Yekaterina Schulmann: We’re Not as Savage as They Say We Are

Yekaterina Schulmann
Compulsory Love
InLiberty
July 27, 2017

When we examine the campaigns, events, and public manifestations that might be dubbed signs of creeping re-Stalinization, the rehabilitation of Stalin, his emergence in the public space amid public approval, we see that each such instance was obviously organized directly or indirectly by the state, rather than by private individuals.

The monuments that have been erected recently and whose numbers have, indeed, been growing, have usually been installed under the auspices of local branches of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). This hardly makes them popular or grassroots endeavors. I would imagine everyone knows what the CPRF’s network of regional branches and our parliamentary parties amount to in reality, the extent of their loyalty to the regime, and the degree to which they coordinate all their moves with local and federal authorities.

It’s Even a Good Thing
Way back in 2002, a street in a city in Dagestan was named Stalin Avenue at the mayor’s behest. It did not happen because the locals came and surrounded town hall, threatening to set it ablaze if the mayor didn’t agree to their demands.

In 2009, in another political era, a line from the Soviet national anthem, “Stalin raised us to be true to the people,” was restored to the visual design of the Moscow subway’s Kurskaya station. Medvedev was then the president. The authorities responded to the indignation then voiced by arguing it was historically accurate. They had simply restored the station to its original appearance.

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“Stalin raised us to be true to the people.” Kurskaya subway station, Moscow. Photo courtesy of Lenta.ru

Since then, the Moscow subway has been rendered a powerful tool of pro-Soviet and Stalinist propaganda: there are the trains in which we encounter portraits of Stalin, and campaigns like this year’s “Times and Eras.” The pretext is sometimes stills from a film or historical memoirs. But you realize none of this comes from the grassroots, from ordinary folk, but from subway top brass or Moscow and federal authorities.

In Mari El, a life-sized monument to Stalin (one of the few; busts are usually erected instead) was erected on the premises of the local meat processing plant. As the town’s main employer and a major local business, the plant naturally could not afford to be in opposition to the regime, so it provided the venue for the monument.

Unveiling of a monument to Stalin in the village of Shelanger, Marii El Republic, September 9, 2015. Photo courtesy of Mariiskaya Pravda

2015 saw the opening of a Stalin Hut Museum in the village of Khoroshevo. It was something of a scandal, because the museum was sponsored by the Culture Ministry and personally approved by the culture minister.

A bust of Stalin was erected in Pskov Region in 2016, also with the knowledge and approval of local authorities.

Art exhibitions featuring images of Stalin in paintings of his era, paintings glorifying him and other Communist leaders, opened in Moscow in 2014, 2015, and 2016—for example, a show of works by Stalinist court painter Alexander Gerasimov, who authored the painting popularly known as “Two Leaders after a Rain.” These cultural treasures were shown in the Tretyakov Gallery not at the request of the art community or the museum’s staff.

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Alexander Gerasimov, Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin (“Two Leaders after a Rain”), 1938. Image courtesy of s-t-o-l.com

What is important to understand is the following. It does not follow from the things I have listed that there are no people in Russia who would, at their own behest, erect a bust of Stalin at their dacha or even be willing to donate money to restore a monument to him. Because we see a video of ordinary people in Sevastopol standing and applauding during the performance of a song about Stalin by a strange man in white trousers does not mean they were all specially dispatched there by the local authorities.

Sergei Kurochkin, “Bring Back Stalin,” August 2015, Sevastopol

What is the function of state propaganda? Speaking from a hierarchically superior stance, it establishes norms. It informs its audience about what is correct, normal, and permissible. It generates the ambience that lets people know that gadding about with a placard depicting Stalin is, at very least, safe, if not commendable generally. It lets them know that numerous books rehabilitating Stalin’s regime, which pack the shelves of bookstores throughout Russia, will not be deemed “extremist,” that their authors, publishers, and distributors will not face criminal charges under Article 282 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code, unlike other books that someone might think to display prominently in a bookstore. People are given to understand this is normal and not punishable, that it is permissible and encouraged.

When television presenters and state officials tell us there is no need to demonize anyone, that we can take a look at the Stalin era from different viewpoints, but whatever we want to say, the war was won, this is a signal that those who actually feel positive feelings in this regard and those who felt nothing in this regard should suddenly have them, that those who had no opinion on the matter should suddenly have an opinion, because they have been told it is permissible, normal, and even a good thing.

“They Want Their Own Stalin”
Theoretically, conformism is a psychological norm. We can rue the fact, but it is nevertheless the case. Individuals are inclined to join majorities. Individuals are inclined to compare their opinions with opinions they imagine are generally accepted. Maybe this is not the noblest manifestation of our human nature, but it is a sign of a mental health. We people, who are social animals, behave in this way for our own safety and to adapt successfully to society. This endows those who speak on behalf of the state, on behalf of generalized authority, with responsibility. Russia’s national TV channels are not considered sources of information and news, but voices of the powers that be. People consume TV in this way.

Let me remind you that such a sweet, innocent New Year’s TV holiday special as Old Songs about What Matters was first aired on January 1, 1996. The first program imitated the Stalin-era film Cossacks of the Kuban (1950). The film was the frame for the star-studded cast’s song and dance routines. 1996 was a presidential election year. Even the hazards of competing with the Communists in a relatively free election did not intimidate Russia’s ideologists and spin doctors. It did not stop them from organizing such a pretty, funny, sly rehabilitation of one of the most terrible periods in the history of the the terrible Soviet regime. This is what we call normalization. Look, they say, it was not terrible; it was pleasant, even. You can make fun of it and smile a good-natured smile when contemplating it. That was when the process kicked off.

