Imploding Golden Billions

Five months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there remains a startling lack of understanding by many Western policymakers and commentators of the economic dimensions of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and what it has meant for Russia’s economic positioning both domestically and globally.

Far from being ineffective or disappointing, as many have argued, international sanctions and voluntary business retreats have exerted a devastating effect over Russia’s economy. The deteriorating economy has served as a powerful if underappreciated complement to the deteriorating political landscape facing Putin.

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Source: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian, “Actually, the Russian Economy Is Imploding,” Foreign Policy, 22 July 2022


Maxim Katz, “How the economy of Russia is dying,” 21 July 2022: “Today we’ll talk about the branches already affected by the upcoming crisis. We’ll talk about the automobile industry and real estate, cinemas, and air traffic. We’ll also discuss why China is not going to help Russia” (with English subtitles). Mr. Katz was declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian Justice Ministry on 22 July 2022.



For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a two-word phrase sums up the current state of world geopolitics: “golden billion.” Speaking this week in Moscow, Putin declared that the “model of total domination of the so-called golden billion is unfair. Why should this golden billion of all the population on the globe dominate over everyone and impose its own rules of behavior?”

The golden billion “divides the world into first- and second-class people and is therefore essentially racist and neocolonial,” Putin continued Wednesday, adding that “the underlying globalist and pseudo-liberal ideology is becoming increasingly more like totalitarianism and is restraining creative endeavor and free historical creation.”

For most readers in the United States or Europe, a “golden billion” probably means nothing. But in Russia, this phrase has been around for decades as a doom-saying shorthand to describe a future battle for resources between a global elite and Russians. And since February, the Russian government has been deploying the theory to argue that Russia’s isolation after its invasion of Ukraine was not because of its actions — but because of an inevitable global conspiracy against it.

These complaints about inequality may seem rich coming from a man who has led an invasion that could help partially restore an empire, who has clung to power for decades while banishing his biggest opponent to prison and whose personal wealth was once estimated to be $200 billion. But at least some members of the Russian government seem to sincerely believe in the ethos behind these theories. And it may not just be Russians who find the idea persuasive.

Putin’s vague allusions to a golden billion over recent months obscure a far more conspiratorial history. The phrase comes from an apocalyptic book published in 1990, just as the Soviet era came to a crashing halt. Titled “The Plot of World Government: Russia and the Golden Billion,” the book was written by a Russian publicist named Anatoly Tsikunov under the pen name A. Kuzmich.

Tsikunov described an end-times conspiracy against Russia, with the wealthy Western elite realizing that ecological change and global disaster would see further competition for world resources, ultimately rendering the world uninhabitable for all but a billion of them. This elite realize Russia, with its natural resources, immense mass and northern location, needs to be brought under their control by any means necessary for their own survival.

This thesis was a twist on the widely disputed fears about global overpopulation developed by British cleric Thomas Robert Malthus in the late 18th century. However, it’s been given a modern, Russocentric update. In his 2019 book “Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism,” New York University scholar Eliot Borenstein writes that the idea fits into a broader, paranoid history.

The golden billion “gathers together many of the most important tropes of benighted, post-Soviet Russia (the need to defend the country’s natural resources from a rapacious West, the West’s demoralization of Russia’s youth, destruction of Russia’s economy, and destruction of public health) into one compelling narrative, a story combining historical touchstones (the Great Patriotic War) with science and pseudoscience,” Borenstein wrote.

Tsikunov died in unclear circumstances a year after his book was published, only adding to the mystique. But his idea was soon popularized by the anti-liberal Russian intellectual Sergey Kara-Murza, who stripped away its stranger edges and wrote in the later 1990s that the golden billion meant the population of higher-income democracies like those in the OECD or G-7 who consume an unfair proportion of the world’s resources.

More than two decades later, the theory is everywhere in the Russian government. Despite its conspiratorial beginnings, high-ranking Russian officials like former president Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have repeated it in public settings since the Feb. 24 invasion.

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Even wild theories can have tactical uses. When Putin speaks about a golden billion, he uses it to tie Western exploitation of Africa and Asia recently with the backlash to the conflict in Ukraine. Though Putin has long presented himself as a voice of global conservatism, the righteous anger of anti-colonialism is no doubt a more potent force globally.

“Of course, this golden billion became golden for a reason. It has achieved a lot. But it not only took such positions thanks to some implemented ideas, to a large extent it took its positions by robbing other peoples: in Asia, and in Africa,” Putin said Wednesday. “Indeed, it was like that. Look at how India has been plundered.”

In South Asia, Africa and Latin America, stories of anger against domination and colonialism find a receptive audience. And these are three regions where countries have so far failed to rally behind Western efforts to isolate Moscow.

But the contradictions in Putin’s logic could undermine his story. Another tale of colonialism and domination is playing out now in Ukraine, which Putin has suggested is rightfully Russian land. As The Post’s Robyn Dixon reports, Putin is moving rapidly to annex and absorb the parts of Ukraine it currently holds, “casting himself as a new version of the early-18th-century czar Peter the Great recovering lost territory.”

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Source: Adam Taylor, “The apocalyptic vision behind Putin’s ‘golden billion’ argument,” Washington Post, 22 July 2022

Grigory Sverdlin: This Isn’t Goodbye

Good day, dear friend!

