Kangaroo Courthouse Blues

 

navalny quotable

Quotation courtesy of Mediazona. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Making the Same Mistake Thrice

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The 2016 Elections: Making the Same Mistake Is Fate
Nikolay Mironov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
September 19, 2016

It is apparent to almost everyone the country has fallen into a deep pit. (That is the most decent word for describing the situation.) Economic stability (and, along with it, the stability in our lives) is irreversibly over, and it is clear a new (moreover, radically new) economic policy is needed to bring it back. The current, extractive economic policy has run out of steam. Both the regime and society are aware that a crisis has ensued, but for the time being no one is doing anything about it. Meanwhile, the time for reform is running out.

Now, after the elections to the State Duma, as new and old MPs take their seats, 2018 moves into the foreground of the political agenda. In fact, the main issue is not whether Vladimir Putin will seek a fourth term. The main suspense revolves around whether in the near future we can expect a change in the country’s economic and political model. Which transition scenarios are the most likely? The future president’s name is interesting only from this viewpoint. Whether the president is young, mature or elderly, what matters is whether he or she will be able to implement reforms and how they will implement them.

The country’s reserves are running out, and the system acutely, critically needs a reboot. However, launching reforms becomes more complicated with every passing year. The situation has now almost been brought to an extreme. The government obviously is now no longer coping with its obligations to society: the population is rapidly plunging into poverty. The political structure is held together only by the president’s word of honor and good health.

At a critical time for the country’s future, however, the regime has preferred to act tactically rather than strategically.  When the oil price was high, it was possible not to think about costs, effective spending, and rampant corruption. When circumstances worsened, the regime also took the easy, well-trodden path of spending reserves, introducing new taxes for the general population, clamping down on small business, reducing social spending, and commercializing health care, education, and research.

Soon, however, it became clear these measures were insufficient for riding out the crisis. So, currently, the mechanism for confiscating “superfluous” money from major businessmen and top officials, previously untouchable, has been set into motion. This is borne out by the alleged anti-corruption campaigns that have been unleashed. In fact, their goal is to collect tribute from certain segments of the elite. But not from all segments, only from the “extended” circles, without affecting the circle of businessmen and administrators closest to the regime.

The system is going down the same road as the Soviet nomenklatura did in the 1980s. Initially, it firmly “brezhnevized” itself, stagnated, and rusted on the inside. Now, experiencing a lack of resources, it attempts to get by with superficial half-measures, in particular, by tempering corruption, which is sucking the country dry, by jailing a limited number of individuals. Ultimately, when the common folk learn of the colossal wealth possessed by middling colonels they are convinced of the regime’s utter corruption, but see no decisive measures being taken and are persuaded the elite has no desire to change anything. Eight billion rubles are seized in anti-corruption official Dmitry Zakharchenko’s flat, and people are paid eight-thousand-ruble pensions! [I honestly don’t know where Mironov got the second set of figures, although, of course, pensions in Russia are usually entirely to low to cope with the rising cost of living. — TRR.] A million times difference! But none of the higher-ups in the Interior Ministry has resigned. This fact alone is enough to shatter confidence in the entire political system.

The problem, however, and it is the main problem, is that the people with power and money—the nomenklatura-slash-oligarchy of our time—do not want to change their position even in the midst of a crisis. They cling to their extreme wealth and privileges. But the realization that change is necessary dawns on them with catastrophic tardiness. It was this way during tsarism’s final days, and under the late-Soviet regime. Instead of launching reforms in timely fashion, the regime has put them off, pushing the situation to the point of no return.

In the recent elections to the State Duma, United Russia, trudging to victory under the leadership of Prime Minister Medvedev, refrained altogether from proposing an anti-crisis plan to the nation, either a strategy of some sort or even a winning tactic. Quotations of Putin and tiresome references to Crimea and the country’s rising from its knees were the entire content of their campaign. The nation responded partly by skipping the elections, partly by voting as they were told, and partly by voting because there was no alternative. But the question of what to do next remains unanswered. Does the regime intend to answer the question, or will all this uncertainty crystallize in 2018?

