Ekaterina Vasilyeva: On the Neva

A River for People: What Makes the Neva Tick?
Ekaterina Vasilyeva
Republic
November 29, 2019

All my photo projects are somehow connected with nature, with long walks and studying the environment. I think that without a clear understanding of nature’s role in our lives, we to some extent deprive ourselves of support.

My project The Neva: A River for People, People for the River is an attempt to find a balance between harmony and destruction in the relationship between humans and nature. The role of nature is played by the Neva River, thanks to which my hometown of St. Petersburg was built over three hundred years ago.

Nature has always only been raw material for the builders of cities, and the Neva’s resources were used at the expense of its gradual destruction. In accounts of the city’s history, the Neva has served as an inert backdrop for heroic conquest. For ordinary people, however, the river has always symbolized the individual’s path in life, her destiny. In my project, the Neva is a metaphorical life line for St. Petersburg and the three towns situated along its 74-kilometer course—Shlisselburg, Kirovsk, and Otradnoye.

The importance of rivers and canals for the city used to be strongly underscored. Russians were instilled with a love of water. Under Peter the Great, every householder was obliged to have a boat, and every home on the waterfront had to have a pier. Even the scanty trade by which many boatsmen in old Petersburg supported themselves—the extraction of firewood, logs, and boards for subsequent sale or use—was practiced with gratitude to the Neva as a benefactress. In old Petersburg, these accidental finds had their own name: “gifts of the Neva.”

People nowadays have an ever more aggressive and consumerist attitude to the Neva. On the other hand, there is no doubt the people who live in the Neva basin love their river. This contradiction is one of the subjects of my project.

neva-1An incident occurred in the skies over Leningrad on August 21, 1963, resulting in the emergency landing of a Tu-124 passenger plane on the Neva near the Finland Railroad Bridge. The river is around 400 meters wide at this point. A passing steam tugboat towed the plane to the Neva’s right bank. The windshield in the nose of the plane was broken to secure the tow cable. The passengers were evacuated and sent to Moscow.

neva-2Peter the Great was a big fan of the national pastime. During his reign, hockey matches on the ice of the frozen Neva could attract as many as several thousand spectators.

neva-3Shlisselburg. In 1912, the Finnish archaeologist Julius Ailio recorded the following tale in the village of Mikulainen on the shore of Lake Ladoga: “The Neva River used to be tiny. If a tree fell, it would lodge between one bank and the other, and you could cross the river by walking over it. Then fifty or sixty years later, the river widened. Shepherds would toss burning brands across the river to each other to make campfires. But then the river eroded the land at its source and became quite broad.”

neva-4In 1716, by decree of Peter the Great, fishermen from Russia’s northern provinces were settled on the left bank of the Neva between its tributaries, the Murzinka and the Slavyanka, to supply residents of the capital with fish. Originally, the settlement was called just that—the Fishery Settlement [Rybnaya sloboda]. The name was later changed to Fishermen’s Village [Rybatskoye]. The locals still call the ravine in modern Rybatskoye Pike Harbor.

The Visyachka [“The Hanger”] is a ruined pedestrian bridge on a man-made embankment in the backwater of the Nevsky Shipyard in Shlisselburg.

neva-5The Neva smelt [koryushka] has long been considered a symbol of Petersburg. In 1705, Peter the Great issued a decree to support fishermen who caught smelt. According to legend, Peter called the smelt the “tsar fish,” since it could feed the growing population of his new capital city as it was built.

neva-6St. Petersburg ranks among the top per-capita consumers of water in Russia. Every twenty-four hours, the city “drinks” the equivalent of a lake one square kilometer in size and three meters deep. Despite the official ban, industrial waste continues to be poured into the river.

neva-7The origin of the name Neva is not completely clear. Some historians think it comes from the Finnish word neva, which translates as “bog” or “fen.”

Thanks to Ekaterina Vasilyeva for her permission to reproduce excerpts from her project here. You can look at her entire photo essay about the Neva on her website or on Republic. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

Shiyes: The Cost of Solidarity

Republic
October 31, 2019

In the Arkhangelsk Region, the security forces have launched an offensive against the camp in Shiyes, where an indefinite protest against construction of a landfill for Moscow’s garbage has been going on for over a year. The Russian National Guard has cordoned off the station, blocked the nearest village, Urdoma, and destroyed one of the posts manned by activists. The railway connection with the station was closed in the summer, and the only way to get to Shiyes is the ferry across the Vychegda River.

