What Is the Higher School of Economics Smoking?

vyshkaThe Higher School of Economics building in Moscow. Courtesy of the university’s Facebook page

The Higher School of Economics is stripping DOXA of its status as a student organization. This means we will no longer be able to work there
https://doxajournal.ru/hse_doxa

Our sources have informed us that right now the Council of the Student Initiatives Support Fund is voting to strip our journal of its status as a student organization. This would mean we would no longer be able to work at the Higher School of Economics (HSE). According to our information, Yaroslav Kuzminov, the rector of HSE, has already voted to remove the status.

The council is voting on whether to ban our work at HSE at the behest of Natalya Pochinok, rector of the Russian State Social University (RGSU). She complained about an article in DOXA about her career as rector. Pochinok claimed the article discredited the university’s professional reputation and harmed cooperation between the two universities. And yet neither Ms. Pochinok nor the council have contacted us.

Consequently, the university’s legal office compiled a detailed report in which it claimed that many of the articles published in DOXA had, allegedly, damaged the university’s professional reputation. The following articles [in Russian] were mentioned:

Other articles published in DOXA were mentioned in an accompanying letter to the council, recommending it vote to exclude us from HSE. The HSE employee who wrote the letter found “signs of political activism” in them.

Our journal was founded on the idea that self-criticism and public debate are an essential element of university life. The revocation of our status as a student organization deprives HSE’s students and instructors of a feedback channel and representation in the public space.

The news of the attempt to deprive us of our status as a student organization came as a complete surprise to us. HSE is the university where our journal was born and evolved: we have always considered it our alma mater. We ask for and count on support from the journalistic and academic communities. For almost three years, we have advanced the idea of academic and civic solidarity. We hope that our work in this area has not been meaningless.

Besides, we do not believe our work has harmed HSE’s reputation. On the contrary, we have even shown it is one of the few Russian universities that is not afraid of open, public discussion. Therefore, we demand from HSE’s administration the same open discussion about the closure of our organization. We would argue that, otherwise, the damage to the university’s reputation will be much greater than from any of our articles.

The Editorial Board of DOXA

Contact us by email (doxa.fgn@gmail.com), telephone (+7 915 076 2181) or Telegram bot if you would like to make a comment or suggestion or discuss something with us.

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Greg Yudin
Facebook
December 4, 2019

All twenty years I’ve had the chance to observe the Higher School of Economics, the same thing keeps happening there. The university really wants to be like the big boys and knows that the big boys have this thing called student self-government. The university, therefore, makes huge, sincere efforts to develop and support it.

You will be surprised, but then it turns out that student government wants to govern. Meaning that it has its own, profoundly incompetent and infantile viewpoint on the university’s development. After that, the university declares this was not what it had in mind and either tells the student government to go to hell or turns it into a Komsomol-like organization.

If memory serves, this is a least the third time things have followed this same scenario. The only difference is that DOXA is, of course, several cuts above all the previous student projects that emerged at HSE. It is a project of national importance that literally from scratch has in a short time made the Russian student body a subject. It has obviously begun to have an impact on the situation in Moscow and has the potential of putting the problems that really concern Russian university students on the national agenda.

I cannot say, by the way, that I have no issues with DOXA and that it is flawless. (It would be odd if such a breakthrough project were perfect from the get-go.) In my experience, DOXA is staffed by quite modest, reflective and constructive people who are well aware that they can be wrong.

But to close a powerful student project on the basis of a denunciation from the rector of RGSU, a plagiarizer and dealer in dissertations and diplomas, a weak, incompetent politician, and to report it in official documents? There is no force in Russia strong enough to force HSE to whip its own students in front of the RGSU rector. This is an internal decision, and its style (“damage to the university’s professional reputation”) is quite telltale.

We can imagine what would happen if, say, the rector of Columbia University asked the Stanford administration to close the Stanford student newspaper. Until the HSE administration understands that student self-government inevitably involves unpleasant people who have a different point of view than theirs on the university’s development and with whom they have to be able to negotiate, it won’t become a normal university.

What separates HSE from RGSU is the fact that DOXA emerged and evolved there, not the number of published articles, not quartiles, and not citation indices. Because students who really support the university are a major, long-term resource, and the statements made yesterday by all the major student organizations in support of DOXA bear this out, while you can always buy articles, at the end of the day. Ask the RGSU rector about it: she has an impeccable professional reputation in the business.