Meanwhile, Russia finds itself at a crossroads. The first road is the inertial scenari0. Politically, it involves further crackdowns. The unwritten “social compact,” which emerged in the early noughties, has become impracticable since it cannot ensure a comfortable life. So without purging possible rivals and curtailing grassroots activism it will not be possible to painlessly solve the problem of extending the president’s term or transferring power to a chosen successor. So, for example, further censorship of the media will be required, as will the strict administration of what remains of elections, and increased persecution of undesirables, and more frequent trials and more show trials.

In economic terns, this simple plan involves the the “dekulakization” of less than totally loyal oligarchs and wayward officials, who will have to pay for the crisis. Undoubtedly, this will have a temporary effect and make it possible to plug certain holes in the budget. For a country like Russia, however, given the scale of the crisis, the effect will be quite short-lived. When this money runs out as well, reform will be the only option. But I am afraid that by then the last capital will be spent, and there will nothing left to invest in the economy. The chance to change things without radical demolition could be missed. The country will spend the last bits of the Soviet legacy, and exiting the crisis will once again require titanic efforts on the part of the people. Given increased global competition, however, Russia risks never catching up with anyone ever again.

The second scenario, vital for our survival, involves carrying out reforms right now. The government has to support the economy to give it a leg up and get development up and running. I would argue this is impossible without injections from the budget and, consequently, without strategic government planning, facilitating the rational use of the resources we have left. We not should support the economy per se, but those areas of growth that will encourage import substitution and the establishment of competitive production in the non-extractive sector and agriculture.

Where do we get the money? From reserves, tax reform (redirecting the tax burden toward the super wealthy), confiscation of funds acquired through corruption, and capital export controls. This will require quite stringent measures towards the business elite and high-ranking officials. Medium-sized businesses and rank-and-file servants should not be touched, however. Not scapegoats but the genuinely super wealthy should be involved in getting the county out of crisis.

To keep the money meant to bolster the economy from being stolen, we need a perestroika of the political system, because that is where the roots of corruption lies. It comes from secrecy, the regime’s accountability to no one but itself, and officialdom’s bloat and inefficiency. There are no miraculous prescriptions in this case. Throughout the world, free media and judicial, parliamentary, and public control help to temper the appetites of those in charge of the budget. The regular turnover of those in power is also necessary, and the only cure in this case are free and fair elections.

We also need to support the population, which has been rapidly growing poorer during the crisis, and not only from a sense of social justice. When people have no purchasing power, the economy is alway in crisis. Government financial assistance should be used to stimulate consumer demand, ensuring import substitution in those sectors where funds are received from public. Otherwise, the money will be converted to foreign currency and sent abroad. We must protect domestic producers from robbery and extortion. Otherwise, they will hide everything they get from the government and the public abroad. Plus, interest rates on loans to business must be drastically reduced. If all these things are done, tax revenues will start to grow in a few years, and government aid will be recouped.

Strategically, a reboot of the educational system is also needed now in keeping with the country’s development priorities for at least the next twenty years. Science and the national technological base must be supported.

The prescriptions for solving Russia’s problems are self-explanatory. Given the president’s high ratings and United Russia’s overwhelming majority in the Duma, it is high time to carry out large-scale reforms. There is a margin of safety and the required level of support. But everything in Russia is topsy-turvy. In Russia, it is more likely reforms will be launched if the regime’s ratings take a catastrophic nosedive. They will inevitably reach a critical level when the socio-economic situation worsens. You cannot fill your belly with endless tales of patriotism. People, after all, need to eat something, clothe their children, and get medical care.