On the eve of the siege, the vocalists from the group Arkady Kots, composers of the song “Walls,” which has been adopted as the protest camp’s anthem, traveled to Shiyes to boost their morale.

Directed by Anna Moiseyenko and Alexandra Matveyeva (Moscow, 2019)

______________________________________________________

shiyes.pngA banner in the activist camp at Shiyes station: “Hands off Shiyes! Vychegda Defense Committee.” Photo courtesy of Current Time TV and Sever.Realii

Anti-Shiyes Activists in Arkhangelsk Region Laid Off After Several Warnings
Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda)
November 1, 2019

Employees at the Viled Tourist Information Center in the Arkhangelsk Region have received pink slips after their managers warned them they should not publish posts about Shiyes on social networks and attend rallies against construction of a waste landfill there. Sever.Realii was told about this by Tatyana Regush, who received one such pink slip.

The Viled Center is a branch of the Vilegodsk District Ethnographic Museum. Three people are employed at the center, and Regush officially holds the position of deputy director of the museum. On October 31, the center’s employees received notices they were being laid off. Sever.Realii has copies of the notices.

“They want to eliminate our entire branch: all of us are activists here. I requested a copy of the resolution, issued by the district head, which states that the work of the tourist information center has been deemed ineffective and, in order to optimize costs, our center has been shut down. Our salaries will be transferred to other cultural institutiosn,” Regush explained.

One of the center’s employees resigned shortly before the dismissal notices were sent, while a second employee, Alexander Zhelezko, has also received a pink slip. The district head’s resolution does not specify exactly how the center was inefficient.

Regush attributes the redudancies to her activist stance on the construction of of the waste landfill next to Shiyes station.

“There were warnings. We found out about the problems in Shiyes in late 2018 and began attending protest rallies and speaking at them. I am a lawyer: I would take the microphone and try to provide a legal assessment of what was happening. In May 2019, the district head and the center itself warned me my activism was undesirable since our stance was at odds with the governor’s official position. They told us the government gave us jobs and that as municipal employees we should adhere to the official line. We do not agree with that. The district head warned that the dismissals of activists had already begun,” Regush said.

Regush said she was unlikely to challenge the dismissal and the resolution in court. She has already been offered another job.

We were unable to get a comment from the museum’s management: Olga Ilyina, the museum’s director, was not at work when we contacted them.

Moscow authorities have been building a landfill for waste from Moscow in the village of Shiyes in the Arkhangelsk Region. There will be no recycling or processing at the facility. The residents of the region are opposed to the landfill. They argue it will harm the enviroment and cause an ecological disaster. For more than a year, local residents, environmentalists, and activists have been holding protest actions and rallies.

Translated by the Russian Reader

 

Stanislava Novgorodtseva: Portraits of Angry Muscovites

“The Regime Has No Feedback from the Populace”: What Are People Saying Who Support the Candidates Barred from the Moscow City Duma Elections?
Photographer Stanislava Novgorodtseva took photos of angry Muscovites, trying to find out what it was they wanted
July 27, 2019

3a28b76117eb6539c85008b98b8c8159Viktor, 21, student and programmer. “Ideally, I would like to see all the candidates who were illegally barred put on the ballot and the Moscow City Duma dissolved, respectively. That would make sense to all of us.”

mikhailMikhail, 23, web developer. “I came here to support Ilya Yashin, a candidate in Borough No. 45, which includes the Krasnoselsky and Meshchansky Districts. He is currently detained by the police. My big hope is that at least one election in this country is legitimate.”

vadimVadim, 61, retired doctor. “I wanted to hear the barred candidates speak and support them, and defend our rights, which have been violated. A criminal offense has been committed and we must get to the bottom of it.”

ilyaIlya, 21, artist. “First of all, I would like to stop the lawlessness directed at the populace, the continuing poverty, arrests, and prison sentences. We need to see justice done and hold fair elections so the so-called government stops pushing us around. Because a country is not a bunch of people but a nation.”

klaraKlara, 75, retired engineer and metallurgist. “We came specially to defend our candidate, Yulia Galyamina. She is a decent person, she lectures at two universities. What were the police’s grounds for searching her home? A huge number of people have supported her, but she has been barred from running.”

marinaMarina, 56, psychology lecturer. “We basically cannot change anything at the moment. We are merely showing them we exist because it is impossible to change anything now. But everything will change after a while. When they see we are here, they take us into account.”

Yulia, 42, chief accountant. “I am here to get the candidates who met the legal requirements onto the ballot. We want to see an end to the manipulations, violations, and planting of drugs on people. We just want the laws to be obeyed. I want to be able to go to court and defend my rights.”