Old Songs about What Matters, Russian Public Television (ORT), January 1996

Let me remind you of another early public campaign of this kind. In 2008, which, again, seems like an utterly different political era, there was a TV program, Name of Russia, which purported to pick the one hundred greatest Russians. The idea had been borrowed from the BBC program 100 Greatest Britons (2002), but was done completely in its own way. TV viewers were asked to select the one hundred most outstanding figures in Russian history, leading ultimately to the selection of a single finalist. Huge, persistent efforts were made to persuade viewers that Stalin had “really” won the popular vote, but since this would have been disgraceful, [TV channel Rossiya, known until recently as Channel Two] made the necessary adjustments, and Alexander Nevsky emerged the victor.

Name of Russia: Joseph Stalin, Rossiya TV, 2008

How did this vote really go? Now, with the know-how and knowledge we have amassed since then, we can more or less imagine how the so-called people’s will was determined, especially on television. But Name of Russia was, perhaps, the first time we saw this model fully deployed. The implied message was: they want their own Stalin, but we, the powers that be, are still shielding them from this on the sly. We still need to rein them in a bit.

A similar story involving alleged popular voting occurred in 2013, when Rossiya TV had to pick ten views of Russia, ten pictures, landscapes or historical buildings that exemplified the country. Then, as you remember, an ambitious regional leader organized the voting in such a way that the Heart of Chechnya Mosque would win. Federal officials found themselves in an uncomfortable position, and once again adjustments had to be made to the vote count so the Kolomna Kremlin would win. The ambitious regional leader got pissed off at the cellphone companies Beeline and Megafon, and they were shut down in the Chechen Republic; one of their offices was even pelted with eggs, such was the great indignation over the defeat. I mention this to illustrate how such things are organized and what their real purpose is.

A picture taken on April 14, 2012, shows the high rises of the new skyscraper complex Grozny City (right) and the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, known as the Heart of Chechnya (left,) dominating the skyline in the Chechen capital Grozny. Photo courtesy of Agence France-Presse

We must face the truth and realize we are dealing with state propaganda, with notions of what is normal, acceptable, good, glorious, great, and outstanding that have been defined and imposed by the state. These notions strike a chord because they are voiced on the regime’s behalf and because they draw their power from actually existing needs.

A Nationwide Need for Authoritarianism Has Not Been Observed
How can we encapsulate these needs, the reality behind Stalin’s “high” rating?

I was first asked this question at an event sponsored by the Böll Foundation in Berlin.

“How can people in Russia love Stalin?”

When a question like that is tossed right into your face, you start to understand the grassroots need for justice, as understood in a peculiar way, the need for a paradoxically anti-elitist Stalin, the Stalin people have in mind when they say, “If Stalin were around, he’d settle your hash.” This Stalin was the scourge of the nomenklatura, foe of the strong and rich, and champion of poor, simple people. The degree to which this conception is mythologized and savage is beside the point, but it does exist. Many people who utter this phrase mean to appeal to strict law and order, to equality, to a primitive apostolic simplicity.

It is a sin, especially for academic researchers, to quote conversations with taxi drivers, but I too have been forced to listen to tales of how Stalin had one greatcoat and one pair of boots, but look at the way folks today live as they please and can afford everything. Meaning that the anti-elite demand is clearly encapsulated in this rhetoric. But the very idea that there is something to which one can appeal, that it is permissible, normal, and safe, was planted in people’s minds by the machinery of state propaganda.

Let’s see how successful this state propaganda machine has been over the course of several decades. Here is the simple, most basic question, as posed by pollsters at the Levada Center: “How do you personally feel about Stalin?” Look at the pattern of responses from 2001 to 2015. It would be wrong to say that any radical changes—sharp increases in respect, admiration, and sympathy—occurred. There is no evidence of this.

“How do you personally feel about Stalin generally?” Surveys conducted in April 2001, April 2006, October 2008, February 2010, October 2012, March 2014, March 2015. Possible answers: 1. I admire him. 2. I respect him. 3. I like him. 4. I could not care less about him. 5. I dislike him. He irritates me. 6. I fear him. 7. I find him revolting. I hate him. 9. I don’t know who Stalin is. 10. Undecided. All figures given in percentages of respondents.
“Do you agree or disagree with those who say that Stalin should be deemed a state criminal?” Polls conducted in February 2010 and March 2015. Possible answers: 1. I completely agree. 2. I rather agree. 3. I rather disagree. 4. I completely disagree. 5. Undecided. Figures given in percentages of respondents.

What emotions have decreased? Dislike and irritation. As part of the same trend, there has been a sharp increase in those would could not care less. What do we call that? The natural course of time. Indeed, Stalin is a quite heavily mythologized figure. When we are told that “our grandfathers fought in World War Two,” we must realize the grandfathers of the current generation of thirty- and forty-somethings saw no combat. Their grandfathers and grandmothers were children during the war years, meaning that for the currently active segment of the populace, the war happened a very long time ago. Stalin has been gradually fading into the pantheon of historical characters in which Napoleon is a beloved Russian cake rather than a French emperor, and Hitler is a meme from the cartoons shared on the VK social network.

Without discussing whether this attitude is moral and good, we do acknowledge it is inevitable, because living historical memory gradually fades away, and the symbolic field remains. So, we see that Stalin is not universally loved. Love of Stalin has not grown, and neither has the need to admire or like him increased. It would be wrong to say that the common folk adore Stalin more and more. It’s simply not true.

How do young people evaluate these distant historic periods? Here is the outcome of a survey on historical events of which we might be proud or ashamed. It was conducted among Russian and American students in 2015.