Translated by the Russian Reader

What Does the FSB Want from Russian Academics?

russland-fsb

What the FSB Wants from Russian Education and Science
Either Professors and Students Defend the Autonomy of Scholarship, or the Only Thing Left Will Be the “Science” of Russia’s Security in a Global World
Konstantin Gaaze
Vedomosti
November 28, 2019

On the evening of November 27, the FSB’s Border Service barred the well-known French sociologist Carine Clément from entering Russia. She was stopped at passport control in Sheremtyevo Airport and later informed that, as a “threat” to “national security,” she had been banned from entering Russia for ten years. Clément was slated to chair a panel on social stratification and the subjectivation of social status at a conference marking the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of the late sociologist Vladimir Yadov.

It is pointless to attempt to interpret the travel ban on Clement in the light of her planned lecture on resemblances between the so-called Yellow Vests [Gilets jaunes] and the so-called Quilted Jackets [vatniki]. The trouble is not with parallels, but with the fact that the FSB, the supreme authority on the life of the mind in Russia, has long ago decided that castrating the Runet is not enough to set people’s brains straight. It is time to strike—and strike hard—at the bourgeoning social sciences and the humanities.

We often forget that FSB has not one sword at its disposal—the Russian federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor—but two swords: Roskomnadzor and Rosobrnadzor, the Russian federal education watchdog. When my own university, the so-called Shaninka, was stripped of its accreditation in the summer of 2018, the only rumor that explained the absurdity and inconsistencies of the inspection procedure and the accreditation commission’s final report was that Lieutenant General Alexei Sedov, head of the FSB’s constitutional security service, had personally made the decision not to extend our accreditation.

The legendary spook realized back then, apparently, that the real enemies were not professional opposition activists, but young men and women with books by Bourdieu and Arendt tucked under their arms. One day you read the structuralists, the next day you record a video and post it on YouTube, and the day after that you take to the streets to show you exist and are still capable of acting. Who needs scholarship that has such a dangerous effect on people’s minds?

Especially since there is a different kind of scholarship, which churns out piles of monographs dealing with Russia’s “special path,” the country’s security in a global world, and the degradation of the west’s “spiritual culture,” and which dominates the universities where students are marked down for reading primary sources: they have to read the textbooks written by their professors, not the works of “foreign agents.” Such universities hold an endless stream of events celebrating the founders of allegedly original schools of thought who, in fact, are plagiarists and fools who have not bothered to crack open a new book since 1991, if not since 1980. They organize online conferences where 18-year-old bachelors of sociology have to discuss such burning topics as whether women can serve in the police and in what capacity with students from Interior Ministry academies in neighboring regions.

What is at stake for the FSB in this case is not isolating Clément from her Russian audience, but ensuring the victory of one type of education and scholarly production over another—the victory of textbooks over primary sources, the victory of rote phrases over real knowledge, the victory of articles chockablock with references to the president’s annual state of the union address over articles that quote Foucault and Judith Butler.

This decision has been ripening for a long time, but it was hampered by other players in the bureaucracy, including major universities, officials, and Kremlin-backed pollsters, who understood that Russia’s current model of governance could not countenance the total ideologization of the social sciences. But all these nuances lost their significance after the protests in Moscow this past summer. The enemy must be defeated. So, beginning this autumn, the Kremlin and the capital’s universities have been hotly discussing whether there are too many students studying sociology and political science. Wouldn’t it be better to send them all to culinary school?

It is time we understood that it is not a matter of who reads the classics correctly and who doesn’t. It is a matter of the very opportunity to read—not in a closed reading group, but in an open lecture hall; not under a blanket, but at the university, in the company of students. We cannot hide behind the walls of our oases—the Higher School of Economics, RANEPA, the European University in St. Petersburg, and the Shaninka, among others. Either faculty and students will join together and defend scholarly autonomy, or, ten years from now there will be nothing left except the indigenous “science” of national security.  It is clear we could all emigrate. It is equally clear this would be a betrayal not only of future students but also of scholarship itself.

Konstantin Gaaze is a sociologist who lectures in the Fundamental Sociology program at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (the Shaninka).

Photo courtesy of Stern. Translated by the Russian Reader

The War on Academic Free Speech in Russia

snowden

Why Should Professors Have Free Speech?
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
November 10, 2019

The desire of certain universities to control the things the public intellectuals they employ as professors say about socially important issues teeters on the verge of censorship and can hardly benefit their reputations, demonstrating only the growing fears of their administrators.

On Friday, the Higher School of Economics made public the decision of its ethics board, which voted seven to one in favor of recommending that Gasan Gusejnov, a linguist employed in the university’s humanities faculty, apologize for his “ill-considered and irresponsible” remarks on his personal Facebook page regarding the “cesspool-like” Russian used by the Russian media. The majority of council members found the statement had caused “serious harm” to the university’s “professional reputation.”