We could also arrive at a different fork in the road: reforms from above or turmoil from below. Attempts to stop time have always led Russian regimes to ruin, destroying the country in the process. Must things come to this? The populace’s passivity in the face of a purge of the opposition is a temporary and illusory phenomenon. Many local social protests have erupted around the country. Their number is not diminishing, and general discontent has been growing. And things could seriously explode somewhere. Is it our fate to make the same mistake again and again?

I recall the joke about Ivan the Fool. A father had three sons. The eldest went into the yard, where a rake lay on the ground. He stepped on it and was killed. The middle son goes out, and it is the same story. Ivan, the youngest brother, realizes a rake is lying in the yard and he should not step on it, but there is no way around it. Such is life.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Nikolay Mironov is head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform, in Moscow, and a frequent columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. I have published translations of his columns “Whipping Bear: Why the President Needs a ‘Bad’ Prime Minister” (June 2016) and “Despair as a Sign of the Times” (September 2016). Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up.

The Showdown at Petersburg’s Zubov Institute

Editor’s Note. The latest news from the front lines in the confrontation between the Russian Institute of Art History (Zubov Institute) in Petersburg and the Russian Federal Ministry of Culture is that Jamilya Kumukova, chair of the trade union committee at the Institute, has been threatened with firing in the run-up to a protest rally scheduled for July 9.

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(Original at www.anticapitalist.ru)

An Academic Treasure Trove Doesn’t Want to Be a Klondike for Bureaucrats

A fight has erupted in Petersburg over the Russian Institute of Art History [also known as the Zubov Institute and abbreviated “RIII” in Russian]. The Ministry of Culture has been carrying out a hostile takeover of the institute in an attempt to get its hands on the institute’s premises, [a nineteenth-century mansion in downtown Petersburg]. Researchers and graduate students have been trying to fight off the siege.

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It all began in May 2012, when President Vladimir Putin signed a decree increasing salaries for scientists and scholars. The Ministry of Culture, which had just then been headed by Vladimir Medinsky, ordered the research institutes under its jurisdiction to increase salaries. But no funds for this increase were earmarked in the state budget. To fulfill the president’s decree, RIII director Tatyana Klyavina had to cut seventy-one positions. But that was only the beginning.

In 2013, the Ministry of Culture ordered yet another salary increase (of 28%), which would have meant dismissing a further fifteen employees. Klyavina refused to raise salaries through layoffs, for which she was subjected to a vigorous harassment campaign and eventually fired after leading the Institute impeccably for twenty-one years.

The Ministry of Culture got ready to celebrate. After all, by 2018, when salaries were slated to be increased to 200% of current levels, no one at all would have been left in the Institute. This meant it could already relocate the remaining miserable clutch of useless scholars to any old outbuilding, thus freeing the famous mansion with a view of St. Isaac’s Cathedral for more pressing needs, and merge the Institute itself with the first comer.

Today, the state has no use for research on Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, and Malevich. What it needs are people to carry out practical “monitoring” of Russian culture and compile exhibition booklets. It thus does not understand the essence and purpose of the research conducted at the institutes under its jurisdiction. Despite its incompetence, however, like a bull in a china shop it goes through the motions of “reform” and “modernization.” The main thing is not to deviate from the general line, and let the consequences be damned.

But whomever the Ministry sent to cajole the Institute’s indignant staff, it only aggravated the situation. After all, the RIII, which was founded in 1912 and in whose halls such renowned literary scholars, art historians, and musicologists as Yuri Tynyanov, Boris Eichenbaum, Boris Asafyev, Viktor Zhirmunsky, and Antonin Preobrazhensky worked, has experienced revolution, civil war, Stalin’s purges, and the Siege of Leningrad over its history. In the 1990s, it regained its autonomy and original name. The Institute’s staff has thus developed immunity to all manner of crackdowns and takeovers.

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“Mr. Medinsky, research is a profession, not a hobby!”

Today, news from the Zubov Institute resembles reports from the front lines. Here is a brief chronicle of recent events.