“Historical events of which students are proud.” Russia: World War Two, 63%; Gagarin’s space flight, 30%; War of 1812 (Fatherland War), 20%; Annexation of Crimea, 10%; Abolition of serfdom, 8%. USA: 1960s civil rights movement, 21%; War of Independence (1775-1783), 17%; World War Two, 16%; Space exploration, 13%; Constitution and Bill of Rights, 10%. Source: Higher School of Economics, 2015
“Historical events of which students are ashamed.” Russia: Stalinist terror, 18%; Collapse of Soviet Union, 11%; 1917 October Revolution, 9%; Execution of the Tsar’s family, 6%; Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), 5%. USA: Slavery and Jim Crow laws, 46%; military interventions (Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan), 36%; Genocide of local (Native American) population), 27%; Discrimination in today’s US (violation of women’s and minorities’ rights), 25%; Internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, 17%. Source: Higher School of Economics, 2015

The correlation between the primary source of pride, victory in the Second World War, and the primary source of shame, the Stalinist terror, illustrates the ambivalence that invariably entangles attempts at complete de-Stalinization, which is impossible as long as “victory” and “Stalin” are fused in the national imagination. Nevertheless, we see that young people have a quite healthy moral focus.

Let’s look at a slightly more realistic question. It does not have to do with a person that neither you nor your grandfathers have never seen, but with the period in which you would have rather lived.

“During the past 100 years, there have been different regimes in our country. The peculiarities of each of them had a marked influence on life in our country. When do you think life in Russia was best? (Mark one answer.)” Surveys conducted in June 1993, October 1994, and January 2017. Possible answers: 1. Before the 1917 Revolution. 2. During the Stalin regime. 3. During the Brezhnev regime. 4. During perestroika. 5. During the Yeltsin regime. 6. During the Putin regime. 7. Undecided. Figures given in percentages of respondents.

The outcomes in this instance are indeed interesting. For some reason, after 2014, there was sharp decline in popularity of the reply that the best time to live was before the 1917 Revolution. I don’t know why, but for some reason the amazing effect of the so-called Crimean consensus came down to the fact that this happy time “before tsarlessness,” as the saying goes, has lost its popularity for some reason. Very few people chose the Stalin era, as we see, and there was no change in this case: its popularity was low and has remained low. Meaning that maybe people “respect” Stalin, but no one is especially keen to live in the period during which he actually ruled.

The Brezhnev era is regarded as a more or less comfy, calm, peaceable time, but its popularity has been decreasing. No one likes perestroika or Yeltsin, for that matter.  A good number of respondents were undecided, and since the time span from 1994 to 2017 is quite large, people decided that, given this paltry choice, our own time, perhaps, looked okay after all.

How do these figures—this attitude to Stalin and his era, which, as we have seen, are not at all one and the same thing—correlate with people’s overall socio-political views? I have borrowed data from Kirill Rogov’s research study “Proto-Party Groups in Russia: 2000–2010s,” for which I am extremely grateful to him. The data in question are the outcome of a so-called meta poll, meaning a summary of public opinion polls, conducted over the past eighteen years by the Levada Center.

Here is a survey on a topic most closely bound up with Stalin: “Does our country need a strong hand?”

“The Strong Hand: The Authoritarian, Leader-Centered Model. Are there situations in the country’s history when the people need a strong, authoritative leader, a ‘strong hand’?” Sixteen polls conducted from November 1989 to November 2016. Figures given in percentages of respondents. Possible replies: 1. Our people constantly need a ‘strong hand’ (dark brown); 2. Power should be concentrated in one set of hands (green); 3. We should never allow power to be surrendered completely to one man (light blue); 4. Undecided (beige).

Look at the darkest line, which matches the number of replies that a “strong hand” has been “constantly needed.” The second line represents the opinion that “sometimes this has been necessary, but not always” [sic], while the [light blue] line represents the opinion that it is not necessary in any case. Look at the right side of the chart. Here we also observed the quite strange turning point, as yet unexplained by researchers, that occurred after 2014. Perhaps five or seven years from now we will say the effect of 2014 and its impact on public opinion was not as it was described to us on TV. Look at the upward tendency of the third [light blue] line: after 2014, people suddenly began to say that in no case should all power be handed over to one person. The second line (“It’s sometimes possible, but generally not a very good thing”) has taken a nose dive. The upper line was headed downward, but starting in 2011 it climbed a little, before falling again after 2013. In 2014, it experienced a sustained, short-lived upturn.

What rights do Russians value the most? Let’s look at the trends of recent years.

“What rights Russians value.” The results of sixteen polls conducted between August 1994 and October 2015. Possible replies: 1. Property rights (light blue); 2. Free speech (darker green); 3. Access to information (light beige); 4. Freedom of religion (lighter green); 5. Right to leave Russia and live in another country (crimson); 6. Right to elect one’s own representatives to government bodies.

Here we also see the mysterious, counterintuitive post-Crimea effect, when, in the wake of 2014, Russians gave access to information and freedom of speech a hard look, while experiencing a certain disenchantment in property rights.

Such are the interesting conclusions that Russians make from what they observe. However you look at this character, it clearly follows that we do not observe either a national yearning for authoritarianism оr the longing for a strong hand. Meaning we are dealing with an idea imposed on society about what it is like. Why is this done? Why are people told they long for the return of capital punishment when don’t particularly long for it? Why are they told that the whole lot of them want to resurrect Stalin? Why are they told they enjoy large-scale crackdowns?

European but Weak
The political regime, which wants, on the one hand, to concentrate power and resources in its hands, remain in power, and yet is not a full-fledged autocracy, does not have a well-developed machine of repression. It does not have a ruling ideology and the capacity for imposing it, and it does not want to be subjected to the procedures of democratic rotation. In fact, it finds itself in quite complicated circumstances.

