The 1600th: Futurama

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

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Russia: It Can’t Be Improved So Destroy It, or It Can’t Be Destroyed So Improve It?
Grey Dolphin
September 27, 2017

Grey Dolphin

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

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GROT, “Fire”
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.

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
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!

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

Source: rap-text.ru

Translated by the Russian Reader

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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.”

[…]

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Grim Reminder

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.

Hence the constant need to designate enemies and cripple, vanquish, jail, disappear or murder them, be they Facebook, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Boris Nemtsov.

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

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The Politics of Denial

The Politics of Denial: The Malaysian Airliner, Doping, Dissernet, Etc.
Vladimir Gel’man
grey-dolphin.livejournal.com
July 17, 2016

The second anniversary of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 14 over Donbass has been marked by the publication of articles showing how Russian officials covered their tracks by providing the public with knowingly false information. Although these lies have been exposed (including by the New York Times), the exposés are unlikely to alter the official doctrine of the Russian authorities (shared by a good portion of Russian society), which we might term a politics of denial, the harsh, aggressive rejection of the very possibility one could be wrong (“we are always right and can never be wrong”), the deliberate denial of own’s one guilt and diverting it to third parties or even to victims, and, finally, representing oneself as the victim of biased slander (“everyone does it, but only we get blamed for it”). In this sense, misinformation concerning the downed Boeing, the actions of Russian sporting authorities vis-a-vis the doping scandals, the public shielding of high-ranking targets of Dissernet, and, to a certain extent, the aggressive reaction of a part of the public to the recent flash mob highlighting sexual violence are phenomena of the same order.

A while back, I wrote a column about “living a lie,” how lying had become the social norm in Russia. I would add that the politics of denial, as practiced by the Russian authorities, is today almost the principal means of generating collective identity, for building the Russian nation, and suchlike pursuits, whose objective is turning the public into accomplices of the “crooks and thieves.” While the public does not exactly support the moves made by the authorities, it is also not willing to disagree with them. Two years ago, almost no Russians believed that Flight MH14 was shot down by Russians and/or the Eastern Ukrainian separatists, and now a majority believes accusations that Russian athletes are guilty of doping are unfair and politically motivated.

But I will repeat what I wrote back in 2015.

“Living a lie […] is not only a moral category but also a behavioral strategy on the part of the Russian regime and its loyalists. This strategy has one major disadvantage, as once remarked by Abraham Lincoln. You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time (including, I would add, yourself). Sooner or later, Russians who have become accustomed to living a lie will be unable to hide from an uncomfortable truth by rejecting certain thoughts and words. And then, in all likelihood, the disappointment, inevitable in this case, will hit them like a severe hangover.”

Vladimir Gel’man is a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP) and Helsinki University. Read my translation of his recent article on bad governance in RussiaTranslated by the Russian Reader. Photo by the Russian Reader

Breaking Bad

The Vicious Circle of Bad Governance
Vladimir Gel’man
Vedomosti
May 17, 2016

Why is the quality of governance in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries much worse than we would expect based on their level of socio-economic development? According to numerous international assessments of governance, they are sometimes on a par with the poor and underdeveloped countries of the Third World, lagging behind similar countries in Eastern Europe. They are typified by bad governance, whose symptoms are perversion of the rule of law (the unrule of law), endemic corruption, the low quality of government regulation, and ineffective government policies.

Post-Soviet bad governance appears not as a grab bag of discrete, particular defects but as a consequence of the prevailing political and economic order in these countries. Its most vital feature is the fact that rent extraction is the principal purpose and main content of governance at all levels. So the mechanisms of power and governance tend towards a hierarchy (the “power vertical”) with a single decision-making center that seeks a monopoly position, while the autonomy of economic and political actors within the country vis-à-vis the center is relative and can be arbitrarily altered and/or restricted. In turn, formal institutions (constitutions, laws, etc.) are a byproduct of the allocation of resources within the power vertical. They are meaningful as rules only to the extent they contribute to rent extraction. As part of the power vertical, the government administration is divided into organizations competing for access to rent and informal cliques.

Bad governance is the most important means of maintaining this political and economic order. Since the state is governed merely in order to extract rent, corruption in its various shapes and manifestations is an essential device for achieving these goals, while the poor quality of regulation and perversion of the rule of law contribute to the stability of the power vertical. Bad governance acts as a stable but ineffective balance, which is restored even in instances of deep external shocks such as regime change (e.g., Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan), while the state apparatus proves less and less capable of implementing structural reforms for improving government efficiency.

