Simon Kordonsky: The Real Russia Refuses to Be Counted

kordonsky
Simon Kordonsky, academic director of the Khamovniki Foundation. Photo by Andrei Gordeyev. Courtesy of Vedomosti

Sociologist Simon Kordonsky: “There Are No Entrepreneurs Listed in the Census”
The Khamovniki Foundation’s Fieldwork Suggests the Country’s Leaders Know Little about Real Life in Russia
Vedomosti
January 29, 2019

The academic director of the Khamovniki Foundation for Social Research is Simon Kordonsky, renowned in Russia’s analytical circles and a former adviser on federal government policy. Nowadays, he has been looking at things from the other side. How does policy affect the lives of the rank and file? Or, rather, how do the rank and file escape the gaze of politics?

“Rosstat Is a Disaster”
Let us start with a simple question. How many people live in Russia?

I don’t know. Feel free to add ten to fifteen percent to the official figures for the mid-sized cities.

So, many more than 146 million people live in Russia?

There are many more. But we are completely at a loss when it comes to the big cities. It is impossible to count people there.

Why? Aren’t there firm indicators such as bread consumption and use of medical services and public transport?

And who in Russia counts this stuff?

I don’t know.

Sewers are used to count people. Judging by the sewerage, around thirty million people live in Moscow.

How do you use sewage to count people?

A certain volume of sewage is flushed into the sewers, and we have a rough sense of the amount of sewage each person generates. Electricity use, on the contrary, cannot give us a fix on numbers of residents, because people steal electricity. It is a rather complex system.

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The Khamovniki Foundation for Social Research was founded in 2006 by Russian investor and hotelier Alexander Klyachin, who currently serves as the foundation’s board chair. The foundation’s advisory board is headed by Simon Kordonsky, a professor at the Higher School of Economics.

The foundation finances and supports academic field research that contributes to describing Russian society. The foundation aims to make the outcomes of its studies accessible to society as a whole. It has supported over sixty research projects. Among the most discussed have been “Seasonal Workers in Small Russian Towns,” “The Garage Economy in the Russian Hinterlands,” and “The Constructive Role of Informal Relations in State and Municipal Administration.” 

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There are no scams involving shit?

Maybe there is an underground shit trade, but we have not studied it. I am saying that it is awfully hard to calculate the consumption of electricity in the 220-volt networks, which are municipal networks. Superimposed on them are other, high-voltage networks, and there are separate stats on each level. Total loss in the network is around fifty percent. It is hard to quantify how much is used by the populace, and how much by industry, because the rates everywhere are different.

It is the same thing with garages [as workplaces]: they usually survive on stolen electricity. They pay for the hookup, but off the books to the folks who do the maintenance work on the power networks. They pay thirty to fifty percent of the real cost and pay minimum usage rates. So, energy use will not help you count people.

Nor will water use. A considerable number of families do not get their water from centralized mains, but from wells, from their own local networks. Besides, in summer, many families live in the countryside at dachas. In winter, some people temporarily leave the villages, while others stay behind. It is hardly possible to quantify this migration.

Official statistical bodies make no effort to count them?

Of course not, but statisticians know all about it. They have their own professional journal, Statistical Issues [Voprosy statistiki]. Several years ago, the journal published an article explaining the discrepancy between the indicators taken into account and what we see with our own eyes. It was necessary to mislead our enemies in the west.

Camouflage the stats?

Yes. Rosstat is a disaster, you see. Their ontology is Soviet, while they imported their methodology from the west. They carry out the census using western standards, and so all the peculiar aspects of life in Russia disappear from their radar. For example, our census does not count entrepreneurs.

At all?

There are no such people as entrepreneurs in the Russian census. There are people involved in businesses of some kind, and there are people who practice the free professions. The census does not differentiate between them. Rosstat regards people who are paid salaries and people who earn their living by making profits as indistinguishable. So, Rosstat is not an organization from which we should expect anything.

Here is another example. What are cities and villages? There are no cities in Russia as urbanists describe them and, so, there are no villages, either. When he was alive, Vyacheslav Glazychev wrote that Russian cities were conglomerations of settlements. Take the district seat in Tula Region that borders Moscow Region. There are 14,000 people in the entire district. From April to late October, however, the population increases to 150,000 people.

