In the last decade or two, Russia’s monied classes and middle classes have been wildly enriched or merely kept afloat by cheap, disenfranchised labor from Central Asia. I took this photo on April 10, 2017, in the container village inhabited by Central Asian migrant workers building Petersburg’s so-called Marine Façade on 476 hectares of reclaimed land in the Neva Bay next to Vasilyevsky Island.
Nationalizing the Middle Class: Society’s Previously Most Dynamic Group Seeks to Rely on the State
Vladimir Ruvinsky Vedomosti
June 26, 2019
Analysts at Alfa Bank have concluded Russia’s middle class has been shrinking. More importantly, it is being nationalized, which distances the prospects of qualitative economic growth.
What constitutes the Russian middle class is mostly a philosophical question: a specific definition of it has never gained a foothold. Some researchers argue it never emerged in the social sense and remains akin to a folklore character. Other researchers, focusing on income levels, have claimed to have sighted it in Russia, but in recent years their observations have been suffused with sadness.
In a new report, “The Russian Middle Class: Lowering the Appetite for Risk,” analysts at Alfa Banks have defined the middle class as a group of people whose monthly income is between 39,000 and 99,000 rubles per person [i.e., between 546 euros and 1,387 euros at current rates], that is, 110–250% of the median income in Russia, and who are able to buy durable goods.
In the noughties, the middle class grew. By 2014, it constituted 37% of the Russian populace. In four years, however, all of this growth had been forfeited. In 2017, only 30% of the populace could be counted as middle class, which was less than in 2004 (34%). Simultaneously, the group’s share in the populace’s total income dropped from 48% in 2014 to 39% in 2017.
The middle class has lost its economic clout, becoming more vulnerable. In some ways, it has lost more than other classes. Alfa Bank’s analysts write that the middle class’s real incomes stagnated in the ten-year period between 2008 and 2018, while the incomes of the country’s most impoverished groups rose by four percent, and the incomes of the wealthiest Russians increased by eleven percent. An indicator of the middle class’s fading fortunes was that its core spent three percentage points more on groceries during the ten-year period, just like the country’s lower classes, while its expenditures on holidays and education dropped by one to two percentage points. In 2014–2018, the middle class’s loan payments grew by 20% in nominal terms. This is probably why it has not been involved in the new consumer loan boom.
Simultaneously, the middle class has been undergoing nationalization. It is a commonplace the middle class consists of people independent of the state and living on their own means. Its progress has been regarded as a vital driver of economic growth, including in Russia.
Its potential, however, appears to have weakened. Whereas in 2003 approximately ten percent of the middle class was employed in the state sector, this figure had grown to fifteen percent in 2017, according to Alfa Bank.
This is not a disaster yet, especially since middle-class employment in commerce, the restaurant business, finance, real estate, and health care has grown. However, the middle class’s share of business income has decreased more than it has among the general populace.
Traditionally considered the core of civil society, the middle class has come to rely more and more on the state for employment, claims Natalya Orlova, Alfa Bank’s chief economist. Even if the middle class does not shrink anymore, its nationalization worsens the prospects for Russia’s progress, since its ranks will be replenished by people who do not power the economy but count on the regime for their livelihoods.
If we regard all these topsy-turvy achievements as the outcomes of stupidity, the hope emerges that we can fix the stupidity by purging the ranks of officialdom, which is exactly what the Kremlin, in fact, sunk its teeth into today. Actually, what we regard as failure and stupidity have long become the new normal. What we see are the outcomes of a monopoly on political power, which has turned its own replication into an end in itself, and of a negative selection of members of the political elite based on the loyalty principle. In short, a duelist in charge of the Russian National Guard, and poisoners disguised as tourists are the new Russian normal. They are logical and inevitable consequences.