What are the causes of this state of affairs? What the post-Soviet countries have in common has been a coup d’état from within on the part of rent seekers in the administrative apparatus and influential members of the business world personally associated with them. In an effort to privatize benefits and socialize costs in the process of governing, these players have deliberately and purposefully established and maintained inefficient rules of the game. But since their planning horizons are short-term due to the risks of the regime’s being overthrown and the questionable prospects of a smooth succession, they have behaved, in Mancur Olson’s terms, like “roving” and not “stationary” bandits. They plunder the resources of states at all levels of governance, and the term kleptocracy, previously used to describe African countries, comes across not only as an op-ed writer’s gimmick but also as a fair description of the rule of a number of post-Soviet leaders. (In particular, Karen Dawisha analyzes the Russian regime in these terms.) The end result is a vicious circle. The machinery of bad governance has been reproduced under different rulers, and attempts to overcome it (if such attempts are made) have run into strong resistance and with a few exceptions (such as Georgia during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili) have produced modest outcomes in terms of the quality of public administration.

In the work of researchers and the jargon of experts and consultants, bad governance (not only in the post-Soviet countries) has usually been associated with the “poor quality of institutions” and an “unfavorable institutional climate.” Although the poor quality of institutions is an attribute of bad governance, it is merely a consequence of the poor quality of regulation and the absence of the rule of law, and not the cause of the phenomenon. Institutions themselves are the outcome of the balance of forces and the interests of key players. Substituting the diagnosis of a disease with a description of one of its symptoms leads to incorrect courses of treatment. The desire to change only formal institutions by borrowing advanced foreign know-how or cultivating the best specimens on domestic soil without fundamentally rethinking the political and economic order as a whole either produces no improvements or even changes the situation from bad to worse.

The emergence and establishment of authoritarian regimes in the post-Soviet countries has generated an environment that promotes bad governance. The rare examples of high-quality public administration in autocracies may be briefly summarized by Dani Rodrick’s statement that for every Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore there are lots of Mobutus in the Congo. But electoral authoritarian regimes (such as Russia) are the worst option in terms of bad governance. They are typified by the politicization of public administration and economic management, which ranges from mobilizing voters at their workplaces to turning the state apparatus into a political machine for ensuring that voters vote for the ruling groups. As a consequence, a country is unable to develop decent incentives for improving the quality of public administration, in particular, regularly rotating senior personnel and making the upward career mobility of officials depend on achieved outcomes. On the contrary, the power vertical encourages officials to demonstrate political loyalty to the detriment of effective administration.

The paradox of post-Soviet countries is that even political regime change per se does not lead to a rejection of bad governance. On the contrary, it might even exacerbate the disease. Thus, although the fall of the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine in 2014 was followed by the emergence of a competitive democracy, the quality of public administration has not significantly improved since the days of Yanukovych. Often accompanied by a popular mobilization, the conflict among elites preserves the predatory nature of governance, involving rent extraction, even if it does lead to a change of ruling groups. The politicization of government and the economy and the incentivizing of loyalty at the cost of efficiency are inherent to post-Soviet competitive democracies almost to the same extent as electoral authoritarian regimes. However, given a favorable combination of other political conditions, democratization can open up a window of opportunity for the fundamental renewal not only of ruling groups but also the the entire state apparatus by breaking up previous hierarchies and effecting a series of structural transformations that can significantly reduce the detrimental effects of bad governance, if not vanquish it. Only in such cases does regime change not turn into a bad infinity that merely maintains the status quo in government. On the contrary, the entrenchment of ruling groups, limitation of vertical mobility, and restriction of channels for recruiting elites are means of maintaining bad governance: incentives for efficient management of the state and the economy are seriously undermined for the long term.

Although it is unrealistic to expect a rapid rejection of bad governance, numerous experts (e.g., Daniel Treisman) have suggested that as a result of long-term, stable economic growth and a generational change of leaders, the demand for rule of law and increase government efficiency would grow, thereby encouraging a clampdown on bad governance in the course of democratization, within a couple of decades. But how justified are these expectations when it comes to post-Soviet countries? There are no grounds for ruling out a different sequence of events. Governments can continue as before to handle the most serious challenges, avoiding disastrous failures, while maintaining the principles of bad governance unchanged. The emergence of a quasi-hereditary kleptocracy and a succession of corrupt and inefficient governments, focused on the extraction of rent, can put an end to any attempt to limit bad governance. Continuing the medical metaphor, it is worth noting that if a patient burdened by a serious illness not only ignores the advice of his doctors but also leads an unhealthy lifestyle, thus exacerbating his health problems, death is probably inevitable. Unlike individuals, however, states and societies do not die and disappear from the map of the world, however badly they are governed. Dominated by bad governance, they continue their existence, an existence that is often senseless, useless, and hopeless, complicating and worsening the lives of their citizens and increasing the risks for other states and societies.