In particular, the ethics board referred to recommendations for university staff members regarding public statements: “If the public statements of employees touch on issues that are matters of considerable public controversy […] it is recommended they refrain from mentioning the university by name.”

However, Gusejnov did not mention his position at the university in the Facebook post that sparked a witch hunt against him on social media and in pro-Kremlin media outlets. Gusejnov said he did not intend to apologize, as he had not yet received an official request to apologize from the university. This triggered a new wave of invective against him.

The persecution of university lecturers and students for political reasons cannot be called something new. In March 2014, MGIMO terminated its contract with Professor Andrey Zubov after his statements about the situation in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. In April 2015, the Smolny Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University fired political scientist and human rights expert Dmitry Dubrovsky for his public remarks. In November 2016, Alexei Petrov was fired from his post as deputy dean of the history faculty at Irkutsk State University, allegedly, for disciplinary violations, but it was actually a complaint to the prosecutor’s office by a member of the National Liberation Movement (NOD) that led to his dismissal. In March 2018, the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyarsk forced philosophy lecturer Mikhail Konstantinov to resign after he had shown students Don’t Call Him Dimon, a 2017 video exposé by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

The right to one’s opinions, even critical opinions, cannot be made dependent on a person’s job. Even with regard to civil servants, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that their official positions could not be tantamount to a total ban on the public expression of critical opinions, including in the media. It is all the more impossible to train and educate professionals without critical thinking, free discussion, and the exchange of opinions: without these things, learning turns into scholasticism. Lecturers capable of lively, unconventional thought make the reputations of universities.

There have been other such examples in the history of the Higher School of Economics. The university did not react when, in October 2013, Vladimir Putin called Professor Sergei Medvedev a “fool” for arguing that the Arctic should be administered internationally. Now, however, its administrators have probably been forced to yield to the pressure, hoping that by sacrificing individuals it can maintain control over its professors. But this is a precarious path to a questionable goal.

Image courtesy of democraticunderground.com. Translated by the Russian Reader

Weaponizing Russian: The Gasan Gusejnov Controversy

guseynovGasan Gusejnov. Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Gasan Gusejnov Refuses to Apologize for Remarks About Russian Language
Radio Svoboda
November 8, 2019

Gasan Gusejnov, a lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, has refused to apologize publicly for a post on Facebook in which he called the Russian language “miserable” and “cesspool-like.” According to Gazeta.Ru, the professor believes it would not be ethical for him to respond to the decision of a university commission, which had advised him to apologize.

The ethics commission at the Higher School of Economics recommended the professor apologize for his remarks. They were “ill-considered and irresponsible,” said the commission, which also claimed they had harmed the university’s reputation.

Gusejnov, in turn, told journalists he already given university administrators all necessary explanations and had no plans to apologize to anyone. He stressed that he had written the post as a private individual and had not yet received any official demands from the university.

A lecturer in the humanities faculty and a doctor of philology, Gusejnov published his post on Facebook in late October.

“In Moscow, with its hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Tatars, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Chinese and Germans, it is utterly impossible to find anything in other languages, except for the miserable, cesspool-like Russian that this country now speaks and writes,” he wrote.

Gusejnov’s post sparked a controversy on social media and in the media. Facebook deleted his post for violating its rules. The professor himself later explained that he had meant the language of hatred and aggression used in the media, social networks, and opinion journalism. According to Gusejnov, it was “an extremely dangerous environment and an extremely dangerous tool.”

This week, as the public debate about Gusejnov’s remarks continued, Vladimir Putin spoke at a meeting of the Russian Language Council. According to the Russian president, war had been declared on the Russian language worldwide in order to reduce its space [sic]. As Putin said, this was being done by “boorish Russophobes,” “fringe groups,” and “aggressive nationalists.”

The president did not specify what threats he had in mind. But he did instruct the government to amend the current laws “On the State Language” and “On the Languages of the Peoples of Russia” and create a “single corpus of dictionaries and reference books” that would dictate how all government entities used the language. Putin did not mention Gusejnov in his remarks.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

“What Is This, the Gestapo?” University Student Yegor Zhukov Charged with Rioting in Moscow

Higher School of Economics Student Yegor Zhukov Arrested in Riot Investigation
Andrei Karev
Novaya Gazeta
August 2, 2019

Moscow’s Presna District Court has remanded in custody yet another person charged in the riot investigation launched after the July 27 protest rally in Moscow: 21-year-old Yegor Zhukov, a candidate for the Moscow City Duma, video blogger, and student at the Higher School of Economics.

content_______2Yegor Zhukov in court. Photo by Vlad Dokshin. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Judge Alexander Avdotyina granted a motion made by the case investigator and remanded Zhukov in custody until September 27.