Andrei, 43, technical consultant. “It is the only thing left to us: we cannot do anything else. If we stay at home and ‘strike,’ we could die and no one would care. People have to take to the streets around the world. Otherwise, if you are not seen you are not heard. The prosecutor’s offices, courts, and police do not do their jobs. All the state agencies send formal replies or do not respond at all when you complain to them.”

Vera, 56, oil geologist. “We have a problem with infill construction, but our candidate, Elena Rusakova, has been barred from running. We are absolutely certain the signatures [on the petitions supporting Rusakov’s candidacy], are genuine: we signed them ourselves and helped her collect them. We have come to voice our protest.”

Natalya, 62, manager. “We lived in a nice green neighborhood. I was apolitical, but suddenly we were surrounded by construction sites, fences, sidewalks, and paving stones. They have been expropriating green spaces and cutting down trees. Candidates willing to fight against this are barred from holding political office. My mom is 94 years old. She survived the Siege of Leningrad. She does not leave the house anymore, but she told me I definitely had to come to this rally. Otherwise, she said, my children would live in a police state.”

Alexander, 44, activist: “I filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights because my building has slated for [Moscow Mayor Sobyanin’s massive residential building] renovation. That is one of the reasons I came. But Sobyanin and his stooges in the Moscow City Duma are bad guys not only because of the renovation program. They have been robbing and disfiguring the city. We came out to show the authorities what we think, although we have been accused of wanting violent regime change. This is not true.”

Anatoly, 48, programmer: “I came to the rally as part of a social experiment. I am not much interested in showdowns over who gets on the city council. I have more grudges against the current regime than everyone else here combined, but people are fighting for cosmetic changes. Even if [independent] candidates get on the ballot, I don’t believe improvements will follow. The regime has no feedback from the populace, but I don’t think protest rallies can solve the problem.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Denis Sokolov: Police Feudalism in Russia

medievalA scene from a protest against the government’s raising the pension age, September 9, 2018, Saint Petersburg. Photo by Anton Vaganov. Courtesy of Reuters and Republic

Police Feudalism
Denis Sokolov
Republic
July 15, 2019

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, former head of Ingushetia, was “upmoted” to the Defense Ministry, but Russia’s police machine has continued to persecute protesters in Ingushetia. On July 12, Rashid Maysigov, a correspondent with the website Fortanga, was arrested. When police searched his house, they found, allegedly, the now-obligatory “package containing a white substance” and—apparently, to make the image of Maysigov as a troublemaker complete—leaflets calling for Ingushetia’s annexation by Georgia lying on a coffee table. In the wee hours of July 13, Zarifa Sautiyeva, deputy director of the Memorial for the Victims of Repressions in Nazran, was arrested. Sautiyeva has risen to prominence as one of the female leaders at the protest rallies in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, in 2018–2019. Sautiyeva was charged with complicity in violence against the authorities. This is the first case when a woman has been sent to the remand prison in Nalchik, in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, as part of the continuing investigation of the Ingushetian protests. On July 14, Russia’s federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor blocked Fortanga, the main source of news about the protests.

zarifa sautiyevaZarifa Sautiyeva. Courtesy of Caucasian Knot

What’s Good for Jupiter
There is one thing the arrests of Ingush and Circassian activists, the searches in the homes of people who protested construction of a church in a Yekaterinburg park, the fines meted out to people who marched in solidarity with Ivan Golunov on June 12, the New Greatness case, the arrests for “extremist” posts on the VK social network, and the harsh arrests of protesters outside the Moscow City Elections Committee on Sunday have in common.

None of them have anything to do with keeping the peace and administering justice. They are rituals meant to mark the territory of a class. Equipped with firearms and badges, Russia’s new service aristocracy enthusiastically shows unarmed civilians without badges their place.  The statistics for “ritual” criminal charges—drugs charges, “extremism” charges, and weapons possession charges—speak for themselves. The willingness of law enforcement officers to beat up arrestees harks back to hazing in army barracks and the prison practice of “registering” new inmates by ritually humiliating them.

Russia’s political elite—the siloviki, the officials who control financial flows, organized criminals, and insider businessmen—live by other rules. They are governed by other articles in the Russian criminal code and have other means of resolving conflicts. The fight against corruption and economic crimes is the political weapon that has replaced elections up and down Putin’s “power vertical.” The number of criminal cases against high-ranking officials and officers of the Interior Ministry, the FSB, and the GRU has risen exponentially.