Vladimir Gel’man is a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP) and Helsinki University. The article is based on the report “The Political Basis of Bad Governance in Post-Soviet Eurasia: Outline for a Research Agenda,” published by EUSP Press. Translation and photos by the Russian Reader.

Learning Is Fundamentalist

Greg Yudin
June 24, 2015
Facebook

Imagine you are the president of a big country, and you don’t like the fact that foreign foundations are funding your children and acquiring too much influence over them. Can such things happen? Of course they can. What do you do in this case? That’s right, you immediately offer talented young people different options for self-realization and launch funding programs in different areas. And then, all other things being equal, your children will gladly choose domestic funding. After all, they love their country and have dealings with foreign foundations only for lack of something better. What choices do they have?

steig-spiteful-little-man

Now imagine you are spiteful little paranoiac who believes that people can only be bought and intimidated; otherwise, they won’t do anything. If you allow your children to get support from foreign foundations, they will immediately sell you out. For there is no reason to love you. And everything that is happening is meant to spite you and turn everyone against you. So then the first thing you will do is not think about the children but combat your enemies. You’ll say that children who are supported by foreign foundations have fallen into the enemy’s clutches. And you’ll spend money on propaganda so that everyone finds out about this and those children get scared.

Because in Russia there are pitifully few opportunities to break through and get your ideas heard. To do this you usually have to be born in Moscow and have good contacts. How many times have I heard from mayors, administrators, and all sorts of people outside of Moscow that the main problem is there is no way to engage young people, that young people do not know what to take up in life. In fact, young people who have had the courage, patience, and talent to secure support from any foundation are the nation’s gold. They are capable of creating something while overcoming difficulties. And now they are being told they are potential traitors. Because they have a dream and are prepared to go for it.

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Putin Accuses Foreign Organizations of Looting Russia’s Brightest Youth
June 24, 2015
The Moscow Times

President Vladimir Putin has accused foreign-backed organizations of pillaging through Russian schools in search of their most talented pupils and then spiriting them away via educational programs abroad, state news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday.

Speaking at a meeting of the Council for Science and Education, Putin said it was necessary to pay attention to the work of nongovernmental organizations in schools because they threatened to suck Russia dry of its future talent.

“A network of [foreign] organizations has ‘rummaged’ through the schools in the Russian Federation for many years under the guise of supporting talented young people. In reality, they simply hoover everything up like a vacuum,” he was cited as saying by RIA.

Putin was responding to comments by Vladimir Fortov, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who said in March that a “brain drain” was robbing the country of its future talent as educated youngsters sought out lives abroad.

Last year, as relations between Moscow and the West became strained over the crisis in Ukraine, Russia canceled an education exchange partnership with the United States in protest of the alleged adoption of a student by a same-sex couple.

The FLEX — or Future Leaders Exchange — program was established in 1992 and saw more than 8,000 Russian high schoolers travel to the United States for study purposes.

 learning is fundamental

 

[Vladimir Gelman]
Why foreign education does not meet the “highest international standards”
June 22, 2015
grey-dolphin.livejournal.com

The Russian government has decided that educations in political science, history, sociology, and other disciplines received at foreign universities do not meet the “highest international standards.” This follows from the list affirmed by Russian Federal Government Decree No. 1101-r (dated June 15, 2015). The document, which runs to over two hundred pages, includes a list of foreign universities that are among the leaders in the international rankings, a list that has been corrected compared to a similar document adopted a year ago. Whereas last year’s version of the document merely included a list of the universities, the current document specifies which areas and specialties in these institutions are in accordance with the Russian national classification.

What is significant is not which areas and specialties the Russian authorities have deemed as meeting the “highest international standards,” but which of them have not been included in this list. If you follow the government’s list, an education in political science, sociology, history, law, journalism, etc., at Harvard or Oxford does not meet the “highest international standards.” From the viewpoint of the Russian authorities, chemistry, physics, and even “economics and management” can be global, but political science and history are “sovereign” disciplines.

Images courtesy of Books around the Table and Google Images