The hearing began with a motion from Zhukov’s defense lawyer, Daniil Berman. He asked the court to call a recess and give his client a bottle of water.

“He has not had a drop of water since two in the morning and has not slept since yesterday,” Berman claimed.

The judge, however, refused to uphold the motion, explaining that giving Zhukov a bottle of water was against the rules.

“What is this, the Gestapo?” Zhukov’s outraged mother wondered aloud.

Her son has been charged with involvement in rioting, punishable under Article 212.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. Zhukov has completely denied his guilt and refused to give testimony to investigators. According to the case investigator, if Zhukov were at large, he could hinder the investigation, present a flight risk, and pressure witnesses.

He argued that Zhukov’s guilt was borne out by evidence gathered during the investigation.

“Zhukov could destroy evidence in the case and communicate information learned during the investigation to other suspects,” explained the investigator from the Russian Investigative Committee.

The prosecutor seconded the investigator’s arguments.

Zhukov asked the court to impose pretrial restrictions that did not involve imprisoning him.

content_______3Yegor Zhukov in court. Photo by Vlad Dokshin. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Berman argued there were no grounds for remanding Zhukov in custody. There had been no criminal wrongdoing on Zhukov’s part, and investigators had not presented any specific evidence. Berman motioned the court not to impose pretrial restrictions that would involve isolating his client from society, asking it instead to place Zhukov under house arrest or release him on bail or on his own recognizance.

“There have been lies at each stage of the criminal investigation. It seems as if the case file has been hastily thrown together: it is a collection of commonplaces. What are the charges? What exactly did my client do? The case investigators should at least pretend to be upholding the law. It is outrageous they asked the court to uphold this motion. Why should a student and Muscovite be remanded in custody?” Berman exclaimed.

He added that Zhukov’s parents were willing to post one million rubles [$15,320] in bail.

Earlier, it transpired Valeria Kasamara, vice-rector at the Higher School of Economics and candidate for the Moscow City Duma in Borough No. 45, had agreed to stand surety for Zhukov.

“I request Yegor Zhukov not be remanded in custody. He is my student. He has always been distinguished by his curiosity and high academic performance. I know him personally and can vouch for his good character,” reads the document, posted on Telegram by Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group.

Higher School of Economics students, alumni, and faculty have published an open letter demanding the university’s administrators officially voice their support for Zhukov. According to the letter’s authors, the HSE administration should personally make official statements supporting Zhukov, stand surety for him in court, and appeal to all public authorities to explain the grounds for the criminal charges against him.

“The charges against Yegor are charges against the entire university and each member of the university community. The university teaches us to think critically, speak freely, and ask questions. The Higher School of Economics does not have the moral right to turn its back when a member of its community faces three to eight years in prison for speaking freely and asking the right questions,” it says in the letter.

The Investigative Committee has consolidated separate charges of rioting (punishable under Article 212 of the Russian Criminal Code) and violence against police officers (punishable under Article 318 of the Russian Criminal Code) into a single criminal investigation of the “unauthorized” protest rally in Moscow on July 27. According to Chikov, 84 investigators have been assigned to the case.

Earlier on Friday, the court remanded Alexei Minyaylo, Samariddin Radzhabov, Ivan Podkopayev, and Kirill Zhukov in custody. Yevgeny Kovalenko had already been remanded in custody as part of the same investigation.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Buggered

rossiya This bankrupt agribusiness was called Rossiya (“Russia”). Photo courtesy of Maxim Kemmerling/Kommersant and Republic

“The Data Leaves Us at a Loss”: A Few Figures That Might Surprise the Kremlin
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
April 4, 2019

“Why on shoes? Why a third? Where did they get these figures?”

Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary, responded with questions to journalists who questioned him yesterday about Rosstat’s depressing report for 2018.

According to Rosstat’s study, in which sixty thousand Russian households were surveyed, every fifth Russian skimps on fruits and vegetables. Every other Russian family cannot afford to travel anywhere when they have a week’s vacation, while every fourth family does not have enough money to invite people over to celebrate birthdays and the New Year’s holiday.

And, indeed, the report does conclude that 35% of Russians are unable to purchase each family member two pairs of seasonally appropriate footwear.

“I would be grateful to Rosstat if they clarified these figures. The data leaves us at a loss,” Peskov added.

Meanwhile, there are other figures—lots of figures—that would probably also bedevil the Kremlin if they were aired in public. Let us recall a few of them.

