Sergei Shelin: Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia

vhuo87jzsh8j2vtaThe label from a bottle of Port Wine 777. Courtesy of Collectionerus

Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia
The Sukhoi Superjet 100’s crash shows what happens when a country isolates itself from the world while trying to keep up with the 21st century’s Joneses 
Sergei Shelin
Rosbalt
May 7, 2019

Only Murmansk Region announced an official day of mourning for the people who perished at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport on May 5. There was little expectation a national day of morning would be announced, since the protocol for such things, adopted by the country’s leaders for their own convenience, do not stipulate a national day of mourning after disasters of this magnitude. It is thus neither a matter of heartlessness nor the upcoming Victory Day holiday.

The Sukhoi Superjet 100s have not been grounded, however. True, the authorities are currently pushing the hypothesis the crash was caused by pilot error. This is a more intelligible and attractive explanation than the hypothesis that was cooked up just the other day as a diversion, the one about how some passengers, allegedly, prevented other passengers from escaping because they were trying to get their luggage out of the burning plane. Nothing has yet been proven, however, although hardly anyone would argue with the fact that the first passenger jet designed and built in Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been a failure.

The Super Jet was produced long before the current falling out with the west. Its designers made generous use of imported parts, hoping the plane would sell like hotcakes abroad. Today, the few foreign airlines whom Sukhoi managed to persuade to purchase the planes, for example, the Mexicans, complain about the Super Jet’s unreliability, design flaws, and delays in procuring spare parts. It would seem they are looking for a good excuse to stop flying the planes.

The flip side of these failures has been the attempt to force Russian airlines to operate the plane, especially Aeroflot. What would grounding the plane mean now? It would be tantamount to bringing the entire undertaking to a close. Clearly, the Russian state’s ambitions and collective self-interest have coalesced to oppose this decision. The Super Jets are still flying, and we can only hope everything will work out for the best.

Such semi-Russian, semi-foreign collaborations are feasible and normal if the general contractor is not having a spat with the outside world, and airlines are free to choose which airplanes they fly. This was not quite the case from the get-go, but when Russia’s quarrel with the west gained momentum, all the worst aspects of the venture elbowed their way to the fore, turning into a self-sustaining process.

The deeper Russia sinks into isolation, the worse the links in all business chains function, while state protectionism constantly increases for anything that resembles import substitution or at least apes it. The number of failures and breakdowns in all parts of Russian society, some of them involving fatalities, sometimes without them, thank God, inevitably grows.

What is the difference between yesteryear’s Soviet isolationism and the current Russian isolationism? The former was preprogrammed to generate victims and hardship. They were merely part of the system. We need not talk about Stalin’s horrors. Even during its final decades, the Soviet Union was still typified by universal poverty, quite strong societal discipline, and the ruling class’s relative modesty. This state of affairs was maintained by a ragtag ideology and a still palpable fear of the state machine. Isolation was vouchsafed, of course, by the Soviet Union’s lagging behind the outside world. But it did not weigh heavy on every aspect of life and all at the same time. People moved into Khrushchev-era blocks of flats, regarding them as the last word in modern housing. They drank 777 brand “port wine,” having no clue how real Portuguese port tasted.

On the other hand, the Soviet military-industrial complex competed successfully with the rest of the world, at least until the early 1980s. Even though it was a byproduct of military aviation, Soviet civil aviation was quite impressive. The country’s professional communities, including the period’s passenger airline pilots, maintained a strict work ethic longer than Soviet society at large. Crashes were not so rare, however. But they were usually covered up not only due to totalitarianism but also because the information revolution had not yet happened.

The Soviet regime seemed invincible almost to the bitter end. Current attempts to resurrect it, despite their impressive magnitude, are laughable.

Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union.  It does not have the stamina to compete in arms races and so forth with the outside world. It has even less will to self-denial, both among the elites and the grassroots. People have been adapting to the plans of the authorities to lock them up in a besieged fortress forever, but their life hacks are completely different from what they were in the last century.