It is very difficult for me to write this letter. I don’t want to say goodbye at all. To my great regret, I was forced to leave Russia and resign as the director of Nochlezhka. Of course, I will help my colleagues remotely as much as I can, but it would be strange to try and run everything from afar. Danya Kramorov, our longtime volunteer, coordinator, and until recently the head of fundraising and PR, will replace me as head of our organization.

Twenty years ago, I came to Nochlezhka myself as a volunteer, and in 2010 I became an employee. Back then it was a lovely and proud little organization. That hasn’t changed, but the scale of our work has. Currently, we are helping 480-490 people in Petersburg and Moscow every day. Together we have opened free showers, laundries, warming-up spots, and rehabilitation shelters. In our approach to helping people in need, we have grown into providing psychological assistance, employment programs, training in new professions, and a dedicated rehabilitation shelter for homeless people suffering from alcohol addiction. Just as twenty years ago, everyone who comes to us for help or provides assistance in any of our current projects is treated like a human being. I’m confident that things will always be like this at Nochlezhka. It is a huge effort by many people, and if you are reading this, you are one of them. I would very much like to list everyone by name, but only last year Nochlezhka was supported by donations from over 20,000 people. Thank you very much!

Nochlezhka’s 2013 This Side of Life campaign hasn’t lost its relevance. Photo courtesy of Nochlezhka

Nochlezhka is much bigger than Grisha Sverdlin. Nochlezhka is my colleagues, a wonderful, professional team of eighty people. Nochlezhka is the hundreds of volunteers from all over the world who respond to our call. Nochlezhka is the thousands of people who donate money and medicines, food and clothes to us, who read our news and don’t believe the stereotypes [about homeless people and homelessness]. Nochlezhka is the companies that provide their services for free. Nochlezhka is you.

With the help of this huge cool team, just last year we helped 8,165 people in need. No matter what happens, this year we will definitely keep all our projects running so that anyone who turns to us can keep their health and dignity and return to a normal life. Moreover, this summer we will be opening a shelter for elderly homeless people in the Leningrad Region, and in late March we will launch the long-awaited restaurant Street Entrance, where the residents of our rehabilitation shelters will master new trades that will enable them to continue getting their lives back together.

I’m terribly sorry that I won’t be at the grand opening. I had planned to spend most of my salary at our restaurant. It’s incredibly cozy and the food is very, very tasty. But  enjoy yourselves there for me, please! And I will wait for the day when we can meet at the bar and discuss the good news.

Nochlezhka will continue to operate even if the earth crashes into the celestial axis. And I will continue to classify myself as a Nochlezhkin, remaining a volunteer and donor of this organization so dear to my heart. Unfortunately, more and more people will need our help in the coming months. And since that is the case, we will continue to help them, of course.

Yours,

Grisha Sverdlin

Source: Nochlezhka email newsletter, 15 March 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader. I was a volunteer at Nochlezhka and its (now defunct) “street newspaper” Na Dne (The Depths) in the mid-nineties. Although I included the original link in Mr. Sverdlin’s letter to Nochlezhka’s donations page, it would seem that people outside Russia can no longer donate money to the organization, as they could only a short time ago. I tried just now to donate 1,000 rubles using a European-issued MasterCard, but the transaction was declined. However, I immediately got a message from Nochlezhka saying that they could see that I had tried to donate but that something had gone wrong on their bank’s end. I write this not by way of soliciting donations for Nochlezhka but to illustrate the difficulties charitable organizations in Russia now find themselves in. And, although he doesn’t mention this in his letter, Mr. Sverdlin has written on social media that he left the country because several reliable sources told him that he was in danger of arrest. ||| TRR

UPDATE (3.15.22) Nochlezhka’s project coordinator has written to me to confirm that, indeed, it is no longer possible to make donations to them using non-Russian bank cards and non-Russian payment systems. She cited the advice to donors that Nochlezhka published on its website earlier today.  The last two paragraphs of that advice read as follows:

Payment via Google Pay, Samsung Pay and Apple Pay has been blocked for Visa and Mastercard cardholders. This means that one-time and regular donations that were issued in this way are no longer valid. Please re-register your donation if it has been made using one of the methods listed. You can manually sign up for a new donation payment using the form on our website.

Currently, bank cards from foreign banks cannot be used to donate money for our work. We are no longer receiving money transferred through Global Giving and PayPal. We will look for new ways [to donate] for anyone who does not have a Russian bank card, and we will definitely inform you as soon as we find them.

Fake Finnish Eggs in Russian Stores

In Finnish, hyvää huomenta means “good morning!” (As this package prompts us—in Russian.)
hyvää huomenta eggs-1

There’s nothing like fresh Finnish eggs in the morning.

For those of you who have the good fortune not to be able read either Finnish or Russian, these eggs were, in fact, produced by a company called Volzhanin, Ltd., in the village of Yermakovo in the Rybinsk District of Yaroslavl Region. They were not produced in Finland, however hard the top side of the carton tries to convince us otherwise.

hyvää huomenta eggs-2

In Russian, hyvää huomenta apparently means “screw you!”

The odd thing is that on its website, Volzhanin, Ltd., goes out of its way to boast about its environmentally friendly policies and practices.

Interestingly, you won’t find Hyvää Huomenta eggs on Volzhanin, Ltd.’s list of products.

So this is the kind of three-card monte Volzhanin, Ltd., plays with folks in Petrograd, used to buying food at Finnish chain stores like Prisma, which have set up shop in their city, or making trips across the border and loading up on high-quality Finnish produce before heading back home.

For more on this shady business generally, see Sergey Chernov’s fantastic photo reportage from this past January.