The wailing about a crisis at the top is, therefore, groundless. Russia skipped over the crisis stage. A crisis is a natural turn of events that compels society to look for new solutions and new people to implement them. When this does not happen, society and its superstructures rot. This stinky viscous goo is our current location. Decay prevents collapse: what is rotting cannot collapse. But decay also prevents our country from finding the strength to change.
In reality, things have taken a serious turn for Russia. By seeking to ensure its endlessness, the regime has been destroying the Russian state. That is a whole other ballgame. We have reached the point at which the ruling class has been rocking the pillars of statehood, destroying its own guarantee of survival in the bargain.
By outsourcing violence to volunteer oprichniki, the regime has deprived the state of one of its vital attributes: a monopoly on violence. By making Russia a global scarecrow, the regime has undermined the country’s international status and the external habitat in which it dwells. By rejecting strategic planning in favor of tactical maneuvers, the regime has stripped the country of the capacity for progress. By making the Russian state a tool of clan domination, the regime has destabilized the country, since society has been forced to defend its own interests by protesting on the streets.
Finally, by destroying institutions and making the rules of the game relative (there is more than one way to “get things done: in Russia), the regime has plunged the country into a state of lawlessness. When lawlessness ensues, no one is safe from it.
Do the guys in the Kremlin not realize how things will end? Apparently, they do understand, but they are incapable of stopping.
The autocracy survived in 1991 by scrapping the Soviet state. The autocracy has now been trying to survive by turning the post-Soviet Russian state into a lip-synched song about superpowerdom.
Lilia Shevtsova is a well-known Russian political scientist. Translated by the Russian Reader
Great Breakthroughs: Putin Warns of a Great Exertion
Mikhail Shevchuk Delovoi Peterburg
May 7, 2018
In his inauguration speech, Vladimir Putin warned the country was in such circumstances that only a decisive breakthrough on all fronts could save it. Nevertheless, there were certain conditions.
Putin kicked off his fourth term as Russia’s president with an inauguration at the Great Kremlin Palace. The scenario was almost the same as during previous inaugurations, except, perhaps, that TV viewers were shown the president getting up from his chair in his office, donning a blazer, and setting off down the hallways of the Kremlin, finally to descend a staircase, get in a car, and make the short trip to the Great Kremlin Palace in a motorcade.
In rituals, every particular has symbolic import, I guess, and the blazer and the solitude and the utter silence in which Putin walked along the corridors were probably meant to suggest the absoluteness of Putin’s power.
“In Russia, the president is the person responsible for everything”: Putin led off his inauguration speech with this phrase eighteen years ago. He ended the speech as follows: “We have one future in common.” Back then, very few people could have guessed how literally these words were meant.
As the president walked unperturbed down the enfilade of the Great Kremlin Palace on his way to the Great Hall of St. Andrew, he was greeted by guests. There were many more guests compared to his inauguration in 2000, and as he passed by them, every other guest took a snaphot of Putin on their smartphones. This was meant to show us two things, apparently: their telephones had not been confiscated at the entrance, despite the gravity of the occasion, and the fact people could take pictures symbolized the rights and freedom Russians supposedly enjoyed.
During his speech, it transpired Putin still felt “colossal responsibility.” This responsibility had only become greater over the years. Naturally, only faithfulness to the legacy of his forebears could help him cope with it now.
Yet the word Putin invoked most often in his speech was “breakthrough.” On five occasions, Putin mentioned the need for a breakthrough in all areas of life and the need to shape an agenda focused on breakthroughs. He repeated the adjective “intense” three times. To make his point clear to everyone, he said the country had to achieve breakthroughs and large-scale transformations (for the better) in its cities and villages. There was no time for warming up. The president laid particular stress on this phrase.
Not so long ago, during the so-called fat years, the prevailing view among the authorities was Russia should not make any sudden moves. “Not revolution, but evolution,” as the Kremlin’s spin doctors would put it. The concept has now apparently changed. Revolution is now called for again. Quietly and peacefully evolving doesn’t work. Once more, we have to catch up, and once again there is no time to warm up.