Many Russians who have the right skills, experience, and education have been leaving abroad to work. By the way, their ranks have included hundreds if not thousands of the country’s best commercial pilots. Several millions of people, each of them capable of doing something well, have emigrated from Russia during Putin’s twenty-year reign.

Meanwhile, the majority of Russians, who have stayed in Russia, have tried to make themselves as comfy as they can in their import-substitution society, hoping either for special perks or state welfare, or perks and welfare all at once.

Since isolation has kicked in, independent business, already frail, has almost gone extinct. But the bureaucratized “state-minded” capitalists who took over the entire business field have nothing in common with the dexterous captains of Soviet management. As they get filthy rich through import substitution, today’s Russian magnates would never think of depriving themselves of the outside world’s blessings. They do not pretend to be farsighted. Simple minded, they loudly demand that the isolationist feast go on, becoming more creative as it proceeds. From time to time, the peculiarity of their exclamations spices up the sad circumstances, but not much.

Many people laughed at Viktor Linnik, president of Russian agribusiness giant Miratorg, and the National Meat Association when they called on the government to ban individuals from bringing small amounts of sanctioned European produce back to Russia. They were especially amused when Linnik said, “Jamon should be eaten in Spain, while Parmesan cheese should be eaten in France.”

The most striking thing about what Linnik said was not his confusion about Parmesan cheese’s national provenance, but the ease with which one could continue his line of though by saying, for example, that Russian bread should be eaten in Russia and, consequently, it was time to stop exporting grain, one of the few export sectors in which Russia has been blossoming. Would you tell me only a crazy blowhard would suggest such a thing? I doubt you would. Many things that had seemed impossible have already happened during the current orgy of import substitution, which consists of equal portions of greed and persecution mania.

Russia’s newfangled twenty-first-century isolationism not only vouchsafes the country will lag behind others. It is a species of intellectual, moral and professional corruption. It means no lessons can be learned from accidents and disasters. It means decadence, decay, and collapse are fobbed off as a decent, normal life.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Fyodor Krasheninnikov: Russian History According to the Crimean Calendar

brickwall faceThe writing is on the wall.

Russian History According to the Crimean Calendar
A New Period of Russian History Kicked Off in 2014, But There Is No Proof It Will Last for Centuries
Fyodor Krasheninnikov
Vedomosti
April 11, 2018

In a recently published article, Vladislav Surkov argues we should regard 2014 as the first year of a new calendar, the beginning of a centuries-long era of “political solitude” that emerged after a long period of ambivalence on Russia’s part. Although the thoughts outlined in the article are primarily Mr. Surkov’s personal convictions, they do in some way describe the outlook of Russia’s supreme political elite, to which Mr. Surkov certainly belongs, and they are interesting only in this sense. Among other things, his take suggests that, after 2014, nothing comparable in importance to the events in Crimea has happened nor will happen, meaning Russia seemingly experienced the “end of history” in 2014.

2014 will undoubtedly go down in history as the year of Vladimir Putin’s most memorable achievement. Russia’s annexation of Crimea led to many changes both at home and abroad, but what mattered most was that it was accomplished easily, quickly, and bloodlessly, and led to an incredible surge in the president’s popularity due to the fact that a large segment of society rallied around him. The more alarming the circumstances of spring 2018, the dearer to the president and his entourage are the memories of the happy spring of 2014. Surkov’s article can read as a belated reiteration of Faust’s “Stay a while, you are so beautiful,” as a reluctance to accept the inevitability of change and the ephemerality of all “forevers.”

The flip side of the myth of a new era’s beginning is the fear 2014 was actually the culmination of modern Russian history and things will only get worse in the future. The tendencies of recent years have fully confirmed this fear. Only four years have passed, but the spring of 2018 is nothing like the spring of 2014 in terms of feeling and mood. Russia is not on the offensive; instead, it is on the defensive. The west’s pressure on it has been multiplying and causing palpable problems for the economy. For the first time in four years, the country’s leaders have been forced to acknowledge the dangers posed by US sanctions and give up repeating the argument that all sanctions are a boon to the economy. It is no wonder. In 2014, the sanctions were much weaker, and given the euphoria in the air, they went almost unnoticed. Besides, in 2014, it was still possible to believe the sanctions were temporary. They would be lifted in the very near future, the west would swallow what had occurred, and everything would go back to what it had been. In 2018, the euphoria has long vanished, and if there is still talk the sanctions will soon be lifted, it should be put down more to inertia and confusion than anything else. Although it was intentionally timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Crimean triumph, the presidential election did not produce anything comparable to the inspiring impression generated in the wake of Crimea’s annexation. The celebration of Putin’s electoral victory lasted only ten days, cut short by the disastrous shopping mall fire in Kemerovo and the official day of mourning announced in its aftermath.