It holds onto power by a whole series of pretty tricky tools. A considerable number of these tools relate to the realm of propaganda and represent different kinds of imitative models and patterns. Democratic institutions and processes are imitated, for example, elections, political parties, and a variety of mass media, which for all their variety report the same thing. Elections are seemingly held, but power does not change hands. Political parties exist, as it were, but no one opposes anyone. (This applies to the CPRF and the other so-called systemic or parliamentary parties.) This is on the one hand.

On the other hand, it is necessary to imitate autocracy’s rhetorical tools, meaning, roughly speaking, trying to appear in the public space as scarier than you are. Second, it is necessary (this is a subtle point, which is often not fully understood) to present oneself not as a terrible dictator, a bloody tyrant, but, on the contrary, as a civilizing, deterring force who is compelled, ruling over such a savage people with authoritarian tendencies, to keep it reigned in all the time, to constantly moderate its thirst for blood.

Meaning that it is necessary to transmit such ambivalent signals as “Let’s not demonize [e.g., Stalin], but let’s consider the issue from all sides.” It is necessary to pretend you are conceding and, simultaneously, resisting constant public pressure, which demands archaization, clampdowns, fire, and blood. If you didn’t resist the pressure, then everyone would have probably already been hung from the highest tree. Yet you are the selfsame power actor who generated the demand. You organized this entire normalization, to which you subsequently respond reluctantly, as it were.

Why is it necessary to fashion such a terrible reputation for one’s own people? To have an excuse for the crackdown on political rights, primarily voting rights, a crackdown in which you constantly engage. If people are savage, bloodthirsty barbarians, it makes sense to prevent them from electing the people they like at elections. For the time being you, a more or less civilized European, rule them, but if you let them have their way, they would immediately elect “Hitler” (the nationalist scarecrow) or Stalin (the left-wing étatist scarecrow). Both are arguments for limiting the rights of Russians to defining their own lives. Hence, the need for Stalin’s popularity.

What is my thesis? Filling society’s heads with false ideas about itself is meant to paint the government as the only “European” in Russia. Given the current social reality, this has long been untrue, to put it mildly. No, the dichotomy of the “civilized regime” versus the “savage society” does not exist, is not borne out by any reality, and cannot be measured by any instruments.

Our society is complex, multifaceted, and diverse. If we try to single out a public opinion, a common idea of values, as shared by the inhabitants of Russia (something that has been confirmed numerous times in research papers), we would see something like the following picture. We would see a society that espouses the values customarily identified as European. We would see a society that is individualist, consumerist, largely atomized, very irreligious, predominantly secular, and fairly intolerant of state violence, again, contrary to what is usually argued. It would be even more accurate to say that those who are intolerant of state violent are much better at joining forces and much more vigorously express themselves than those who put up with it.

We would see a society with values that researchers ordinarily describe as “European but weak.” We would see a society that is basically conformist, relatively passive, not terribly willing to express its opinion, and inclined to weaving the spiral of silence, which consists in people saying what is expected of them. Nevertheless, this society is not aggressive, not bloodthirsty, and does not long for the establishment of an authoritarian regime in Russia.

To govern a society like this with undemocratic methods, of course it has to be represented in a false manner. Of course you have to screw a little flag with Stalin embroidered on it into its head so as then to point at it and say, “See what they’re like.”

I urge everyone not to get involved in this game and not play up to those who engage in it much more seriously than we do, because these ideas about a wild and terrible people, first, do not capture the fullness and complexity of our reality, and second, hinder us, blocking our way to progress and development.

Yekaterina Schulmann is a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to the lucid, vigilant Sergey Abashin for the heads-up

Center for Economic and Political Reform: Protests on Rise in Russia

Analysts Claim Number of Protests Sharply on the Rise in Russia
Yevgenia Kuznetsova
RBC
July 10, 2017

The number of social and political protests in Russia has risen in the second quarter by 33% compared to the beginning of the year. Experts attribute the rise to seasonal activeness and the growth of social tension.

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Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC

Protest Factors
During the second quarter of 2017, the number of protests in Russia rose by a third compared to the start of the year. There were 284 protests in the first quarter of the year, while 378 protest events were recorded in the second quarter, the Center for Economic and Political Reform (CERP) reported in its paper “Russia in 2017: The Number of Protests Grows.” RBC has a copy of the paper.

The CERP’s analysts divide protests into political protests and social protests. The latter include protests over the violation of social rights, declines in living standards, loss of work, and nonpayment of back wages. Over the second quarter, the number of both types of protest grew. The paper’s authors recorded 148 political protests from April to July, compared to 96 in the first three months of the year, while the number of protests provoked by social injustices rose from 167 to 205. The analysts collected their information about protests from the media, social networks, regional analysts, and workforces, who recorded the protests on the ground.

The paper claims the level of protests was high both in 2016 and early 2017. Last year, however, the majority of protests touched on specific issues—wage arrears, the demands of defrauded investors and residential building stakeholders, increases in utility rates, the launch of the Plato system of road tolls for truckers, etc. The authorities did not solve these problems, and so protests have been politicized this year. People involved in them have taken to the streets with more general slogans, for example, anti-corruption slogans, the paper’s authors note. In their opinion, this is the cause of the increase in political protests. ​​

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Protests recorded in the 1st and 2nd quarters of 2017. [Green] Protests caused by socio-economic issues: 372. [Violet] Political protests: 244. [Light blue] Labor protests: 46. 1st quarter: 167 social protests, 96 political protests, 21 labor protests = 284 protests. 2nd quarter: 205 social protests, 148 political protests, 25 labor protests = 378 protests. Source: Center for Political and Economic Reform, “Russia in 2017: The Number of Protests Grow.” Copyright 2017, RBC

The growth of protests is explained by another factor: seasonality, CERP director Nikolay Mironov told RBC. People protest less at the start of the year than in the spring months. According to Mironov, the regime uses the seasonality of protests to decide when to schedule elections. In 2012, analysts at the Central Electoral Commission determined the populace was politically most active, including in terms of turnout, during two seasons: late March, April, and May, and late October, November, and December. Therefore, the regime moved the nationwide parliamentary and local legislative assemblies election day to September to lower the turnout while announcing the presidential election for March 2018 to raise the turnout

Other eventful factors in the second quarter of this year were the adoption of the law on residential housing renovation and the large-scale protests by Alexei Navalny’s supporters. But the main factor, according to Mironov, was the overall increase in tension due to the fact that the problems that have given rise to protests have not been solved or have been solved on a case-by-case basis.