We will fulfill the five-year-plan in four years!
The regime’s vocabulary has come to resembe the militaristic vocabulary of Soviet leaders, who went into a state of permanent breakthrough in the 1920s and never came out of it. The word “breakthrough” implies we are surrounded. Official propaganda tells us that we are, in fact, encircled, but, just like sixty years ago, it is deemed inappropriate to ask who got us where we are today.
Putin had a lot to say about the conditions of the imminent breakthrough. What he said witnessed to the fact he more or less understood why things had turned out this way, and why circumstances had emerged which we needed to break through. We must, he said, reject “stagnation, crass conservatism, and bureaucratic deadness,” and give more freedom to everyone who yearned for renewal.
Yet the president stipulated time and again that, even as we change, we must not break away from our roots. Our country’s beauty and strength lay in its distinctness. Even “daring young people,” on whom he placed great hopes, must see the limits of their audacity and be faithful to traditional values.
What should we do if stagnation is considered a traditional value? The president had no answer to that question.
“For over a thousand years, Russia has faced periods of strife and trial, and has always been reborn like a phoenix,” Putin reminded his listeners.
It sounded alarming. Rebirth, it turned out, must inevitably be preceded by strife.
Photo and translation by the Russian Reader
Wire Three Girl Rhumba
Think of a number Divide it by two Something is nothing Nothing is nothing Open a box Tear off the lid Then think of a number Don’t think of an answer Open your eyes Think of a number Don’t get swept under A number’s a number A chance encounter you want to avoid The inevitable So you do, oh yes you do The impossible Now you ain’t got a number You just want to rhumba And there ain’t no way you’re gonna go under Go under, go under Go under, go under You tear me asunder Go under, go under Go under, yeah
Viktor Sigolayev, The Fatal Wheel: Crossing the Same River Twice (Alfa Kniga, 2012)
No one understood how our contemporary, an officer in the reserves and a history teacher, ended up in his own past, back in the body of a seven-year-old boy, and back in the period of triumphant, developed socialism, when, as far as our hero could remember, there was a lot more joy and happiness.
That is how an adult imagines it, but it transpires all is not as perfect in the sunny land of Childhood as the memory would suggest. It transpires that here, too, meanness and greed exist. There are thieves, bandits, and scammers of all stripes, although you did not notice them earlier, when you were a child. But now you have to do something about it. Now you have to fight it, because evil knows no obstacles in time. Enemies—cruel and insidious, clever and merciless—have again emerged on the horizon. Besides, some of them seem incredibly familiar to our hero.
So, the seven-year-old hero, who has two university degrees, combat officer experience, and a memory singed by the hard post-perestroika years, launches his own tiny war, allying himself with none other than the USSR State Security Committee [KGB]. He unexpectedly finds new friends there, the kind of friends for whom you can risk your life.
Putin’s Russia can’t celebrate its revolutionary past. It has to smother it
Catherine Merridale The Guardian
November 3, 2017
November always brings a welcome holiday for Russians. The day off work is about some great historical event, but most use it to catch up with their families. On 7 November 2017, it will be exactly 100 years since Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution, the one that people used to mark with anthems, weaponry and fireworks.
But this year’s official holiday commemorates not the revolution, but an uprising of 1612 against the Poles. National Unity Day was a tsarist invention that Vladimir Putin’s government relaunched in 2005. Marked on 4 November, its timing has been perfect. After three days on their sofas, will anyone really notice that there are no red flags?
The silence is like a dream in which the dreamer is being suffocated. Centenaries are special: everyone can count to 100. But so far Lenin and his comrades have not rated as much as a commemorative stamp. The man himself is still displayed – in a new suit – in the mausoleum on Red Square, but no one wants to talk about exactly what he did. The current Russian government makes ample use of history – no child is likely to forget the great patriotic war against fascism – but Lenin can’t be made to fit.