Nutrition
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor concluded that 63% of deaths in Russia were associated with bad food and poor nutrition. According to official figures, Russians spend approximately 35% of their household budgets on food, while independent researchers put that figure at over fifty percent. However, the average Russian household skimps on all purchases and tries to do without everything it can, claim the researchers behind Romir’s Coffee with Milk Index, which charts the quantities of chocolate, coffee, milk, and bottled water purchased by Russians. Researchers at RANEPA recently described the diets of Russians as unhealthy, unbalanced, and lacking in energy.

Health
According to a report by RANEPA’s Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting, 22% of Russians who live in straitened circumstances face the stark choice of whether to buy the bare minimum of the cheapest produce or the cheapest drugs, drugs they need to survive. It is typical of Russians, not only those below the poverty line, to postpone going to the doctor, if it involves costs, noted researchers at the Institute for Health Economics at the Higher School of Economics.

Education
According to the pollsters at VTsIOM, fifty percent of Russian parents experience serious financial difficulties when getting their children ready for the first day of the school year. Over the past five years, the average sum of money Russians claim to spend getting children ready for school has increased by sixty percent, rising from 13,600 rubles to 21,100 rubles.

Housing
According to the Construction Ministry, the Russian populace’s debts for utilities and housing maintenance bills have grown by five and a half times since 2015. The ministry reported that, as of the end of last year, the total amount of this debt was 1.2 trillion rubles [approx. 16.34 billion euros]. The rates for water, electricity, gas, and other utilities and services increase rhythmically year after year, and yet the real incomes of Russians have continued to fall five years in a row.

Transportation
Forty percent of Russian car owners “try not to use their own vehicles, taking public transport instead.” Another 22% of car owners follow their lead, but do it less frequently. VTsIOM has explained the outcome of its January opinion poll by citing the concern of Russians for the environment while failing to note that the price of petrol has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, a liter of AI-95 rose in price three times faster than inflation. The government has resorted to artificial, decidedly non-market measures to depress prices, and yet petrol in Russia is now twice as expensive as it was when the decade kicked off.

Only twelve percent of Russians believe that, when it describes the economy and the social sector, the Russian regime always or mostly tells the truth. The Levada Center has done polls on the same subject since 2010. Russian society’s confidence in what the country’s leaders and senior officials say has never been as low as it is now.

By voicing surprise at Russia’s poverty, at least on paper, the Kremlin is, apparently, determined to convince people it inhabits a parallel reality in which Russia makes one breakthrough after another, and the rank and file enjoy “stability” by way of spiting the country’s numerous enemies. Peskov seemed genuinely puzzled by Rosstat’s claim that Russian families have trouble buying shoes, but he probably had not yet read the government’s report on the increase in mortality rates in every third region of Russia. Clearly, something is wrong with the figures. In short, we expect a reaction.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Why Most Russians Will Stay Home for New Year’s

Why Most Russians Will Stay Home for New Year’s
As Incomes Crumble, Even Celebrating with Friends Is Too Expensive for Them
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
December 27, 2018

New Year’s, apparently, has become a truly stay-at-home holiday. The number of Russians who plan to spend the long New Year’s holiday at home has jumped from 41% in late 2015 to 70% in late 2018, according to a survey by Romir, a Russian research company. The main reason is the rapid return to the conservative tradition of growing poverty and uncertainty in the future, combined with the desire to maintain previous levels of consumption of the most vital goods and services, which no longer include a winter holiday away from home.

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“How do you plan to spend the upcoming New Year’s holidays?” Overall: at home, 70%; at dacha, visiting relatives, 19%; traveling in Russia, 2%; working, 6%; traveling abroad, 2%; other, 1%. Average monthly income per family member of 10,000 rubles: at home, 73%; at dacha, visiting relatives, 18%; traveling in Russia, 2%; working, 6%. Average monthly income per family member of 10,000 rubles–25,000 rubles: at home, 74%; at dacha, visiting relatives, 17%; traveling in Russia, 1%; working, 5%; traveling abroad, 1%; other, 1%. Average monthly income per family member of 25,000 rubles or greater: at home, 56%; at dacha, visiting relatives, 25%; traveling in Russia, 4%; working, 8%; traveling abroad, 5%; other, 2%. Source: Romir, December 2018. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Surveys of the same representative selection of respondents have shown a drop-off in all other ways of spending the New Year’s holidays, which have basically become yet another period of time off work for Russians. The number of Russians planning to spend the holidays at the dacha or visiting friends or relatives has decreased from 34% to 19% in three years. Trips within Russia have dropped from 8% to 2%, while trips abroad have fallen from 4% to 2%.  Nearly everyone has been scrimping, including Russians with above-median incomes. Fifty-six percent of Russian with monthly incomes of 25,000 rubles [approx. $364] per family memberwill stay home, as will 74% of Russians with monthly incomes between 10,000 rubles and 25,000 rubles per family member. As Tatyana Maleva, an economist from RANEPA, notes, the Russian urban middle class, which has grown accustomed to traveling, cannot afford it.