Particularly touching are several cases that are interrelated, according to reporters who covered them. The first case involves the arrests of FSB Colonel Kirill Cherkalin and two of his accomplices on April 25, 2019. They were charged with fraud, i.e., they forced a businessman to hand over a share, worth 490 million rubles [approx. $7.8 million], in a company. Cherkalin was also charged with taking an $820,000 bribe for “protection.” The second case is the flight abroad of Valery Miroshnikov, deputy head of the Deposit Insurance Agency (ASV). Allegedly, he and Cherkalin had cooked up a scheme for making money from the restructuring of banks. Finally, there is the arrest of an entire gang of FSB special forces officers and K Directorate officers: they robbed a bank while on duty, so to speak. Several officers from Alpha, the FSB’s special forces unit, decided not to return from an assignment in the North Caucasus, going to ground instead.

Now that is the sporting life, the life of a medieval knight. A jail sentence for posting the “wrong” thing on social media or attending a peaceable protest rally cannot compare. What is good for Jupiter is bad for the bull. The new division of Russia into quasi-medieval estates is borne out by the fact that, unlike their victims, police officers get suspended sentences for cooking up “drugs” cases, not actual prison time.

The number of businessmen who have been “skimmed” by being charged with economic crimes has skyrocketed. In a report entitled “The Fortress Subsides,” Kirill Rogov recently cited data on the sharp increase in the number of economic crimes investigated by the FSB. We do not need statistics, however, to understand the implications of the attack on Sergei Petrov, the arrest of Michael Calvey, and similar cases.

The Siloviki Revolution
What we are talking about is not the ruling regime’s collapse but its logical evolution, the emergence of a new Russian state. The runaway growth of cases in which criminal prosecution has been used to combat competitors and extract feudal rent from various social groups, including grassroots activists, businessmen, and other siloviki and officials, could point to a qualitative transformation of the social order in Russia. Eliminating competitors for fiefs can, however, be regarded as a form of political competition, while squeezing rents from vanquished regions and sectors is something akin to the victor tasting the fruits of victory. This is borne out by Vladimir Vasilyev’s administration of Dagestan, where the new order entailed a complete purge of the regional bureaucracy and an invasion of officials from more advanced Tatarstan. In other regions, on the contrary, the siloviki revolution has come off more quietly.

The actions of the special services in Ingushetia, Dagestan, and other regions of Russia enables us to make certain generalizations about the new political reality.

First, Russian law enforcement’s apparatus of violence has gradually turned into a ritual apparatus of violence. Planting drugs, “extremist” pamphlets, ammunition or (when a system insider has been targeted for arrest) marked bills on victims has nothing to do with real criminal investigations. They are parts of the arrest ritual, informal parts of the processual code. All that remains is for the State Duma to draft the relevant amendments and vote them into law. Aside from the main program, the arrest ritual contains supplementary messages for the civilian populace: “We will arrest your women,” “We will beat your children and send them to jail,” “All resistance to the punitive machine will be punished disproportionately,” “When a regional head is dismissed or a journalist is released, it does not mean protesters have won,” and so on.

Second, in recent years, the Russian state has been reduced to a police apparatus of violence. All other branches of government are its appendages and palace retinue. At the same time, the state has devised a completely modern media policy. Field officers arrest the regime’s undesirables, and the press services of the security forces voice the “official position” while anonymous Telegram channels, social media forums, and dubious websites leak the “real” reasons for the arrests to the hoi polloi.

For example, the Circassian activist Martin Kochesoko was arrested for possession of marijuana. The police who detained him rubbed his hands in the weed just in case, while the Telegram channels that get their information from law enforcement authorities told readers about Kochesoko’s links with foreign foundations and his dangerous love for federalism.

Third, the police machine is hierarchical, and it is organized on the principle of feudal vassalage. Each police unit has its own turf, its own sectors, its own fief, whether it is a bank, an oil company, the Deposit Insurance Agency, the war in Donbas or the Chinese markets in Moscow. This fief should automatically become a hereditary or corporate fiefdom. Ingush law enforcement officers cannot operate in Moscow or neighboring republics without getting special permission. Zarifa Sautieyva was arrested only when she showed up in her home region. Moscow avoids meddling in the affairs of vassals for no good reason. Ramzan Kadyrov wants jurisdiction over all Chechens, including Chechens in exile, and he gets it.