It is awkward enough, Moscow’s mandarins must think, that the Russian revolution was a people’s uprising against despotic rule, a fight against injustice and the gross excesses of the rich. With terrorism such a real threat, the Kremlin would be unwise to appear to condone violent revolt. Yet it can’t vilify a man whose corpse still lies in state, whose statue is a landmark in hundreds of towns. And what is it to make of Soviet power? If it condemns the Russian revolution, where does that leave Stalin and the people’s triumph?
So far the answer seems to be to keep things bland. Lenin, after all, is boringly familiar. If he will only stay that way, if young people decline to think, then even this annoying anniversary will pass. There are rumours that Russia’s new left may take to the streets this year to mark the anniversary with demonstrations, but most Russians under 50 regard the Soviet story as a dowdy relic, an embarrassment. The state wants it to stay that way, the province of those staunch old trouts who still sell apples outside metro stops. Its very language, “Soviet”, is an antique. It must be held back in the past, exiled along with dissidents, stretch nylon and bad teeth.
The Russian revolution was a moment when the veil of human culture tore. It was a season of euphoric hope, a terrifying experiment in utopia. It tested to destruction the 19th-century fantasy of progress. It was the work of tens of thousands of zealous enthusiasts.
Yet now their great-great-grandchildren are bored. This situation suits their government. A cloud of tedium hangs over any formal gathering that ventures to discuss the thing. Most choose the safest, dullest line. There is to be a round-table meeting held at [the] Smolny, for instance, the building from which Lenin launched the revolution, working around the clock. Scheduled for late November 2017, the theme will not be revolution but the centenary of Finnish independence.
I tried asking in the museums. The Russian state has preserved every relic of the revolutionary year, including Lenin’s pillow and his brother-in-law’s chess set. You can still run a finger around Stalin’s bath, the one that Lenin must have used before fleeing from Kerensky’s police. But nothing special has been planned, no big event, no cameras. The museum of Pravda, the Bolshevik party’s newspaper, is clearly short of funds. In Soviet times, schoolchildren visited in their thousands – it was part of their curriculum – but now the place relies on tourists.
To attract the schoolchildren back, the staff have been forced to adapt. “We call this the museum of tolerance,” my guide explained. “See? Everything in this room has come from somewhere in Europe. The typewriter there is German, the table is French.”
But mere avoidance doesn’t always work. A centenary of this importance is bound to be marked by someone; there has to be an official response. Ten months ago, the independent journalist Mikhail Zygar launched a website to track the events of 1917 as they unfolded, day by day. Belatedly, but with a considerably larger budget, the state-sponsored Russia Today responded with a handsome Twitter feed, lavishly illustrated with archival photographs and featuring imaginary tweets from some of the key figures of 1917. Both are useful resources, though neither has engaged with what the revolution means. That question haunts Red Square like Lenin’s ghost.
The Kremlin is saving itself for another anniversary next year. In July 1918 the Romanov family was shot. The solemn lessons of that crime are something everyone will understand. A strong state is what people need, the message goes, and Russia’s is a special one. Unlike the regimes of the west, it is not only patriotic but orthodox. That is why Nicholas II is now a saint and why his killing by the Bolsheviks was a martyrdom. Through him, right-thinking Russian people can remember every other martyr of the revolution that is now, thank heavens, safely past.
Victims unite a nation, everyone can grieve. In honour of the sacred dead (the millions, unspecified), a new cathedral has appeared in Moscow: vast, imposing, unavoidable. Help with the funds came from Putin’s close friend and confessor Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov.
In Russia now it is an idealised form of nationalism, not the people’s rule or social justice, that is feted and taught in schools. Russia is the new Byzantium, no longer proud to fly the red flag for the world.
There is one more anniversary that will not pass unmarked. The Cheka, Lenin’s feared secret police force, was founded on 18 December 1917. Its successors have included Stalin’s NKVD and the KGB of spy thrillers, but it will be the current lot, the FSB, who celebrate next month with the commemorative medals and champagne. As a lieutenant colonel in the service and its former boss, Putin could well be a star guest.