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Simon Kordonsky was born in 1944 in Oirot-Tura (present-day Gorno-Altaysk). He graduated from Tomsk State University with a degree as a chemistry and biology teacher. In 1988, he was awarded a kandidat degree, writing a thesis entitled “Cyclical Procedures in Scientific Research.” State Councilor of the Russian Federation, First Class, he chaired the Presidential Expert Advisory Council in 2000. In 2004, he served as a senior aide to the president. He has been a professor of state and municipal administration at the Higher School of Economics since 2006. In 2011, he was appointed director of the Khamovniki Foundation.

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It increases to 150,000 people? Tenfold?

Yes, tenfold. These people are not accounted for. They do not register their residence.

What about medical services? They are designed to deal with 14,000 people. How do they handle 150,000 people? Or do they handle them?

Nearly all dacha dwellers have cars.

They drive to Moscow for medical care?

Why? Serpukhov and Pushchino are nearby, and they have excellent outpatient clinics. Doctors see patients privately everywhere, and you can always come to an arrangement. Medical care is not the problem. The real problem is trash.

That was going to be our next question. As of the new year, a new trash era has dawned in Russia. Does anyone calculate the amount of garbage Russia generates? Does anyone understand the extent of the disaster?

I don’t know. I saw a business plan drawn up by gangsters in the early 1990s. They wanted to take over the garbage business, and they were partly successful. Everything is alright in the places where they were successful. But in the places where first there were towns and villages, followed by municipalities, and now corporations, there is an utter mess.

Moreover, it has been compounded by another problem: gasification. When people used stoves, garbage was burned, metal and bottles were recycled, and there was relatively little plastic. Nowadays, people prefer to throw things away. As soon as a town or village is hooked up to natural gas, the garbage piles up. There is just nowhere to take it, and there are no institutions or stereotypes for dealing with it.

In the garbage business, there is not only collection but also sorting and recycling.

Yes, garbage collection is not what matters. What matters is sorting and recycling. People live in landfills. They even have conveyor belts. They sort the garbage and sell the recyclables to buyers. It is an ecosystem you cannot change by opening or closing landfills, because these are reliable sources of raw materials, with a production cycle and sales channels. It is difficult and dangerous to describe life in landfills and the cottage trades that thrive there.

Do the authorities give the Khamovniki Foundation a hard time?

Not in the least. But they do not support us, either. So far we have not overlapped with the authorities either regionally or federally, but during our expeditions we cooperate with local authorities, of course.

How do you decide where to go on expeditions?

Accidentally. We have done work in all the federal districts, from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad. We have made fewer trips to the south, but now we have seemingly made connections there, too.

Where you have been in the past year? What new things did you find?

We were in the Far East: Vladivostok, Arsenyev, down to Nakhodka, and back to Vladivostok via Bolshoi Kamen. Thirteen people traveled almost 3,000 kilometers, describing the different local cottage trades and crafts.

Artemy Pozanenko recently completed a series of hunting expeditions. He spent several months with hunters and poachers as an embedded observer. Yulia Krasheninnikova has been studying expert evaluations and expert evidence as an institution. It transpires that it has long ceased to exist in Russia as a professional institution. Instead, crappy quasi-expert evaluations and so-called experts have boiled to the top, especially in religious studies, medicine, construction, and science. Dissernet have gone after fake scientific experts, and you know the success they have had.

Olga Molyarenko has been studying ownerless property. It turns out a considerable segment of existing networks and infrastructure in Russia belongs to no one at all.

She started by examining cemeteries. She discovered there are a certain number of cemeteries officially on the books in Russia, but the real number of cemeteries is nearly ten times larger. It is a typical situation. In the villages and small towns, the cemeteries were located beyond the official border of these settlements. They were overgrown by forests and thus registered as forest lands. It is forbidden to bury people in them, but you have to bury people somewhere.

By the way, the land registry is a problem unto itself. Alexander Pavlov added up all the land registered in Russia. Its total area is 1.7 times larger than the country’s official land mass the country, including the northern lands.

Then it transpired that the Defense Ministry’s closed towns have not only collapsed structurally but have also disappeared juridically. The Defense Ministry has not transferred them to the municipalities because, in particular, the municipalities are not capable of dealing with them. They do not have money in their budgets for completing the paperwork and other formalities. You have probably seen concrete two-lane military roads. Most of them belong to no one in Russia. The same goes for the roads along power lines and other infrastructure networks Usually, they belong to no one. They have no legal owners, and they are not listed in anyone’s inventories.

No one maintains them?