Fourth, Moscow can recall regional governors and replace one viceroy with another, but the Kremlin has no intention of stopping the punitive machine because there is nothing else left of the state. The inert, corrupt, and hierarchical police machine has become the caste of security forces (siloviki), a parody of medieval knights. Initially, it saw itself as owning all of Russia; later, it has divided the country into fiefdoms according to unwritten rules. It is not only the Kremlin that wants it this way. Russia’s punitive machine has an “on” switch, but no “off” switch. The only recent exception to this rule is the Ivan Golunov case. This case had many idiosyncrasies, however. His supporters were able to free the arrest reporter partly by following the special rules for the regime’s insiders.

Finally, police feudalism and the Russian state are the same things. When protesters appeal to the Russian constitution and the rule of law, the state regards this as an attack on its sovereignty. The constitution, the courts, and the laws belong to the state. The state or, rather, its beneficiaries will do as they like with these privatized institutions. This machine can be employed for private commercial ends or political goals, but it is forbidden to change the regime and disband the service aristocracy.

Feudal Zombies
If these generalizations are valid, we must thoroughly reexamine the strategies of ethnic and grassroots movements. It is naive and pointless to seek justice from the Leviathan.

Ethnic movements can never find support in the current system because a police state is unable to negotiate. It simply does not have the option of negotiating with unarmed people who are not endowed with the proper authority in the shape of badges. Therefore, the most reasonable demand made by the Ingush activists so far is the demand to release political prisoners. They must be freed from the punitive system’s jurisdiction.

We can say the same thing about grassroots movements, authentic local government, and democratic elections. They are possible only in the absence of police feudalism. Tackling Russia’s new service aristocracy is a separate, thorny issue that neither Putin nor the person who succeeds him can solve even if they wanted to solve it. The system is not amenable to reform. It can only shrink, gradually devouring itself.

Police feudalism is so obsolete, however, it is hard to imagine it will be able to maintain itself for long. We need to think about how to organize public life without these time travelers from the past; we must know what to do when this army of skeletons vanishes into thin air. As soon as we have a notion of what institutions and public organizations are needed, how much it would cost to build them, and who would be ready to invest in new political projects, this will happen spontaneously and inevitably.

Translated by Thomas Campbell

Ivan Davydov: Unimaginable

volodinVyacheslav Volodin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the State Council, June 26, 2019. Photo by Dmitry Astakhov. Courtesy of Sputnik, Reuters, and Republic

What Russia Cannot Imagine
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 18, 2019

Any periodical would love to get their hands on a star author. Who even thought a few days ago that something called the Parliament Gazette was published in Russia? Yet State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has just published an article there entitled “The Living, Evolving Constitution.” Everyone who follows politics has read it and many have ventured to summarize it. Volodin praises the Russian Constitution and its spirit while arguing certain things in it should be amended.

This is not the first time Volodin has done this. Last year marked the Constitution’s twenty-fifth birthday. The speaker hinted that it was obsolete in parts. Valery Zorkin, Chief Justice of the Russian Constitutional Court, voiced similar thoughts, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev weighed in with a programmatic article entitled “The Constitution at Twenty-Five: Balancing Freedom and Responsibility.”

The little booklet keeps them up at night. They sense it is at odds with reality. They are eager to amend it.

Renaissance Men
Medvedev wrote about the possibility of amending the Constitution. The amendments were needed in order to “update the status of the authorities.” Don’t ask me what that means: the prime minister himself would probably not be able to tell you.

Zorkin spoke of “pinpoint” amendments aimed at restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches. Nineteen years into Putin’s reign, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court suddenly noticed the executive branch had brought the legislative branch to heel.

Volodin’s article has the same bent.

“In my analysis of the Constitution, I pay special mind to the lack of a needed balance in how the legislative and executive branches function. Discrete, pinpoint constitutional innovations might really be necessary in this case,” he writes.

Actually, the speaker has only one proposal: the Duma should have more levers for controlling what the government does.

“It is advisable to further elaborate the rules concerning the government’s accountability to parliament on issues raised by the State Duma, including the evaluation of the performance of specific ministers. It would also be a good thing (this is only my opinion) to further weigh the question of the State Duma’s involvement in selecting ministers in the Russian federal government,” he writes.

It is as if we have gone back to the early twentieth century, no? It was a romantic time. The public enthusiastically discussed “A Manifesto for Improving the State Administration,” published on October 17, 1905. The Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) had the upper hand in the first Duma, and Pavel Milyukov would soon take to the podium to demand an accountable government. Prince Sergei Urusov would soon make his famous speech.