The fact that many of the revolution’s martyrs died at secret police hands is a mere detail. Lenin had no problem ordering the Cheka to carry out the wholesale execution of priests and the so-called bourgeoisie. By 1918 there were bodies piled up in the streets. But such truths are easily ignored. Shevkunov’s new cathedral to the revolution’s martyrs is itself a stone’s throw from the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square.
That just leaves Lenin and his ghost. In life a restless politician, dangerous and quick, he lies on Red Square like a stuffed fox: moth-eaten and obviously dead. As the heart of Moscow has been reinvented as an orthodox and ultra-Russian space, his mausoleum appears more and more anomalous. But though there is no wish to celebrate the man, a preserved corpse remains a tricky object to throw out. As a former Soviet citizen remarked to me: “We have certainly learned one thing from our history, haven’t we? You must be careful who you pickle.”
Catherine Merridale is a historian. Her latest book, Lenin on the Train, is published by Penguin.
This is my 1600th entry since I started translating and writing articles about modern Russian politics, society, economics, art and culture, history, social movements, grassroots endeavors, and everyday life on this website nearly ten years ago.
My first post, dated October 23, 2007, was a translation of an excerpt from Viktor Mazin and Pavel Pepperstein’s fantastic 2005 book The Interpretation of Dreams. Provocative and surprising as ever, Mr. Pepperstein argued that
[o]nly the interim between Soviet socialism and capitalism was ecological. It was a time of crisis: the factories stood idle, and the air became cleaner. It is a pity, but those days (the nineties) came to an end, and now (under cover of patriotic speeches) our country is becoming a colony of international capitalism. They try and persuade us this is success, but it is not true. We should (my dreams tell me, and I believe them) put our beautiful country to a different use, for example, by turning it into a colossal nature and culture reserve. (After all, our country, like Brazil, produces the most valuable thing on Earth: oxygen.) We should close the borders to foreigners (but let anyone leave as they like), carry out a program of deindustrialization, and limit the birth rate.
Shortly thereafter, I was offered the job of editing another website, Chtodelat News, where I volunteered for nearly five years, publishing 740 posts and slowly figuring out what I wanted to say with this hybrid of translation, editorializing, and media collage, and how I could say it.
After the long stint at Chtodelat News, I revived the Russian Reader, trying to make it as pluralistic, polyphonic and, occasionally, as paradoxical as I could, while also fulfilling the brief I have tried to keep to the fore from the very beginning: covering stories about Russia which no other Anglophone media would bother with (although they thus miss tiny but vital chunks of the big picture) and giving my readers access to Russian voices they would not otherwise hear.
I had meant to celebrate my 1500th post on this beat, but that make-believe anniversary came and went without my noticing it. It was all for the best, however, since now nearly ten years have passed since I set out on this unpredictable journey.
Like the very first post on this blog, my 1600th post is a glimpse into Russia’s possible futures, as imagined by Grey Dolphin (aka Vladimir Gel’man), his fellow scribbler Grim Reminder (yours truly), Russian rappers GROT, and my friends at the Moscow Times. TRR
Russia: It Can’t Be Improved So Destroy It, or It Can’t Be Destroyed So Improve It? Grey Dolphin
September 27, 2017
The discussions about Russia’s prospects, currently underway among the conscious segment of Russian society, despite their public nature, in many respects resemble similar debates about the Soviet Union’s destiny, held in the kitchens of members of the intelligentsia and among politicized émigrés during the so-called stagnation. Relatively speaking, it was a debate between two parties. One party, the moderate optimists, grounded their expectations on hopes the country’s leadership would change course for one reason or another (or would itself change), and there would be a chance to change the Soviet Union for the better. (There were different opinions about what “better” meant and how to achieve it.) The other party, which included both moderate and radical pessimists, argued it was no longer possible or fundamentally impossible to improve the Soviet Union, and changes should be directed towards its total elimination. Time seemed to be on the side of the optimists, whose chances at success appeared realistic at perestroika’s outset, but in fact it was working inexorably on behalf of the pessimists. By the time the optimists seemingly got their chance, opportunities to improve the Soviet Union had largely been frittered away. History does not tolerate the subjunctive mood, and we do not know what turn events could have taken had perestroika been launched ten or fifteen years earlier. Those ten or fifteen years, however, passed only in conversations around kitchen tables, while the country’s leaders strove to prevent any change whatsoever. When the changes kicked off, the energies of both parties—the supporters of improving the Soviet Union, and the supporters of destroying the Soviet Union—had not exactly been exhaused in vain, but they had not been used very effectively.