The picture emerging from the survey reflects the mood of many Russians. Since 2014, real incomes have fallen four years in a row, and all indications are they will be shown to have fallen in 2018 as well. According to Rosstat, the monthly modal income in in 2017 was 13,274 rubles [approx. $233], while the monthly median income was 23,500 rubles [approx. $412]. Given these circumstances, the ruble’s devaluation, which has made trips abroad more expensive, is not such an important factor. In December 2015, one dollar cost as much as it does currently, 67 rubles, and its value was rising.

Holidays at home are not cheap, either. In November 2018, the percentage of Russians who had noticed a rise in prices had grown in comparison with October 2018, according to the Russian Central Bank. Forty percent of Russians noticed upticks in prices for meat and poultry; 32%, rises in the price of petrol; 28%, rising prices for cheese and sausage; while 26% had noticed that milk and dairy products were more expensive. All of these goods are part of the home holiday menu.

In comparison with 2014, consumption levels have fallen. They have not returned to their previous levels. Attempting to wriggle their way out of poverty or maintain their previous income levels, Russians have taken out an ever-growing number of consumer loans, which have proven difficult to pay back. Every fourth Russian who had outstanding loans in 2015–2017 spent 30% of their incomes paying them off, note Olga Kuzina and Nikita Krupensky, economists at the Higher School of Economics, in an article entitled “The High Debt of Russians: Myth or Reality?” published in the November 2018 issue of the journal Voprosy ekonomiki.

Generally, the Russian populace has transitioned to a minimalist model of consumerism, notes Maleva. Scrimping begins literally with the New Year. As Romir’s survey indicates, this transition has become a trend that will, apparently, shape the strategies and tactics of Russian consumers in the future, too. The only thing that has not changed over the years is the president’s televised New Year’s greeting: it costs nothing.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Squandering Its Way to Superpowerdom

“Squandering”: Did the US Secretary of State Grasp the Russian Approach to Budget Spending?
The Kremlin Accused the State Department of Tactlessness and Unprofessionalism, Yet Pompeo’s Remarks Were on the Mark
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
December 13, 2018

padrino.jpgVenezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino gives his thumb up as he sits on the cockpit of a Russian Tupolev Tu-160 strategic long-range heavy supersonic bomber after it landed at Maiquetia International Airport, north of Caracas, on December 10, 2018. Courtesy of Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Russian’s decision to send strategic bombers on a junket to an airport near Caracas elicited a curious reaction from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who publicly expressed his pity for Russian taxpapers, whose money the Kremlin, habitually disregarding the costs, has been spending on its geopolitical moves.

“The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer,” Pompeo wrote.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by calling Pompeo’s statement “utterly unprofessional” and even “villainous.” Pompeo’s remarks, which the Kremlin, in turn, dubbed “inappropriate” and “undiplomatic,” were apparently really lacking in nuance: the hardships of Russians, fortunately, cannot yet be compared with the suffering of Venezuelans. But, hand on heart, was Pompeo so wrong when he talked about the losses to the Russian federal budget and lack of oversight?

Russian society has an extremely vague notion about how much the Kremlin’s expansionism has ultimately cost the country. According to calculations made by IHS Jane’s at the outset of Russia’s operations in Syria in autumn 2015, Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day. Later, the Yabloko Democratic Party, which is not seated in the Russian parliament, estimated the Kremlin had spent a total of 108–140 billion rubles [between $1.6 and $2.1 billion] on Syria. A more accurate assessment would be difficult to make. Experts doubt that anyone, including the Finance Ministry, keeps tabs on such expenditures. Thus, nobody knows the real cost of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, argues the Gaidar Institute’s Military Economics Laboratory.

The budget’s fading transparency has been a trend in recent years. In 2016, secret and top-secret allocations accounted for 22% of total federal budget expenditures, a record for the entire post-Soviet period, and much higher than secret allocations in comparable countries, according to RANEPA’s March 2015 report on the Russian economy.

Quite naturally, this state of affairs has not improved the quality of the state’s financial decisions. In terms of effective state spending, Russia ranked nineteenth in a new rating of twenty-five countries, compiled by the Higher School of Economics using data from the World Bank and OECD. Since they are not priorities for the current regime, problems with child mortality and life expectancy were among the reasons Russia ranked so low in the survey: the government spends more on the army than on healthcare—4.3% of GDP versus 3.8% of GDP, respectively. In these circumstances, the chances the Kremlin’s strategic projects in the Middle East and Africa (e.g., the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique) will be decently funded are always much greater than the national healthcare project, which stipulated increased government spending on cancer treatment. The government nixed the plan over summer.