“People with the educations of quartermasters and policemen and the convictions of rioters are deciding the country’s fate,” he said.

His words have lost none of their timeliness, to the woe of our poor fatherland.

No, the man at the podium is Vyacheslav Volodin, a well-educated intellectual whose mind is on a par with the pillars of the Renaissance. He wrote his dissertation about dispending feed to livestock, but his arguments about balancing the branches of government are no worse than what you would hear from a political scientist, although, of course, the irrepressible lover of bad jokes inside all of us would note the parallels between cattle and politicians.

Volodin is at the podium, so we must read between the lines. He could not care less about achieving a “higher quality of interaction and coherence in the government’s work.” The speaker has a different goal, one that is easily discerned.

The Eternal Present
Like everyone else who has spoken about possible amendments to the Constitution,  the speaker is looking to the future. He is looking towards 2024 when the regime will have to figure out how to maintain Putin’s grip on supreme power. It would be unseemly just to reelect him one more time. You do not expect any of the folks occupying important government posts to worry about decency, but the issue does indeed bother them.

Political junkies are regularly excited by rumors of transition scenarios, some of them quite intricate. People in the know, citing anonymous but terribly reliable sources, suddenly claim that a State Council will be established.

They must have seen Ilya Repin’s famous monumental painting, which made an impression on them.

800px-Ilya_Repin_-_Ceremonial_Sitting_of_the_State_Council_on_7_May_1901_Marking_the_Centenary_of_its_Foundation_-_Google_Art_ProjectIlya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation, 1903. Oil on canvas, 4.4 m by 8.77 m. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Or they let slip that Russia and Belarus will finally be totally unified.

But the State Council—not the meaningless, powerless State Council that has convened since 2000, but a genuine, proper State Council that would replace all other executive authorities—still convenes only in Repin’s painting, while the would-be tsar of Belarus his own plans and his own heir. He even took him on a pilgrimage to Valaam to show him off to our would-be tsar and thus quash any funny ideas in the latter’s head.

And then Bloomberg, a source at we cannot sneeze, writes that the Kremlin is planning large-scale electoral reforms. Supposedly, in the 2021 parliamentary elections, 75% of MPs will be elected not via party lists but in single-mandate constituencies. United Russia’s candidates will run as independents. (We have heard this before.) The regime will have total control of parliament. (As if it does not have it now.). Putin will again lead the ruling party and be appointed the prime minister. The powers of the presidency will be curtailed. It will not matter who is elected to this clownish post because Russia will be run by the prime minister.

We have been through this before. There was no need to amend the Consitution. The regime did as it liked anyway.

Rumors spread by an international news agency are one thing, but rumors backed by a programmatic article written by the Speaker of the Duma are another. The picture comes into focus. The regime has come up with a plan, apparently. We can thus say with some accuracy what the future holds for us.

The future will be the same as the present, despite certain formal shakeups that have no bearing on the real lives of ordinary Russians and leave the regime’s domestic and foreign policies intact. The regime will undergo fundamental changes, as it were, but the same people will be in power.

What future lies in store for us? No future at all, a future as dull as the eyes of Russia’s leader.

The Ruling Dynasty’s Motto
On the one hand, all of this stuff is interesting, as it were. You feel like Sherlock Holmes, perusing a boring article with a magnifying glass and figuring out what it has to do with keeping Putin in power. You imagine how the Russian state machine will function after it undergoes a minor facelift. The prime minister will control both the parliament and the government while the president visits summer camps and publishes articles in small-circulation newspapers about what the world will be like in a hundred years. Medvedev would be great for the job, and this would solve the problem of finding another heir.

On the other hand, haven’t we been through this already?

The takeaway message is that none of these schemes accounts for regime change. Our powers that be can draw whatever blueprints they like showing one set of cogs engaging another set of cogs, setting into motion our mighty state, which churns smoke like the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and terrifies the rest of the world with its smell if not its military might.

What they cannot imagine is completely different people at the helm. This is what cannot be imagined in Russia at all.

Neither Volodin, his ghostwriters, and his commentators can entertain the thought power could change hands. Political power in modern Russia has nothing to do with procedures and institutions. You can dream up whatever procedures you like and mold institutions by the bucketful from dung and twigs. Political power in today’s Russia is about people, the small group of people, whose names we all know, led by Vladimir Putin.

Any imitation of change is permissible so long as it makes real change impossible.  This is the perfect way of summing up Volodin’s article and political reforms in Russia, although “reforms” should be encased in quotation marks, which are the most important signifiers in Russian political discourse.