Despite all the political and economic differences between the early 1970s and the late 2010s, the current conjuncture in Russia is not so remote from what it was then in the Soviet Union. Moderate optimists have proposed seemingly reasonable projects for improvements to the authorities and the public, but they themselves do not believe they can be realized “in this lifetime.” The moderate pessimists, if they had believed earlier in the possibility of improvement, have lost faith, while the radical pessimists never believed in improvements as a matter of principle. The optimists are waiting to see whether they will get the chance to improve at least something (and if so, when), while the pessimists are ready at a moment’s notice to exclaim, “Lord, let it burn!” For better or worse, however, so far there are no obvious “arsonists” in the vicinity who could and would want to demolish the current Russian political and economic order nor have any appeared on the distant horizon. Once again, as during the stagnation, time inexorably works on behalf of the pessimists. Sooner or later, yet another former optimist or, on the contrary, a person not involved in these debates will say something like, “Today’s Russia cannot be improved. It can only be destroyed.” (Essentially, this was what happened in the Soviet Union towards the end of perestroika. Of course, there were a different set of causes and other mechanisms in play then. What I have in mind is the rationale of transformation itself.) If and when the number of people supporting the verdict “destroy” reaches a critical mass, then the first of the questions posed in my post’s title will irreversibly be answered in the affirmative, occluding the second question altogether. The more news about events in Russia transpires every day, the more inevitable this outcome seems.
Translated by the Russian Reader
If God wants to punish a man, He strips him of his reason.
I often think the whole country has been punished.
As in a fantasy story, I can see a light glowing over people’s heads.
This is not a sign of holiness.
It is a sign of moral decay,
Decay of beliefs, principles, and ideas.
The nostrils are already used to the rotting smell,
And there are cadaver spots on the faces of children and adults.
Self-destruction at the mental level,
The nation jumps into the abyss with a cry of “Keep off me!”
We will soon go extinct like the mammoths.
Young mothers with Jaguars and Parliaments.
People will have coming to them the trouble they stir up
Everyone will be punished according to their whims.
Will purify gold from impurities.
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Will purify gold from impurities.
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
An ancient serpent lashes the sky with a crimson tongue,
Its breath ripples over the television networks.
Through TV screens it animates the golem and generates ghosts.
In the skulls of those who ate their souls
And vomited them out indifferently with counterfeit vodka
In the snow in winter or summer in the dust.
Two abused dudes filmed it on a mobile.
Look online, search for the tags “degenerates,” “masturbate,”
“Suck,” “come,” “sex with babies.”
I’m waiting for the last fire, but you better run.
Nothing can be fixed here now. Lord, let it burn!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Russia could ban Facebook next year if it fails to comply with a 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian citizens’ personal data on local servers, the state media censor said on Tuesday.
The U.S. social network would follow in the footsteps of LinkedIn, the social platform for professionals that was banned in Russia last year after a September 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian users’ personal data on localized servers.
The head of Russia’s state media watchdog Roskomnadzor warned that “there are no exceptions” to compliance with the data storage law seen by some observers as unenforceable.
“We will either ensure that the law is implemented, or the company will cease to work in Russia,” Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency.