They have de facto caretakers rather than de jure owners. Usually, an economy emerges around these ownerless chunks of property The power transmission lines often have no owners. There was a state-owned enterprise that produced its own heat and electricity. The enterprise vanished, but the power station was left running because it keeps the nearby town heated and lit. However, power station itself and its networks belong to no one. Wherever you poke your nose you find the sewerage and water supply all belong to no one. In Krasnodar Region, people simply refused to talk to Olga about it.

What about the city itself, Krasnodar?

It was the same story. In the region’s coastal areas, if they show anyone the real figures for utilities and infrastructure, it would reveal how many tourists actually go there on holiday. They cannot do that, because they would have to pay a lot more taxes.

But how does ownerless infrastructure operate? Don’t contracts have to be signed? Don’t procurements have to be made?

There are people involved, of course. Alexander Pavlov has been making a study of Ulyanovsk for us. There are observable stereotypes. Everything is kept running by relying on connections, relationships, and unwritten rules.

How are fees collected?

The people who benefit pay in cash or favors. Everything is done strictly by the unwritten rules.

Here is a more general question. Are you saying the Kremlin does not know about any of this?

None of it exists on paper. On a personal level, they know. But as officials… Where do you go with it?

Do the aides in the Kremlin show the big brass anything about it?

I don’t think Kremlin aides are capable of helping anyone solve their problems. People have business interests they lobby by tattling on each other. They ask the top brass to make certain decisions, but the top brass keep their distance. A balance emerges, but it is a really peculiar balance, the outcome of a permanent war for resources in which no one can win, since the amount of resources available decreases during hostilities. In turn, this ratchets up tension among belligerent interest groups. However, what really goes in Russia concerns very few people. At best, information about really goes on can be used as arguments in internecine conflicts.

If they are so poorly informed, how do they ensure presidential decrees are executed? For example, when the Kremlin set out to reduce mortality rates caused by cardiovascular diseases?

The rates did drop. There are three lines at the bottom of death certificates: primary cause of death, secondary cause of death, and tertiary cause of death. A person crashed their car because they had a heart attack, and they suffered internal organ damage during the crash. The statistics take stock of what we write on the first line. This is basically how medical statisticians calculate data about mortality. If the Kremlin orders cancer be put in third place, the statisticians will do it, and if the order comes down to reduce mortality as caused by heart disease, the rates will drop.

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Russia’s Underground Cottage Industries
“One of our grantees found a huge cottage industry in a region in the Volga Federal District: around forty illegal airstrips,” says Simon Kordonsky. “Some of them have markings and hard surfaces. They transport goods, teach people to fly, and work in agriculture. Agriculture is their main gig. There is currently no official agricultural aviation in Russia: not only crop dusting but also the constant monitoring of field required by high-tech agriculture. You cannot check out an entire field by walking around it, but these tiny airplanes, often handmade, can do the job.

“By the way, outside of Moscow, there are approximately fifty people who have different airplanes: handmade, store-bought, and imported. These people have the money for them. The circumstances are dicey: air traffic control is not adapted to deal with these aircraft. Pilots of small aircraft make their own deals with air controllers on the side. There are regulations, but complying with them is impossible, and so an administrative market has arisen around this cottage industry. The pilots make payoffs so no one pays them any mind.

“The cottage industries change when the authorities pay attention to them. They exposed the garage economy and started making rounds of the garages, so people have been gradually moving to workshops. Mansions outfitted with workshops are being built outside city limits, just as in the nineteenth century. In Krasnodar, it is plain to see because it is right downtown. There is the market, and the war monument with its Eternal Flame. They are surrounded by one- and two-storey buildings. These are workshops and dwellings.

“Everything you can sell is made there. They distill vodka, roll out meat dumplings, sew linens, build furniture, and rent appliances. There are hotels, prostitutes, hair salons, and hospitals.

“Yes, and the dental industry has gone off the Health Ministry’s radar in certain locales. Outside of Moscow, for example, there are people who own dozens of different clinics. The clinics have no signs on the front door, but the equipment is top flight, and the doctors are terrific. They treat the local elite, so no one is the wiser.

“Did you know that near University subway station in Moscow there is the Nauka research and production facility, an establishment well known in certain circles

“Close to the bluff there there was and partly still is a community known popularly as Shanghai. A few years ago, it contained around five thousand garages, and the artisans who worked there were into everything, including the high-tech production of spare parts for imported cars. They had huge Soviet-era coordinate drilling machines, heavy asynchronous motors, probably imported, and programmers from Moscow State University, and they did great work. Their products were sold as imports.