Since it remains largely Soviet in spirit, Russia’s foreign policy has been categorically blind to history’s lessons. The Soviet Union’s exorbitant geopolitical ambitions and support for fringe regimes around the world left the country with a legacy of mostly toxic multi-billion-dollar debts. The process of writing them off has been disguised as a form of international charity or, speaking diplomatically, official development assistance (ODA). According to RANEPA, writing off the debts of developing countries accounted for 35% of all such “international aid” last year or $425 million. It has been the Russian government’s usual way of doing business. Previously, the Russian government wrote off the debts of Nicaragua ($6.3 billion), Iraq ($21.5 billion), North Korea ($10.9 billion), Syria ($9.8 billion), Afghanistan ($11 billion), and Cuba ($29 billion), among other countries. Venezuela risks joining this sad list. Over the past twelve years, Russia has invested a total of $17 billion in the country.

Russia’s Expenditures on Official Development Assistance (Excluding Humanitarian Aid), 2005–2017, in Millions of Dollars. Sources: OECD, Russian Finance Ministry. Courtesy of Republic

Since it was paid for by the Russian federal budget, which has been running a deficit for the last seven years, Russian officials probably did not see the transatlantic flight of its strategic bombers as too expensive. On the contrary, they saw it as a flashy display of Russia’s military prowess and proof of its influence in the region. However, the government of Nicolás Maduro signed off on the stunt. Subject to growing pressure from creditors and an angry, desperate population, it lives day by day. In all likelihood, it will soon collapse, leaving behind a mountain of unpaid bills and unfulfilled obligations to its allies. If this is the case, can we evaluate the Russian government’s action better than the tactless Mike Pompeo did? Probably not.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Making Life Easier for Vegans in Petersburg

Анастасия Емельянова, основатель VegCode
Anastasia Yemelyanova, VegCode founder. Photo courtesy of Sergei Yermokhin and Delovoi Peterburg

A Barcode for Vegans: Petersburgers Develop App for Identifying Vegan Products Through Barcode
Inna Reikhard
Delovoi Peterburg
December 12, 2018

App Interests a Thousand Users in Single Woeek
Petersburgers Anastasia Yemelyanova, Alyona Kabardinova, and Nikolai Dubrovsky have developed the mobile VegCode app (Vegan IT LLC). Made available to users in early December, the app is designed for vegans. It lets shoppers use barcodes to figure out whether or not items in stores contain animal products and have been animal tested. The app currently has a database of 26,000 items marked “vegan” and “non-vegan.” Most of the items are edibles and cosmetics. Household cleaning products will soon be added to the list.

A Growing Segment
As the designers explained, there is a demand for the app, since the number of vegans in Russia has been growing at a rate of fifty percent annually. There are now approximately 150,000 vegans in Russia.

The team has been preparing to expand the app’s functionality by adding a map of vegan shops, cafes, and producers. The app, which operates in Russia and the CIS, will earn money by advertising the services of these businesses.

Attracting Investors
“Unlike Western Europe and the US, the problem of identifying vegan goods is much gnarlier in Russia, because there is not a well-defined system for labeling goods and far fewer speciality magazines,” Yemelyanova explains.

For example, you might find a retail item labeled “Lenten,” but it might not be appropriate for vegans. On the other hand, producers sometimes have no clue their product lines include ethical products.

The startuppers commenced work on the app in early 2018. They raised money on the crowdfunding website Planeta. They also made it to the finals of Philtech Accelerator, winning a 100,000-ruble prize from the Higher School of Economics. The team got another 300,000 rubles from venture investor Alexander Rumyantsev.

Yemelyanova says the hardest thing was compiling the database of retail items marked “vegan.”

“We get information about the content of products from open sources. Our users can also add items via the app. After they are moderated, the new items are listed in the database,” a spokesperson for the company said.

In a week’s time, the nearly thousand users who downloaded the app have suggested 4,000 more items for inclusion in the database.

Prospects
The market for vegan products in Petersburg has been growing rapidly. In 2015, sales were estimated at 80 million rubles [approx. 1 million euros]. In 2017, this figure climbed to 400 million rubles [approx. 5.3 million euros].

Petersburg has several dozen fast food outlets and shops catering to vegans, including Bunker and B12 Vegan Shop.

Petersburg is also home to a small number of vegan producers. Businessman Ivan Ivanov, for example, makes lactose-free dairy products, wheat steaks, and other edibles under the Primal Soymilk brand. Verde produces cheese and curd. Veganov makes soy and vegetable sausages, while Soymik produces soy-based products.

