the Russian Reader