“Moscow city hall has recently been trying to demolish the place, but Shanghai has resisted. This was place that had an outpatient medical clinic and a barber shop. The cafeterias were really good, featuring food from all over the world.

“Another type of cottage industry is distributed manufacturing, as in the Novokhopyorsk District in Voronezh Region and the Uryupinsk District in Volgograd Region who produce down goods together. They breed sheep and goats, comb the wool, processing it using high-tech machines, equipped with thermostats that fluff the wool, and finally produce the down and weave it. Everything they produce is sold at a wholesale market two hectares in size, open from two to six in the morning. They sell their wares to Roma wholesalers, who distribute the down goods nationwide.

“The government is now in the midst of a campaign against self-employment, but the cottage industries themselves change all the time, regardless of attempts to combat them. In fact, it is not clear what self-employment is. After his state of the nation address, the president gave orders to define the social status of self-employed people. The comrades from the Finance Ministry and Labor Ministry defined their fiscal status, but this is meaningless without defining their social status. What do we call government officials who take kickbacks? Cops running protection rackets? Are they self-employed or not? How do they differ from a university lecturer who works as university exam prep tutor on the side? Or from a physician who puts an ad on the internet saying he will treat patients at any stage in their suffering at any clinic in Russia? 

“There is no difference.

“If we take this approach, we discover the entire Russian populace is self-employed. As I used to say, first we must force people to pay taxes on kickbacks, and then we can deal with self-employment.”

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What do we do in these circumstances? If, as you say, Rosstat has failed to take Russia’s peculiarities into account, and their stats are at odds with reality, this leaves room for playing fast with the facts. What must be done? Should we change the methodologies?

That is a philosophical question. The possibility of accounting itself arises when there is a market. Modern statistics emerged in the seventeenth century when the market emerged, when goods and money parted ways, and people had to account for goods and money separately. If there is no market in Russia (the only market in Russia, perhaps, is the one at our customs border), then accounting can be done arbitrarily, using any criteria you like. The conceptual apparatus of an economy based on accounting and measurement cannot be applied to the realities of an underground cottage industry economy, a clandestine workshop economy, to life in Russia, to an administrative market state organized around the distribution of particular resources. The problem is neither technical nor methodological, but ontological. This is why we cannot count the number of people who live in Russia. 

When you say there are instructions to reduce mortality to a certain level, where do the instructions come from?

Well, there is a Health Ministry in Russia. It reports on the state of the populace’s health. The phrase “increasing life expectancy” appears in all their white papers, although I have never been able to get either ministers or academicians to specify the connection between medical progress and life expectancy. They have different systemic variables. The Health Ministry drafts a report on its work. The report is discussed—I don’t know where nowadays, maybe in the Security Council, maybe in Prime Minister Medvedev’s inner cabinet. The ministry gets orders to improve its figures. This instruction is called a presidential order or government order. On the back of this piece of paper, this order, are the names of the people who will implement the order. They are the folks who come up with the figures and then vet them. You have never heard of these people who draft white papers and come up with figures. You do not know them and you never will, although their administrative weight is no less than that of public officials

Here is a question linked to inflation and estimates. What did Alexander Surinov do so badly he was forced to resign his post as head of Rosstat?

I don’t know the specific reason. He was from the old school, you know, a man taught by folks who belonged to the old school of Emil Yershov [an economist who ran the State Statistics Committee, Goskomstat, from 1989 to 1993, before becoming a full professor at the Higher School of Economics]. Of course, maybe the whole business with driving up the figures and getting phone calls from the top brass rubbed him the wrong way. Perhaps he just freaked out.

By tweaking the stats, however, or, rather by existing in a system in which stats are tweaked, the state does not have a more or less realistic picture of reality, and all the plans, programs, evaluations of these programs, and adjustments to these programs are based partly on stats that it tweaks and dreams up itself, and partly on stats dreamed up by God knows who, a faceless crowd of civil servants.

“The Oppositions Needs a Position”
There are the polls done by VTsIOM, but they say the FSO (Federal Protective Service) does its own polls that tell the truth. Does the FSO keep statistics that show the president the truth?

The FSO conducts polls that consist of around 40,000 direct interviews without sampling, but in the final analysis their data is quite similar to the data produced by Alexander Oslon (Public Opinion Foundation or FOM), when it comes to public opinion, at any rate.