“Petersburg has the most thriving vegan movement in Russia. The city also has a growing number of vegan producers. Mainly, however, these are small businesses in which not a lot of money has been invested. Their products are usually not sold in retail chains, but I think the day when they’ll be sold there is not far off,” says Ivanov.

Ivanov says he had thought himself about making an app for identifying vegan products.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Macaroni Is a Vegetable

“3,500 rubles.” Graphic courtesy of Vedomosti. At the current exchange rate, 3,500 rubles is worth approximately 46 euros.

Some Can Only Afford Macaroni, But Some Cannot Even Afford That
Saratov Official’s Suggestion to Spend 3,500 Rubles on Food a Month Is a Reality for Millions of Russians
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
October 19, 2018

The statement by Natalya Sokolova, minister for labor and employment in Saratov Region, that 3,500 rubles a month was enough for the “minimum physiological needs” of Saratov pensioners so angered the public that she was made an ex-minister in a matter of days. Ms. Sokolova had insisted it was not worth raising the monthly minimum cost of living for unemployed pensioners by 500 rubles: an increase of 288 rubles would be enough.

“Macaroni always costs the same,” she said.

Ms. Sokolova, however, refused to go on such a diet by way of an experiment. Her status supposedly did not allow it.

But is it only Saratov pensioners who subsit on such a meager diet? Let’s compare them with other regions.

The authorities calculate the amount of the mountly minimum cost of living on the basis of the cost of the monthly minimum food basket. They add to its cost (which is 3,500 rubles in the case of Saratov pensioners) the exact same amount of money for paying for non-food items and services, for example, clothing, housing, and utilities. The monthly minimum cost of living for pensioners in Saratov Region was therefore 7,176 rubles (95 euros) in the second quarter of 2018. It was 9,354 rubles (124 euros) for the region’s able-bodied residents, and 9,022 rubles (120 euros) for its children.

That is not much, but there are even poorer regions in Russia. For example, in Belgorod Region, an able-bodied resident should be able to live on 8,995 rubles (120 euros) a month, while a pensioner should be able to survive on 6,951 rubles (92 euros) a month. In Mordovia, the corresponding figures are 9,132 rubles (121 euros) and 6,975 rubles (93 euros) a month; in Chuvashia, 9,248 rubles (123 euros) and 7,101 rubles (94 euros). The federal monthly minimum cost of living is 11,280 rubles (150 euros) for an able-bodied person, 8,583 rubles (114 euros) for a pensioner, and 10,390 rubles (138 euros) for a child. Meaning that, on average, the monthly diet in Russia as a whole is only a little more expensive than the Saratov diet: between 4,000 rubles (53 euros) and 5,500 rubles (73 rubles).

The monthly minimum food basket includes the cheapest groceries. It is meant to provide an individual with the necessary amount of protein, fats, and carbohydrates for a month, explains Liliya Ovcharova, director of the Institute for Social Policy at the Higher School of Economics. The basket mainly contains baked goods, a few eggs, lots of porridge, milk, and an altogether small amount of meat. According to Ms. Ovcharova, the diet will keep a person alive. It is another matter that it is “tasteless” and below rational norms of consumption, flagrantly lacking in meat, vegetables, and fruit. It is not surprising people find this diet unacceptable.

In 2017, however, the incomes of 13.2% of Russians were below the minimum cost of living, meaning that 18.9 million people in Russia could not afford even the macaroni snubbed by the ex-minister in Saratov. This figure includes children: one in five Russian children lives in family whose per capita income is below the minimum cost of living. Among old-age pensioners, however, there is practically no one who is officially poor. If their incomes are below the minimum cost of living for pensioners, they receive an additional payment to help them top up to the minimum. Children in large families are not eligible for these additional payments.

The question is what is now the more realistic approach: making the diet more humane or reducing the number of people who cannot afford even an inhumane diet. For example, the government could first reduce the number of children in need to 5%, and then improve the diet. Vladimir Putin ordered the government to reduce the number of needy people by half by 2024. If we now increased the minimum cost of living by 50%, the number of poor people would, on the contrary, double, Ms. Ovcharova estimates.

But the number of poor people can be measured not only on the basis of the minimum grocery basket, a standard that was introduced back in the 1990s. In European countries, for example, people with incomes of 50% of the median have been considered poor since the 1950s. At the same time, the Europeans base their calculations not on minimal but on rational norms of food consumption, Ms. Ovcharova notes. They compute how many specific vitamins, minerals, iron, and calcium a person needs. This food basket is much pricier and presupposes a completely different level of consumption and well-being.

It is probably best not to count how many Saratov pensioners can afford this food basket until 2024.

Translated by the Russian Reader