“Changing to prevent change” would be an excellent motto for the current ruling dynasty, a dynasty consisting of one man whom he and his entourage inexplicably imagine is immortal.

Moscow as a Mirror
Even yesterday’s loyal supporters see clearly what pass this dynasty has brought us to. They have no plans of winding up their act and exiting the stage.

What comes to mind is the slightly over-discussed topic, in recent days, of the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma. Moscow mirrors what happens all over Russia, and it is not a funhouse mirror. In recent days, authorities in the capital have flagrantly and impudently barred independent candidates from running in the elections. They have not attempted to hide the forgeries and falsifications they have used when “verifying” the signatures of voters on the petitions submitted by the candidates.

The independent candidates are young people who can sometimes seem too radical and sometimes seem a bit ridiculous, for idealists always seem a bit ridiculous. Oddly, however, they are open to dialogue. They are keen to accomplish something real in politics and bring about gradual changes in public life.

I wanted to write “perestroika” instead of “changes,” but the word has too much baggage, so the heck with it.

The people who run Moscow, just like the people who run Russia, cannot get their heads around a simple truth. The country’s only real defense, its only chance at survival (and this applies to everyone, including the political bosses) are these slightly ridiculous idealists, who are willing to pull up their sleeves, work, and talk to people. They could try and clean up all the messes the people who run things have made.

But the powers that be toss them out of legal politics like naughty puppies in a sneering show of force that demonstrates they do not understand that destroying room for legal politics is a road to ruin. They do not realize that in this serial’s next episode it will not be ridiculous idealists who take to the streets, playing volleyball at “unauthorized” protest rallies and waiting for the green light to cross the street during banned protest marches, but starved pragmatists whose program will consist of smashing windows and crushing skulls.

All of the tricky plans for keeping Putin in power will come to naught. There will be no Putin, and there will be no power. Maybe there will be an endless remake of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but there is no certainty even that much will happen.

However, by way of toning things down a bit and leaving my readers with a smile on their face, I will close by quoting from Medvedev’s article about the Russian Constitution, which I mentioned earlier.

“While recognizing and protecting human rights, the Russian Constitution limits the claims made on the defense of these rights by not recognizing as rights those that are at odds with Russian society’s traditional values. The idea of human rights is thus given a new interpretation in relation to other constitutions, marking out a particular, original, nonstandard approach to the way human rights are regarded.”

Now, what are you going to do about that?

Translated by Thomas Campbell

 

 

Inland Empire: Life in Russia Without Visa and Mastercard

buyerThis woman is happy she doesn’t live in Russia, where Visa and Mastercard may soon be banned. Courtesy of Fluencia

Inland Empire: How Will Russians Live Without Visa and Mastercard?
Sergei Khestanov
Republic
July 12, 2019

The new attack by Russian lawmakers on the international payment systems Visa and Mastercard may come to a head, successfully or unsuccessfully, this summer. For the law bill’s sponsors success would mean the near-total financial isolation of Russians from the rest of the world. All that would remain would be to adopt restrictions on foreign currency.

Going Our Own Way
There had long been talk of the need to talk of a completely autonomous domestic payments system, but the events of 2014 and, especially, the imposition of sanctions visibly accelerated the process.

In fact, in the spring of 2014, MPs in the Russian State Duma drafted amendments to the law “On the National Payment System” that would have forced Mastercard and Visa, which had been obliged to observe the sanctions against a number of Russian banks, to deposit amounts of money equal to their two-day turnover in special accounts at the Russian Central Bank. Visa said it would stop doing business in Russia. Negotiations with the Russian government and Central Bank followed this announcement. The draft law was considerably softened. The amount of the obligatory deposit was removed from the bill, and it was decided that international payment systems would operate in Russia through specially established local subsidiaries.

After Mir bank cards were launched, they were quite unpopular among Russians for a long time. Russians preferred time-tested foreign bank cards. Besides, initially there were purely technical problems with Mir that caused their cards to be rejected, but after the Russian Central Bank issued stern warnings, banks updated the software of their ATMs and payment terminals, more or less solving the glitches.

Another problem is that Russian cards are nearly useless abroad since they are accepted almost nowhere. However, given the small percentage of Russians who travel abroad, this is not such a huge problem.