Our government conceives itself, and it has operated this way for three hundred years. People would go abroad, people like Peter the Great or Dmitry Kozak. They saw something they liked, came home, and decided they would do things the way they were done abroad.

It is quite hard to find anything Russian about Russia. Everything has been built by the state, but part of what it built got away from the state, and it is this fugitive part that is regarded as unreconstructed and outside state control, a gray zone. When something happens in the gray zone—young people act up, say—the state registers it and becomes alarmed. People are on the move, meaning there is something to it, so they want to devise a youth police, establish a state agency, a ministry for youth affairs, and get funding for it. What happens, ultimately, is that young people live their own lives, and on the other hand there is a state agency that squanders the federal money allocated to channel young people and their energy. The state is on the lookout for something living or seemingly alive, and this thing is nationalized, it is assimilated by the state. The Russian state consists entirely of such agencies, which ape things that occur beyond the state’s reach.

The FSO’s officers also keep track of societal stability, the different protest movements and so on. If protest movements kick into high gear, it means it is time either to nationalize them, which initially happened with the nationalist organizations, or crack down on them. Otherwise, God forbid, interregional synchronization might occur, and then you call in the guys whose jobs it is to neutralize such things, the Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”) and the Russian National Guard.

Do you mean it is impossible for the opposition or protest movements to consolidate?

It is probably possible in quite extreme circumstances, as in the late eighties and early nineties. Local uprisings are more likely. You see, the opposition needs a position. What is the regime’s position? It has no position, and so there can be no opposition. Opposition is based on the very same rationale. The regime’s position is that it is opposed to opposition.

We travel around Russia and we see no one in the mood to protest. Yes, people are dissatisfied, but they have always been dissatisfied. Their dissatisfaction is based on the sense someone got more than they did and this is unfair. They will complain to the supreme arbiter, they think, and he will set things right. But the kind of dissatisfaction that existed in Soviet times in Novocherkassk and Biysk, in the ethnic republics, does not exist today.

Nowhere? Not in any of the regions?

Something quite interesting has been happening in the ethnic republics within the Russian Federation, in Mordovia, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, among the Soviet ethnicitie shaped by Stalin in 1927–1928 as part of his policy on ethnic groups. They are not really nations, but ethnic esthates, social groups shaped by the state and bound to particular territories, so that Bashkirs have a particular status in Bashkortostan and a completely different status in Tatarstan. Rustem Vakhitov, who is based in Ufa, has written quite interestingly about this.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, these ethnic groups took on lives of their own: nations have been emerging in all the ethnic republics, sometimes to the point of hilarity, as happened in Mordovia. We went into a shop where the clerks were speaking Russian. When we approached one of them, they started speaking Mordvin. In the local cultural center, the ladies were sitting around a table covered with albums filled with drawings of costumes. They were designing the Mordvin national costume.

You’re saying the process has not been astroturfed from the top down by the regional bosses?

No, it is a search for identity. People are trying to solve a genuinely timely question: who are we?

Ethnic Russians don’t have this problem?

Ethnic Russians alone have not been emerging as a nation. Russians were never the titular nation [in any of the Soviet national republics]. When Stalin’s nation-building was underway, the Russians were forgotten. Everyone who was pushed out from the the ethnic republics became Russians.

So, people in Arkhangelsk Region could have been called Pomors and also emerged as a separate ethnic group?

The Pomors have their own deal. Yuri Plyusnin, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, has described the Pomors as a special ethnic group. Some cunning people politicized his research, and the myth of Pomor nationalism emerged.

These episodes, involving ethnicity, and the absence and search for identity, have been breaking out all over Russia nowadays. What is Siberian identity? People are riled up about this as well. Who are we Siberians? they ask themselves.

Do these trends threaten Russia’s territorial integrity? Will things somewhere boil to the point reached in Chechnya?

This will happen when there is a shortage of resources. Gleb Pavlovsky has described it well. In 1996–1997, when it was obvious the system was disintegrating, it had to be integrated. Two methods of integration were devised. One was financial. There was a multi-currency system. The so-called young reformers nationalized the ruble, turning money into a financial resource distributed by the federal government. The regions and municipalities queued to get their hands on it, competing with each other in the bargain. Elementary order emerged.