On June 31, Culture Minister Medinsky descended on the RIII without warning. Locking himself in the director’s office, Mr. Medinsky refused to talk to staff, leaving Andrei Karpov, acting director of the Ministry’s oversight and personnel department, to act as his “hellhound” in the waiting room. Mr. Karpov, who currently heads the ministerial committee auditing the Institute, took his role as guard so seriously that he struck cinema department grad student Olga Yevseyeva, who had come to give the minister a letter written by the Institute’s graduate students.

On July 2, an emergency meeting of RIII staff took place. In the middle of the meeting, the new director, Olga Koch, appeared in the hall, accompanied by private security guards. The guards said they had been hired by the Institute’s new management to  protect historical valuables, although in the Institute’s hundred-year history not a single rare manuscript or musical score has ever disappeared from the building.

The art scholars unanimously stood up and turned their backs to Koch, stamping their feet and chanting, “Get out!” After the director ran out of the room as if she had been scalded, the assembly continued, adopting a strongly worded resolution. Here are its principal points:

1. We voice our lack of confidence in the ministerial commission headed by Andrei Karpov, who permitted himself to use force against a graduate student of the Institute.

2. We voice our indignation at Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky’s arbitrary decision to shift the work of the Ministry’s departments to the Institute.

3. We protest against the transformation of the Institute into a high-security facility in connection with the hiring of a private security firm to work at the Institute.

4. We demand that Minister Medinsky retract his statement that the apartments in the wing of the Institute are “handed out right and left.”

5. We voice our lack of confidence in acting director Olga Koch, who publicly threatened staff with a “crackdown,” and we demand that the decree appointing her, dated June 18, be rescinded.

6. We are sending a telegram to Russian President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev.

7. We voice our support for the Russian Academy of Sciences.

On July 3, graduate students from the RIII and the European University held a series of solo pickets in support of Institute staff and against the Ministry of Culture’s policies. The young people stood outside Petersburg city hall, the city’s legislative assembly, and the entrance to the Institute with placards reading, “Mr. Medinsky, research is a profession, not a hobby” (a play on Medinsky’s statement that the “government won’t be funding a hobby”), “Save the Zubov Institute!,” and “No to Mass Layoffs at the Zubov Institute.”

The graduate students handed out leaflets that read as follows:

For the second month running, we, researchers and graduate students at the Russian Institute of Art History, have been forced to defend our right to do research instead of doing that research. In May 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree ordering an increase in the wages of scientists and scholars to the average cost of living in their regions.

This good intention, however, was brought low by the total lack of additional funding. The new effective managers from the Ministry of Culture, led by Vladimir Medinsky, took the easy route and decide to fire everyone whose research was not sufficiently in demand. In their opinion, demand is nothing more than the amount of money earned. But the humanities cannot be reduced to a monetary equivalent.

By cutting back on basic research and firing specialists who are unique in their fields, Russia is rapidly turning into a peripheral power, capable only of supplying raw materials to more developed countries. What is more, it is forever losing access to the history of its art and culture, which means irrevocably losing its capacity for nurturing full-fledged individuals and citizens. So defending the Zubov Institute is for us today not just a matter of professional honor but also a civic duty.

The same evening an open street conference in support of the Zubov Institute took place. It took the form of a Street University—lectures and meetings of students and teachers held outdoors and open to all comers. Street University was established in 2008 during the campaign against attempts to close the European University in Petersburg under false pretexts.

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Street University in Defense of Zubov Institute, July 3, 2013

In that case, the authorities backed down, and the European University continued to operate in its old mansion on Gagarinskaya. What will happen in this case?

Both RIII staff and graduate students attended the conference, along with colleagues from friendly institutes. Tamara Ismagulova talked about the history of the Zubov Mansion, how the institute was established, and how it survived during the hard years of the Stalinist Thermidor. Yevgenia Hazdan talked about the journal Annals of the Zubov Institute, which was first published in the 1920s, lasting all of four years. Who would have thought that the recently revived journal might repeat the fate of its predecessor?