The breakthrough in promoting the domestic cards came in 2018. On July 1, 2018, the electronic wage payments of all state-sector workers were transferred by law to Russian bank cards. By January 1, 2019, they had taken a big bite out of the share of the Russian market controlled by their famous competitors. According to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, during the period from January 1, 2018, to January 1, 2019, the share of actively used Visa cards among the Russian populace fell from 45% to 39.5%, while Mastercard’s share fell from 42% to 36%. The reduction in the international payment systems’ share of the Russian market happened as Mir doubled its share of active card users, which rose from 12.5% to 24.5%.

This is not surprising. The traditional Russian principle of pushing certain things, ironically dubbed the “voluntary compulsory” method, is rather effective. Outcomes are achieved quickly, making such methods of promotion quite popular. We should say, in all fairness, that this happens not only in Russia.

Such aggressiveness has a price, however. Compulsory promotion of goods and services reduces competition, since the advantages of using a particular service or buying a certain product derive from the market’s absence. Over time, products and services pushed in this way lag behind their absent competitors in terms of their quality.

Striking examples of diminishing quality in a market in which competition was restricted were the Soviet automobile and electronics industries. The latter lagged behind the world especially disastrously. Remember the old joke, “Soviet handheld calculators are the biggest handheld calculators in the worlds”?

Rejecting the Outside World
But degradation as a consequence of pushing goods and services through non-market methods is only half the trouble. It is much more dangerous to ban and expel foreign products and services from the domestic market. The new regulations described in the draft law “On the National Payment System” could force international payment systems out of Russia since they would be unable to comply with the regulations. Once they leave, Russian bank cards would not be accepted for payment abroad, and cards issued by foreign banks would not be valid in Russia.

Mir cardholders who never travel abroad would not even notice this nastiness. Everyone else would soon voluntarily be forced to join them. Give the Russian state’s high and growing share in the Russian economy, the regulations would not provoke fatal disaffection with the leadership.

Russia’s policy of self-isolation was adopted long ago, and a large segment of the populace has no real objections to it, while people who use their bank cards within Russia mostly do not care what system processes their transactions. What matters is that everything works fine and does not cost too much. Mir’s reliability is now on a par with the international payment system, and so are its rates. Besides, if push came to shove, the Russian Central Bank and the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service could force it to reduce its rates.

There are no rational reasons for establishing a homegrown system when the duopoly of Visa and Mastercard serve the Russian market just fine. China’s UnionPay and Japan’s JBC have been processed by certain Russian banks, but they have never played a significant role. You cannot make money in a highly competitive, mature market, long dominated by world leaders like Visa and Mastercard, unless you employ non-market methods of competition. The market simply does not need new players.

The reason for the persistent promotion of Mir card is not commercial. It is an insurance policy of sorts, one that will have claims made on it if real, harsh Iranian-style sanctions are imposed on Russia. If you regarded this scenario as a serious possibility you would have cause to establish a national system, especially because Chinese banks (on whom great hopes were placed in 2014) have essentially supported US sanctions. In these circumstances, it is better to have a stunted system in terms of its international access than to witness a sudden collapse of cashless payments if harsh sanctions are imposed.

However, this non-competitive idea immediately inspires people who are willing to make money by destroying their competitors.

If regulations pushing the international payment systems out of the Russian market were adopted, it would deprive Russians of the ability to pay for things abroad without cash, and the logical next step of banning or restricting the export of foreign currency from the country would be easy as pie. Simultaneously, Russians would find it much harder to purchase foreign goods in foreign online shops, something that would be incredibly difficult without access to international payment systems.

A side effect of the ban would be the promotion of Russian-registered joint ventures for selling Chinese goods to Russians.  This would have a positive effect on the receipt of VAT from these purchases. VAT matters since VAT revenues constitute up to a third of Russian federal revenues, making them comparable to Russia’s export revenues.

The natural consequence of depriving Russians of access to foreign online shops would be a rise in prices. At first, the government would profit slightly because VAT revenues would grow—until people stopped buying things.

The policy of isolating the Russian economy from the world economy in terms of Russian nationals being unable to spend money outside Russia has been reasserted, and yet another step on the long road of restrictions and bans may soon be taken. The tendency towards restrictions on foreign currency has once again been confirmed. We might recall the recent discussion about restricting unqualified investors from opening foreign currency accounts.

The hope remains, of course, that, as in 2014, the international payment systems would reach an agreement with the Russian government, Russian MPs would be reined in, and cardholders would not feel the pain. Unlike 2014, however, the Russian Central Bank has supported the bill.

Sergei Khestanov is a macroeconomics adviser to the director of Open Broker and associate professor of financial markets and financial engineering at RANEPA. Translated by the Russian Reader