“This is the Kremlin’s election strategy: solve problems on an ad hoc basis, because it is impossible to solve them as a whole. But you can go to a region and resolve a specific problem in a flashy way for the TV cameras,” Mironov explained.

Mironov argues that the federal authorities also expect that, after a public flogging during the president’s televised call-in show and his trips to the regions, local authorities will start solving problems on their own.

“But it doesn’t work. For example, after the televised call-in show, the workers in Nizhny Tagil got their back wages paid, but the strike by miners in Gukovo, in Rostov Region, was hushed up and will continue to be hushed up,” said Mironov.

The increase in the number of political protests partly has to do with how the media covers the protests, Mironov argues. According to him, journalists usually pay more attention to political protests than to social protests, and this has a dampening effect on protests. People about whom reporters don’t write are “a priori less protected.”

Localization
The CEPR’s conclusions about the growth of protests have been indirectly confirmed by research carried out by the Levada Center. According to one of its surveys, the number of people who agree that political protests are possible in their town has risen from 14% in February to 23% in June, Levada Center sociologist Stepan Goncharov told RBC. The number of people willing to take part in political protests has increased from eight to twelve percent. An even greater number of people predicted social protests would break out in their towns. When asked, “Are protests against decreased living standards possible in your town right now?” 28% of respondents in June said they were, as opposed to only 19% in February.

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Protests in the 1st quarter of 2017 by federal district. [Green] Social protests: 472. [Violet] Political protests: 244. [Light blue] Labor protests: 46. Volga Federal District: 160 protests. Central Federal District: 132 protests. Siberian Federal District: 86 protests. Northwest Federal District: 82 protests. Southern Federal District: 66 protests. Far Eastern Federal District: 47 protests. Ural Federal District: 62 protests. North Caucasus Federal District: 27 protests. Source: Center for Political and Economic Reform, “Russian in 2017: The Number of Protests Grow.” Copyright RBC, 2017

It would be wrong to say there have been considerably more social protests in recent months, argues Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Petersburg Politics Foundation, based on the results of his own research. According to Vinogradov, the number of political protests has increased mainly due to protests by Navalny’s supporters, but the number of social protests has remained at the same level. It would also be wrong to say the number of social protests depends directly on how the authorities resolve the issues that provoke them, says Vinogradov. According to him, the authorities do not have an overall algorithm. In some locales, they resolve issues immediately, fearing protests, while in other places they ignore problems or get bogged down in talking about them. The problem is that the authorities are not always able to determine the real cause of protests and react correctly to it.

Discontent is growing, but the majority of protests remain local for the time being, argues political scientist Konstantin Kalachev.

“The regime is fairly good at solving problems by nipping them in the bud,” argues Kalachev.

Although we cannot be sure social protests will not segue into political protests.

“For the time being it all comes down to demands to dismiss one governor or another, nothing more,” says Kalachev.

Translated by the Russian Reader

The Russian Economic Miracle of 2017

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“Pilling from 499 rubles. Ultrasound cleaning from 599 rubles.” Photo by TRR

More Than Five Million Russians Have Trouble Paying Back Loans
Takie Dela
May 30, 2017

Around five and half million Russians have trouble servicing their debts. Their debut burden is more than 60% of their income, reports Gazeta.ru, quoting a statement by Vladimir Shikin, deputy marketing director at the National Credit History Bureau.

According to experts, this figure is regarded as a critical indicator. Among the main reasons for arrears are the unreliability of borrowers and the lack of means to finance current debts.

Residents of the Kemerovo, Tyumen, and Novosibirsk Regions are the most indebted. According to the National Credit History Bureau, three million people cannot make payments on loans, which is 8% of all borrowers. Their current debt load exceeds half of their monthly incomes.

According to Shikin, the share of overdue loans remains at 16%, even as the number of new loans grows. The majority of Russian borrowers have several loans, and the average economically active Russian owes creditors 146,000 rubles [approx. 2,300 euros].

Meanwhile, research done by RANEPA shows that the debt burden of Russians is not critical. As Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, stressed, the debt of Russians is estimated at 12% of GDP.

“In developed countries, debt is 60% to 80% of GDP, so the market has potential for growth,” emphasized Orlova. However, she argues that Russia issues a relatively small percentage of mortgages, whereas in developed countries, mortgages account for nearly 90% of all loans.

Experts hope that the debt burden of Russians will not rise greatly. After the 2014–2015 crisis, banks were more way about issuing loans, so the debut burden of Russians will fall. In the near future, banks will be even more cautious. In particular, the Central Bank has planned to consolidate the data of major of credit history bureaus in a single data base to combat indebtedness.

Earlier, the United Credit reported that half of Russian borrowers had been applying for new loans to pay off old loans. According to its figures, 45 million Russians with old loans had taken new loans in banks. Over half of them had done this to pay off old loans.

The analysis shows that 53% of borrowers had taken new loans in cash to partially or fully pay off already existing loans. 27% of the borrowers had spent more than half of the new loans on paying debts.