Sociologist Oleg Zhuravlev from the European University Institute in Florence argued that what is happening to the Zubov Institute is consistent with the overall trend in Europe of cutting spending on science and education, a trend that reveals the contradiction between democracy and the market economy.

Dmitry Golynko, from the contemporary artistic culture department, shared his recollections of the department’s work during the nineties, when the Institute was a hotbed for cutting-edge research in art. Pavel Arseniev and Roman Osminkin read poems, and at the evening’s conclusion a researcher from the musicology department even played several songs on the accordion, including “If I Had Mountains of Gold.” It was a quite symbolic coda, because the whole point of the conflict between the Ministry of Culture and the Zubov Institute is the Ministry’s insatiable desire to turn art scholarship into a gold mine.

5 July 2013 — Roman Osminkin, Russian Socialist Movement

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(Original at  www.colta.ru)

Dmitry Golynko-Volfson
3 July 2013
The Language of Violence: Scholarship and Power in the Russian Federation

Literally overnight, the Russian Institute of Art History (also know as the Zubov Institute for its founder, Count Valentin Zubov) was transformed from a quiet academic oasis (as Petersburgers are used to seeing it) into the epicenter of a scandal, a tense standoff between the academic community and managers from the Ministry of Culture. At the Ministry’s behest, Tatyana Alexeevna Klyavina, who for over twenty years had skillfully and competently managed the Institute, preserving its pleasant working environment and atmosphere of unconditional mutual respect, was fired. Thanks to her efforts, both during the momentous nineties and the stable (and allegedly sated, but in reality very sparingly state-subsidized) noughties, the RIII’s team of researchers had been able to focus on basic academic research without personally worrying about urgent economic problems. In addition, her tenure was focused on making sure the Institute maintained a well-calibrated balance between classical, traditional art scholarship and experimental, innovative, future-oriented research. Tatyana Alexeevna was also the long-time chair of the contemporary artistic culture department, which I had the good fortune to join in 1995. In the nineties, the department was a unique place where cutting-edge research in postmodernist theory was combined with the direct involvement of researchers in shaping the new culture and new art of the legendary post-perestroika period.

Открытие выставки "Тициан" в Москве
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky

The confrontation between Institute staff and the Ministry slowly but relentlessly escalated throughout the first six months of this year (after the newly appointed Minister Vladimir Medinsky had announced plans to reform the research institutes under his jurisdiction). The showdown between researchers and bureaucrats shifted into an active phase after Klyavina was fired, and Olga Koch, former rector of the Saint Petersburg University of Culture and Art, was named acting director. Institute staff was openly hostile to Koch’s top-down appointment and refused to cooperate with her on any issues related to academic planning. In addition, at meetings of the academic council and the staff union, which were open to the press, they passed toughly worded resolutions and proposed strategic methods for resolving the conflict (from shifting the Institute to the jurisdiction of the Russian Academy of Sciences to putting it under the care of the municipal government).

The conflict reached an obvious climax on Friday, June 28. As a result of a visit by Culture Minister Medinsky to the RIII that was deliberately kept secret from the Institute’s researchers, a monstrously absurd “brawl” took place in the waiting room of the director’s office, which was widely reported in print and online media. Unfortunately, I witnessed this shameful episode. Since the minister had locked himself in the director’s office and refused to meet with research staff, who were demanding an explanation, his aide, Andrei Karpov, acting head of the Ministry’s oversight and personnel department, began using brutal methods to pacify the researchers besieging the office—simply put, he started pushing them. In particular, this portly gentleman, intending to slam shut the door to the waiting room, pushed Olga Yevseyeva, a graduate student in the cinema department, and Anna Nekrylova, deputy director for research, who had come to Olga’s rescue, in front of numerous witnesses and the press. (Medical personnel at an emergency room attested the injuries they received.)