He said the watchdog is aware of Facebook’s popularity, with an estimated 14.4 million monthly and 6 million daily users in Russia as of last year.
“On the other hand, we understand that this is not a unique service. There are other social networks.”
Twitter, Zharov said, has agreed to transfer by mid-2018 its Russian users’ data to Russian servers.
“We have no plans to investigate Facebook in that regard until the end of 2017,” he added. “We will think about it in 2018. Maybe we will investigate.”
There are no technical or legal justifications for banning Facebook in 2018, only political considerations. The principal political consideration would be the need to find ways of “celebrating” Putin’s auto-reinstallation as president for “another six-year term” (i.e., for life).
As a tyrant who brooks no opposition to his illegimate rule, Putin would have to celebrate his hollow victory by instituting a series of crackdowns against his foes, as he did after formally returning to the presidency in 2012.
One of these crackdowns could involve banning Facebook in Russia, as is strongly suggested by the article I have quoted, above.
But that would be the least of everyone’s worries once Putin essentially crowned himself tsar as a gift to himself for his stunningly bad performance as the country’s leader for eighteen years.
Since his entire reign has orbited not around solving the country’s problems, but around imbricating himself and his clique of “former” KGB officers into every corporate and institutional nook and cranny in Russia (and beyond) while stealing everything he can get his hands on and rewarding his satraps with the booty “for a job well done,” he has not had much time to solve any real problems.
Anyone who does not explicitly support Putin—and by definition only members of his clique really support him, in the sense that members of a mafia clan are loyal to their boss—is de facto opposed to him.
This might be especially true during the upcoming election, because, I would imagine, the majority of Russian voters are, at very least, quite weary of Putin and his oppositionless electoral “victories” by now and would be inclined to stay home on election day, even if they are not willing to march in the streets. (That might require too much effort.)
But a low turnout would still be a slap in the face to a man whose whole schtick the last eighteen years or so has been his alleged “wild” popularity, a schtick supported by the mainstream Russian press, corrupt Russian pollsters, foreign media covering Russia, and “Russia experts,” most of whom have no other gauge for measuring or probing “Russian public opinion,” so they rely on rigged, astronomically high popularity ratings.
If something around ten percent of voters in the two capitals (Moscow and Petersburg) and the non-ethnic regions showed up on polling day, the myth of Putin’s popularity would be dealt a near-fatal blow.
Putin would take his humiliation out on his treacherous non-constituency by unleashing a panoply of crackdowns, adopting a whole new raft of repressive laws at lightning speed, as happened in the wake of his 2012 re-election, and, perhaps, arresting a prominent figure from the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny, sending him down for hard time. Or worse.
Author photos courtesy of cetacea.ru and the Russian Reader
They say that today the time the leader has spent in office has drawn even with Brezhnev’s eighteen years in power. Eighteen years. Of course, it’s a relative figure, since Putin spent six months in the role of prime minister under Yeltstin and another four years as prime minister under Medvedev. But we realize that these premierships can actually be included in the overall Putinist period in Russian history.
Many people remember the Brezhnev period with nostalgia, arguing it was the Soviet golden age, when the country’s standard of living and power undoubtedly grew. Many people think something similar about Putin’s time in office, and not without grounds, of course, if we look at GDP figures, numbers of privately owned cars, and numbers of rockets launched in Syria.
But the Putin and Brezhnev periods have been similar in another respect. Beyond the superficial prosperity, these eighteen-year periods were and have been times of political and moral degradation at home. They were decades the country lost as stepping stones into the future, in terms of establishing a (post)modern society capable of changing and progressing painlessly. The Brezhnevian stagnation inevitably led to a colossal crisis and, ultimately, collapse. I don’t know what the outcome of the Putinist stagnation will be, but we can say for sure there are new troubles ahead for the country, troubles whose growing signs we observe daily.
Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Thanks to Mark Teeter for the spotting the “blooper” on RT in Russian’s Twitter feed. Translated by the Russian Reader
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.