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Almost 60% of Russians Admit They Have No Savings
Takie Dela
May 29, 2017

Around 59% of Russian families have no savings, reports Rambler News Service, citing a report from the polling and market research firm inFOM.

According to a survey commissioned by the Central Bank, the figure has remained stable [sic] the last three months. In December 2016, 64% of those surveyed had no savings.

Yet a quarter of Russians believe that now is a good time to save money, while 44% hold the opposite opinion. According to experts, the tendency to save has grown noticeably since the beginning of the year. In February, fewer than 17% of respondents answered the question positively.

The majority of respondents replied that spare cash should be saved or put away for a rainy day, while a third of Russians would spend the money on expensive, major purchases.

The poll showed that 40% of respondents prefer to keep their savings in a bank account, 26%, in case, and 20%, partly in a bank, and partly in cash.

Two thousand respondents, aged eighteen and older, from fifty-five regions of Russia were involved in the survey.

According to research by RANEPA, the share of Russians who save money dropped by a third in 2016, from 55% to 40%. Moreover, in March, 40% of Russians claimed they had only enough money for food.

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VTsIOM: 67% of Russians Skimped on Groceries during the Past Year 
Takie Dela
May 30, 2017

During the past year, 67% of Russian skimped on groceries in one way or another; 27% of them in a substantial way. Pensioners and residents of big cities had to skimp most of all. These figures were reported by pollsters VTsIOM.

The survey dealt with Russians’ attitudes to government regulation of the food market. 82% of respondents were against the idea of limiting supermarket opening hours on weekdays and weekends. According to 68% of them, if the government decided to do this, it would cause a number of problems. It would be hard to buy groceries in the evenings, and the selection would be reduced. Nearly 40% believed that limiting competition would generate price rises in small shops and produce markets.

Only 15% of Russians favored limiting competition, mostly pensioners aged sixty and older. When replying about what they thought about regulating prices for basic foodstuffs as a way of supporting the poor, Russians were divided in their opinions. Exactly half of them said such restrictions were ineffective, while 32% supported a combination of government and market measures, while 14% believed the government should solve the problem.

The VTsIOM survey showed that Russians were concerned about the government’s restricting prices for basic products. 55% said it would lead to the closure of stores, while 28% said it would lead to shortages, price gouging, and disruption of supplies. However, a quarter of respondents believed that prices would subsequently drop, and life would improve.

Russians see the government’s key role in regulating the produce market in support for domestic producers and developing farming, as well as in quality control. However, according to Yulia Baskakova, head of social modeling and forecasting at VTsIOM, “While worrying with all their heart for domestic producers, supporting improved food quality, and supporting the development of farming, Russians are not willing to sacrifice their comfort and put up with a reduction of the range of goods to which they are accustomed and its becoming less available. The survey showed that 88% of Russians are not willing to put up with a drop in their quality of lives to reduce the price of essential foodstuffs.”

The poll was occasioned by a suggestion, made by Federation Council member Sergei Lisovsky, that regional authorities could decide how large store chains should operate. Lisovky also suggested prohibiting supermarkets from opening at nights and on Sundays, and permitting them to work on Saturdays only until four o’clock in the afternoon. Lisovsky has argued that such measures would support small business and promote small-scale trade.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. Faithful readers might wonder why I have cited Russian opinion polls at such length after making a big effort, over the past couple of years to show that this pollocracy, while real enough as a practice, does not tell us much or anything at all about what actual Russians thinking or are planning to do.  I have made an exception in this case, however, because I think the three news items, above, show, between the lines, as it were, what really afflicts the Russian economy, and how the feigned populism of the political/economic elite rears its head, quite often in fact, to suggest impracticable solutions to the knotty problems their own mammoth corruption and instinctive hatred of small business and independent individuals generates the dead end they claim to want to alleviate by, among other thing, commissioning one “public opinion poll” after another while stubbornly failing to notice that their enthusiastic terrorizing of Krasnodar farmers, independent truckers, and Moscow street vendors show they have no interest whatsoever in small business, much less reducing the prices of basic foodstuffs for pensioners. The only thing that interests them is getting richer and making their power untouchable. TRR

The Standard Narrative

Is this the “real” Russia?

“I watched as the people of Chelyabinsk began to search for an identity—a Russian identity that would give them pride. Vladimir Putin’s unexpected ascent to power in 2000 was, for many, a godsend.”

How does the beloved Anne Garrels, formerly foreign correspondent of the dismal, faux-liberal but also mysteriously beloved NPR, know all this?

She claims she knows this because she made repeated visits to Chelyabinsk, in Putin’s nonexistent “heartland,” over twenty years.

I gather she’s now even published a book about this fairy kingdom to great acclaim.

The problem is that the story she pretends to have dug up has been the standard narrative for western journalists and academics pretending to cover or study the “real Russia” for a long while now.

The problem with the standard narrative is it’s not true, although it was partly spun from a combination of half-truths, outright but persuasive sounding lies, and thoroughly unexamined “facts.” It was cooked up, back in the day, by masterful Kremlin spin doctors like Gleb Pavlovsky or Vladislav Surkov or a whole team of such spin doctors.

Over the last eighteen years it has been drilled into the heads of “ordinary Russians” and the legions of pollsters, academics, and journalists who have feigned to be studying what “ordinary Russians are thinking.” All of the above-named parties, including some “ordinary Russians,” have then gone on to brainwashing each other with the narrative in a completely closed feedback loop.

Or is this the “real” Russia?

However, the Putinist standard narrative was never true even when easy oil money made it seem partly true, and it’s even less true now when that money has dried up, and the Russian economy has been driven into the dirt by crisis, mismanagement, cosmic-scale corruption, and sanctions.