After the battle, Vladimir Medinsky “went out to the people” after all, reassuring staff that the Institute would be preserved, and Count Zubov’s mansion, a tasty morsel for developers, would not be expropriated. However, it was clear that a point of no return had been passed. The already difficult dialogue between scholars and culture bureaucrats had moved from the mild, evasive language of administrative accommodation, persuasion, and intimidation to the jargon of institutional violence (or “mythical violence,” to borrow Walter Benjamin’s term). Olga Serebryanaya has offered a curious analysis of this incident from the standpoint of Hannah Arendt’s theory of violence. She writes, “Medinsky does not explain his position or try to convince the researchers that he is right; [instead] he sets a limit on their involvement.” (It is telling that Medinsky pointedly refused to take a letter from the graduate student body delivered to him by Olga Yevseyeva.)

Ex-Zubov Institute Director Tatyana Klyavina

In addition to a painful emotional state, this protracted conflict has caused staff to have well-founded, troubling doubts about the Institute’s immediate future. These doubts have to do with both practical, administrative and financial, matters (whether salaries will be paid on time) and more abstract, theoretical questions — how the Institute’s academic and research policy will shape up, and what the scenario and trajectory for future fundamental changes is. In fact, the reorganization of the Zubov Institute, which has caused a flurry of discontent, is a consequence of the revamping of the entire system of the humanities in Russia, a painful revamping carried out by the authorities that, according to many experts and observers, seriously threatens to destabilize (if not destroy) this system. Against the backdrop of the massive public campaign currently unfolding in support of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the tense situation around the Zubov Institute is a vivid symptom of the communicative impasse and total absence of feedback between basic science and scholarship and the state agencies supervising it.

Over the past six months, the Ministry of Culture has changed directors in four of the five institutes under its jurisdiction. We have to assume that it is planning (and already eagerly implementing) a radical renovation of the entire infrastructure of academic art scholarship, its transition into the realm of the strictly practical and utilitarian. But what are the criteria and parameters of this renovation, aside from the rather vague demands for efficiency and optimization, regularly voiced by officials? In December 2012, the Ministry of Culture circulated a proposal for staff at its research institutes to include in their scholarly work the “creation of calculation methods, cumulative indices based on the use of expert assessments, for determining the effectiveness of institutions working in the field of the performing arts and folk art.” The Ministry of Culture envisions the future of art scholarship as part of a major government contract that would stipulate the specific cognitive services academic researchers provide to the state. The state commission launched by the Ministry of Culture suggests that a researcher’s routine work will range from calculating efficiency indices and optimization coefficients (thus equating the researcher to an economic consultant) to drafting concepts for the long-term development of the industry under the auspices of “national projects” (thus saddling the researcher with the role of manager).

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Russian Institute of Art History (Zubov Institute)

Hardly anyone today would dispute the fact that the humanities in Russia are in need of an urgent and comprehensive transformation. But the direction of such reforms should still be determined by taking into account the interests, opinions, and wishes of the humanities scholars themselves, rather than by the impulsive decisions of state officials, which paradoxically combine neoliberal technocracy with elements of Soviet economic planning. Apparently, the only chance to settle the administrative conflict that has now broken out at the Zubov Institute is to organize a dialogue between researchers and the authorities not in the “brawling” mode, but as a conceptual and ideological debate. If the authorities nevertheless do not dare to listen respectfully to the academic community and sit down to constructive negotiations with it, then I am afraid the dark and dismal prospects now looming on the horizon will become quite inevitable realities. The research institutes, the cognitive factories where academic researchers, despite many years of precarity, have been diligently engaged in producing new meanings and promoting knowledge, will gradually and inevitably be dismantled. Fighting today to save the Zubov Institute and other research institutes under the Ministry of Culture’s jurisdiction also means fighting for (the seemingly long ago reclaimed) freedom and autonomy of the humanities.

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Footage by Sergey Yugov of the Street University in defense of the Zubov Institute, held on July 3, 2013. More footage from the event can be found here, here, here, here, and here.