Russia cannot look forward to proud “political solitude” in the coming years or at any other time. The modern world is too small for anyone to isolate themselves, especially on their own terms and inside borders of their own choosing. At home, especially among the elite, one can still live in the past for a time and pretend this is still the triumphant year of 2014. One call still pretend Russia is threatening everyone, denouncing everyone, and demanding a reaction from everyone, and that it has centuries and millennia ahead of it. In fact, however, it is Russia that is threatened, Russia that is denounced, and Russia from whom everyone demands a reaction. There are no grounds for supposing this onslaught will wane in the foreseeable future instead of intensifying. Russia’s main trump card in 2014 was its willingness to engage in confrontation and brinksmanship, which the west was not willing to do. That card has now been trumped in turn. After a long period of wavering, the leaders of the Nato countries have also proven capable of engaging in deliberate escalation and frightening their opponents with determination. This seems to have been a major surprise to the current regime in Russia.

A new phase in modern Russian history undoubtedly began in 2014, but there is no proof it will last for centuries and be a time of endless rapture over the annexation of Crimea. For the time being, everything points to the fact it will end much more quickly than many of us would imagine and in such a way that we shall not want to remember 2014 at all.

Fyodor Krasheninnikov is a political scientist who lives in Yekaterinburg. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

“We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Yekaterina Schulmann

Yekaterina Schulmann. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

Political Scientist Yekaterina Schulmann on Why You Should Vote
Anya Chesova and Natasha Fedorenko
The Village
September 16, 2016

This Sunday, September 18, the country will vote for a new State Duma, the seventh since the fall of the Soviet Union. The peculiarity of this vote is that it will take place under a mixed electoral system for the first time since 2003. 225 MPs will be elected to five-year tears from party lists, while the other 225 MPs will be elected from single-mandate districts. Several days before the elections, The Village met with Yekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). We talked with her about why you should vote if United Russia is going to win in any case, as well as about the changes in store for the Russian political system in the coming years.


The Upcoming Elections

The Village: On Sunday, the country will hold the first elections to the State Duma since 2011. The social climate in the city and the country as a whole has changed completely since that time. Protests erupted in 2011, and the people who protested on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue believed they could impact the political situation. Nowadays, few people have held on to such hopes. What should we expect from the upcoming elections? And why should we bother with them?

Yekaterina Schulmann: Everything happening now with the State Duma election is a consequence of the 2011–2012 protests, including changes in the laws, the introduction of the mixed system, the return of single-mandate MPs, the lowering of the threshold for parties to be seated in the Duma from seven to five percent, and the increased number of parties on the ballot. These are the political reforms outlined by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as a response to the events of December 2011. Later, we got a new head of state, but it was already impossible to take back these promises. The entire political reality we observe now has grown to one degree or another out of the 2011–2012 protest campaign, whether as rejection, reaction or consequence. It is the most important thing to happen in the Russian political arena in recent years.

The statements made by Vyacheslav Volodin, the president’s deputy chief of staff, on the need to hold honest elections, Vladimir Churov’s replacement by Ella Pamfilova as head of the Central Electoral Commission, the departure of someone more important than Churov from the CEC, deputy chair Leonid Ivlev, and the vigorous sacking of chairs of regional electoral commissions are all consequences of the protests. If they had not taken place, nothing would have changed. We would still have the same proportional voting system, the same seven-percent threshold, the same old Churov or Churov 2.0. Continue reading ““We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Yekaterina Schulmann”