Yet the less true the standard narrative becomes, the more determined the western media and the west’s dubious posse of “Russia hands” (who don’t live in Chelyabinsk but always somehow know what’s best for the people of Chelyabinsk; twenty more years of Putin’s “heartlandism,” apparently) have been to pound the narrative into our ignorant little readerly, viewerly, and listenerly heads.

It’s no wonder the odious phrase “the Russians”—as in “the Russians think this” and “the Russians do that”—has come into vogue again. As if 143 or 144 million people all think and do the same thing, as if the eighteen years of Putin’s faux “heartlandism” hasn’t, in fact, been one long “cold civil war,” as a friend of mine aptly put it many years ago.

That’s a really complicated story to report. Most western reporters aren’t up to the job for various reasons, so they have just rung the changes on the standard narrative, “heartlandism,” and Putin’s amazing “popularity” (measured by pollsters whose methods should not be trusted, and whose results should not be taken at face value in circumstances where polling cannot by definition produce objective feedback, if it ever could), and have called it a day.

Since editors and newscast producers are usually none the wiser and have lots of other stories to shepherd, they have let the journalists and their sources in the world of Russian handdom spread the Putinist standard narrative up and down and round the west, so that schoolkids and soccer mums in Melbourne, Grimsby, and Cuyahoga County, if pressed, could regurgitate it almost as convincingly as Garrels does, in the “Comment Is Free” piece for the “liberal” Guardian readership, quoted above.

If there’s anything worth preserving about political and social liberalism, it’s the desire to reject canned truths and dogmas and find out what’s really been going down somewhere.

“Real Russians” are upset “the west’ has swallowed the standard narrative hook, line and sinker.

Instead, nearly the entire western press corps and a good portion of its academic experts on Russia have bought the whole bill of goods, freeing the Russian elite from any responsibility for its cynical, destructive, dysfunctional, and dangerous governance of the world’s largest country.

Amid the fake moral panic over “hysterical Russophobia” this has always been the real story: how the western political, media, and academic elites have mostly been letting the heartlandist-in-chief get away with it, in effect, aiding and abetting him and his old friends in the Ozero Dacha Co-op, serving as cashiers to him and the Laundromat, helping him amass his supplies of real and symbolic capital.

This shell game will all come to a screeching halt one day, however, and all the backstocks of bestsellers like Garrels’s will have to be pulped because they won’t be worth the paper they were printed on. TRR

All photos by the Russian Reader

How to Tell a Skunk

Skunks. Photo courtesy of National Geographic
Skunks. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Here is how you tell a pro-Putin western leftist. If someone has not written word one of concern or anguish over the slaughter in Aleppo and Putin’s role in it, but suddenly expresses anxiety over NatWest’s closure of RT’s bank accounts, announced earlier today, they have outed themselves as a pro-Putin western leftist.

Apparently, the rest of the world should just watch as Putin and Co. lay waste to Aleppo and the rest of Syria that has not submitted to the mass murderer Bashar Assad.

And then, if Putin wants to move on from there, and stir up more needless trouble somewhere else, the rest of the world should just avert its gaze from his latest victims.

And so on.

After all, the world’s most enlightened white people, western leftists, have mostly been steadfastly ignoring Putin’s victimization of his own people for the past seventeen years—all those incinerated Chechens, murdered journalists, harassed, beaten, jailed, murdered, persecuted and exiled anti-fascists, leftists, environmentalists, opposition leaders, downtrodden truckers, farmers, factory workers and migrant workers, and on and on.

Here is a modest proposal. Since you feel so much anxiety every time Putin is criticized or mildly slapped on the wrist, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and move to Russia, where you can live the dream of dancing in ecstasy round the one true leftist leader left on earth.

Or is a dumb leftist tape, left over from Soviet times, spinning round and round in your head, keeping you from thinking straight?

I have a message for you: the Soviet Union is dead, and Putin is not a leftist. He is not trying to build socialism. He wants to stay in power for the rest of his natural life, enriching himself and his cronies, and making sure his other 142 million countrymen can never improve their own collective lot in life in any meaningful way, especially in a way that would involve his not being their supreme leader for life.

And just imagine this. When NatWest announced it was closing the bank accounts of the miserable Putinist propaganda channel RT, some of my actual Russian friends actually living in Russia actually rejoiced!

Why? Because their tax dollars pay the salaries of Margarita Simonyan and all the other well-coiffed liars at RT, and they would rather not have their hard-earned money wasted in such a flagrant, hostile manner.

Maybe they would rather that Russian doctors and teachers were paid better, or that pensioners had their pensions indexed for inflation (instead of frozen to pay for Putin’s war on Syria). Maybe they would want their country to stand for something else in the world than deceit, military showboating, corruption, and a hot and cold civil war against dissenters.

When are you godlike beings, ye western leftists, going to heed their mostly silent cries?

Or do you think some crap opinion polls “prove” that Putin is wildly popular in his country?

When are you going to wake up to the fact that your sheer stupidity, blindness, ignorance, and dogmatic stubbornness is destroying what remains of honest leftism? How can leftism pretend it represents a real alternative to capitalism when, time and again, it defends tyrants like Putin in the name of “anti-imperialism,” “stopping war,” or some other sheer nonsense?

The people of Aleppo know you are their enemies, because you vocally or tacitly support their destruction, and the people of Russia will also one day realize that you wish slavery and tyranny upon them as well, if they have not realized it already. TRR

“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”

The Soft Line versus the Hard Line, or, 7% ABV

I was just unfriended on Facebook by an actual friend and comrade, and a person for whom I have boundless respect. Apparently, I said too many bad things in electronic print about their chosen candidate for president, Dr. Jill Stein of the US Green Party.