The second method was ideological. Vladislav Surkov and his pals dreamed up United Russia and nationalized ideology, trying to manufacture at least a partial copy of the Soviet Communist Party. Their project was generally a success, too, but unlike financial policy, United Russia was not instrumental. No one knew how to use it, except for channeling certain forms of discontent.

So, if there is a threat to territorial integrity, it is a potential threat. However, it is a threat that can be turned to an advantage. An ordinary economy deals with the risks posed by the market: there are winners and losers. Due to its non-market foundations, Russia does not welcome risks. Threats are the dominant tool in Russia’a administrative markets. The people who invent the scariest stores get the cash and the resources. One of the scary stories has to do with the threat to territorial integrity, which the security forces use to obtain resources, because they are supposed to neutralize the threat.

Yet people are always dissatisfied with the way resources are distributed, and so there can be no means of assessing whether threats have been dealt with effectively or not. Once upon a time, threats to public health and public education were identified and prolonged. Resources were allocated for neutralizing these threats, and national projects were launched. Consequently, the threats became even worse. New national projects have been launched, and resources have again been allocated to neutralize the same threats.

We live in the midst of permanent threats, generated by all the stakeholders and pressure groups. The government is faced with the need to emphasize certain threatens and allocate resources for neutralizing them.

Russia was disoriented for a long time, since it had no customary external enemy. Subsequently, different forces united to manufacture this external enemy, and now it is a matter of neutralizing the external threat. I gather that a considerable amount of federal funds and extra-budgetary resources have been earmarked for producing means to neutralized the external threat.

So, we are fighting the good fight against enemies we construed ourselves, against enemies we dreamed up ourselves?

Yes, it’s a good fight. We are winning. We are earmarking resources foor the fight. We are retreating, we are advancing. We are forcing groups to scrap over resources and queue for them. Basically, the scrap going on in the queue is the basis of the current stability.

Russia has been functioning this way for hundreds of years. It generates threats, attempts to neutralize them, and exports its internal tensions through external aggression. This was what happened in Afghanistan.

Can we be completely defeated by such a threat?

We lost in 1991, didn’t we? It was then necessary to generate an internal hotbed of tension, known as “Chechnya,” getting rid of all conflicts in the country and booting them down there.

There were lots of people there who were quite aggressive and itching for a fight. Besides, there was a curious form of self-organization in Chechnya. The first Chechen combat units emerged from construction crews, not from the big clans. Chechens traveled to Siberia together to build cow barns and formed work crews.

“Repeating the Past Is Russia’s Future”
They went there to build cow barns, because there was no work of any kind in Chechnya?

That was not the only reason. It was a very good deal for the local authorities. Building was the only means they had of retaining resources in their area, so numerous construction sites popped up. I was then busy researching construction in the countryside and I saw what was actually happening. I would get an itemized list of the buildings, and there would be ninety sites on it. Then I would make the rounds of the sites and find only forty-two actually being built. The other sites did not exist, but I would find another fifty sites that were not on the itemized list, but which were nevertheless under construction, and it would be Chechens, Ukrainians, and Hutsuls building them. The Chechen work crews came together, because the objective was to protect the forest glades in Siberia.

There is something similar going on nowadays in Tyumen Region, for example. In Dagestan, there are villages that have full-scale diasporas in Tyumen and Surgut. The men have two families, one in Surgut, the other in Dagestan. They ship all kinds of schmutz and fruit to Tyumen, bringing back timber and fish to Dagestan. I imagine it is Tyumen is not the only place where such things go on.

Doesn’t Plato hinder them? It monitors cargo shipments.

Plato monitors the big rigs. There is no system for monitoring trucks under twelve tons. The government farmed out the big rigs with the hope of extending the new system of tolls to low-tonnage transportation. What do I mean by “farming out”? In particular, resources are redistributed from local authorities to corporations. The regions have become less significant in the distribution and redistribution of resources, while corporations have become more important. This will inevitably cause conflicts.

What conflicts?

In the first place, conflicts between the regions and the corporations. And conflicts along the highways, especially federal highways. They are like arteries pumping blood and supporting life: there are tons of gray-zone cottage industries that spring up around them, providing everything from food to prostitutes.

Take the village of Umyot in the Zubova Polyana Municipal District in the Republic of Mordovia, which is on the M5 Ural Federal Highway. Prostitutes are lined up for a dozen kilometers along the highway, along with different roadside establishments. The Zubova Polyana District is home of the famous village of Potma, where five prison camps built during Soviet times as part of the Gulag are still in operation. The district has a population of just over 60,000 people, and around 30,000 of them are convicts, while the non-convict populace are third- and fourth-generation prison guards. So, when a monopolist like Plato appears on the scene, people naturally try and fight back.