In point of fact, I wrote to them on Facebook just yesterday that I would rather vote for them or just about anybody else in the world than for someone who had no qualms about flying to Moscow to celebrate RT’s birthday and sitting at the same table with Vladimir Putin.

Similarly, Dr. Stein had no qualms about saying that Russia had once “owned” Ukraine, so, like, what’s the big deal about grabbing Crimea and messing with Donbass?

Pro-Putinism of the Steinerian or Trumpian variety should be a make-or-break issue if you call yourself a democrat, a leftist, a left-liberal, an anti-imperialist, an anti-fascist, a progressive, pro-labor, pro-human rights, a pacifist, a democratic socialist, a socialist, a communist, a liberal, a republican or (in fact) a conservative.

On the merits of his now very long stint in office, Putin should appeal only to extreme right-wingers, dyed-in-the-wool fascists, neo-Nazis, racists, and massively deluded fundamentalist Christians (because Putin isn’t actually spearheading a worldwide revival of “conservative Christian values”; he is just using the Church and the churchly to advance his own personal and political ends), as well as members of various organized criminal groups around the world, who probably can’t help admiring how a “party of crooks and thieves” have taken over an entire country, the world’s largest, and started running it like the mob runs a chunk of turf on the Jersey shore.

Oh yes, and Bashar Assad loves Putin. And Silvio Berlusconi does, too.

So this is a US presidential election in which all the choices are very bad? Then please, at least don’t imagine one of the candidates has qualities she really doesn’t have, and please don’t whitewash or blatantly ignore her glaring deficiencies.

Being “soft” on Putin is a damning quality, because it means (as has become clear from Dr. Stein’s limp, weasel-worded response to the open letter written by the brave, exiled Russian environmentalists Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova) you feel no solidarity with the thousands, hundreds of thousands, and maybe even millions of Russians who have either fought back against Putin’s seventeen years of tyranny or suffered very badly from it.

It also means you have funny ideas about “effective leadership,” as Trump seems to have. Just as Trump is probably no great shakes at “business,” his idol Putin is actually a crummy politician when it comes to implementing any of the things held dear by the sort of people, who occupy most of the known political spectrum, I listed above. In fact, he is slowly leading his country to economic, social, moral, environmental, industrial, aesthetic, and ideological ruin.

In the US, where the ruthlessly effective Russian leader hasn't established an authoritarian pollocracy yet, his ratings don't look so great. Image courtesy of NBC News
In the US, where the ruthlessly effective Russian leader has not established an authoritarian pollocracy yet, his ratings don’t look so great. Image courtesy of NBC News

Or it means you have funny ideas about “world peace” and “imperialism.” Meaning, you think only the US, NATO, and EU are imperialists, while Russia, China, the other BRICS countries, and more or less the rest of the world are, mysteriously and without having done much of anything to merit the merit badge, “anti-imperialists.”

I am going to go out on a limb and say (without arguing the point further here) that while Russia has the most going for it in terms of natural and human resources, it is the BRICS country least likely to succeed because of its ruinous, criminal governance. I have more confidence that South Africa and India will turn things around than I do Russia will.

And China has lots of “negatives,” as they say about the candidates these days, but despite them I never get the sense the country is run by haughty criminal lunatics. Or maybe the Chinese Communist Party are haughty and corrupt sometimes, but they seem to have a plan of sorts and are capable of rational thought and acting collectively (and dictatorially) to advance rational interests, whether or not those rational interests are ones their own people or the people of Hong Kong or Taiwan or we ourselves would approve.

When a candidate is soft on Putin, it doesn’t mean she or he is unqualified to lead the US military-industrial complex or “advance our country’s interests” by attacking countries no one asked us to attack.

It just means they’re hopelessly stupid. TRR

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abama-craft-beerApropos the article below. Pobrecitos! Thank God no one in Russia has been trying to tarnish the image of the US or its less-than-effective president. That would be so uncool. Image of the label for Abama craft beer, produced by a microbrewery in Putin’s hometown of Petersburg, courtesy of Comrade EO

Putin Talks of Attempt to Recreate “Evil Empire” Image in US Elections
Olga Nadykto and Polina Khimshiashvili
RBC
September 17, 2016

Using the topic of Russia and the Russian president in the US presidential campaign is an attempt to manipulate public opinion within the country, said Vladimir Putin. According to him it is an attempt to “recreate the image of an evil empire.”

Speaking to journalists at the end of the CIS summit in Bishkek, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the use of Russian topics in the US election campaign.

Putin expressed the hope that the “use of Russia and the Russian president” in the US election campaign was “was also due to Russia’s growing influence and significance.”

“But I think it is mainly due to attempts to manipulate public opinion within the country. We are witnessing an attempt to recreate the image of the so-called evil empire and scare the average citizen. It is quite sad. It is a fairly crude attempt and counterproductive,” said the Russian president [sic].

Replying to a question about which of the candidates he supported in the US presidential elections, Putin said he had “nothing new” to say.

“We support anyone in any country who wants to work towards neighborly relations and partnerships with us,” he stressed.

“We are sympathetic to those who speak out publicly about the need to build relations with Russia on an equal basis and see a lot of sense in this for their country,” Putin concluded.

Earlier, on the NBC program Commander-in-Chief Forum, Donald Trump, the US Republican Party presidential candidate, said of the Russian president, “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”

Trump also predicted he would have “very, very good relations” with Putin if he became president.

Trump’s statement was criticized by US President Barack Obama, who supports the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Clinton herself had earlier accused the Russian secret services in the attacks on the Democratic Party’s servers. She has also commented on an article in the Washington Post, claiming that Russia was possibly planning to disrupt the US elections. She said it was a serious threat that had to be eliminated quickly.

Translated by the Russian Reader