There are really interesting migrations underway in Russia nowadays. They say the country is becoming deserted. According to statisticians, people have been moving into the district and regional seats. That is happening, but some of the migrants are regrouping along the big highways. Russia has been shrinking down to a series of highways. New communities are being built, and life there is defined by a highway.

There is another trend, however, of people leaving the cities. These people are adherents of different environmental sects, the Ringing Cedars or Anastasians, for example. We counted several hundred thousand of them. Within a radius of a hundred kilometers from Moscow there are dozens of Anastasian settlements. They have no names,  addresses or anything of the sort. These downshifters are educated people, usually.

Pozanenko sailed several hundreds of kilometers down one of the rivers in the north and counted several dozen settlements that were not registered with the government in any way.  They usually are highly attached to a particular ideology. They go off to live in hermitages, grow cedars, and worship Nicholas Roerich. The ones who survive move away from the ideology after three or four years, becoming ordinary peasants. We have seen this in Altai and other places.

But the inflow is greater from the small towns and villages into the major cities than vice versa?

They are migrants doing seasonal work. Moscow sucks in people who live as far as 400 kilometers to 500 kilometers away. This radius is around 70 kilometers for a large regional capital like Novosibirsk. This is pendulum migration, while migration over great distances is seasonal migration. If we take the Zubova Polayana District again, it is around 400 kilometers from Moscow. The men go to Moscow to work as security guards, while the young women go there to work as “accountants,” meaning prostitutes. This was the case a few years ago, and I doubt whether much has changed.

What a great euphemism!

Here is another thing. A retail chain has agreements with villages to supply laborers for several months. There are several villages, and the villagers take turns going into the city to work. It is very hard to quantify migration like this. On Fridays, it is readily visible at the train stations: the cars are packed because people are going home. Daily migration can be quantified: you just take a look at the terminal stations of the subway and the train stations when people pile into Moscow on the commuter trains. Basically, these are the thirty million people we spoke about at the beginning, the people who shit in Moscow. These are the numbers of people who come to the city. In some regions, as much as forty percent of the population migrates to work.

There is a theory that, in the future, it will be megacities that compete with each other, not countries.

Russia does not have enough oomph for that. What kind of future awaits Russia? Repeating the past is Russia’s future in terms of public opinion and behavior. Look at what people say about the future: the country is going back either to Stalin or Nicholas the Second.

What about a palace coup? Russia has a rich tradition of those.

I don’t believe it.

Why not?

There are way too many competitors.

You said that the Soviet Communist Party collapsed and everything else collapsed with it. Isn’t Putin a similar force for consolidation nowadays?

Putin is not the problem. The problem, as Gleb Pavlovsky says, is transferring power while maintaining stability and territorial integrity. Some people have seemingly decided the problem can be solved by prolonging the leader’s life. Big money is currently being invested in biology and medicine. There are academicians who have long been receiving large sums of money for research on prolonging life.

Do you mean Vladimir Skulachev?

Yes.

They write that he has run into a dead end.

Practically, it is a dead end, of course, but politically the demand for his research is high.

Maybe they will go in search of the Holy Grail?

I think they have gone in every direction they could have. Where do you think their flashy religiosity comes from? What is the cause? They are hoping for a miracle. They really are praying, hoping for a miracle, because there is no rational way out of the impasse.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Fyodor Krasheninnikov: Russian History According to the Crimean Calendar

brickwall faceThe writing is on the wall.

Russian History According to the Crimean Calendar
A New Period of Russian History Kicked Off in 2014, But There Is No Proof It Will Last for Centuries
Fyodor Krasheninnikov
Vedomosti
April 11, 2018

In a recently published article, Vladislav Surkov argues we should regard 2014 as the first year of a new calendar, the beginning of a centuries-long era of “political solitude” that emerged after a long period of ambivalence on Russia’s part. Although the thoughts outlined in the article are primarily Mr. Surkov’s personal convictions, they do in some way describe the outlook of Russia’s supreme political elite, to which Mr. Surkov certainly belongs, and they are interesting only in this sense. Among other things, his take suggests that, after 2014, nothing comparable in importance to the events in Crimea has happened nor will happen, meaning Russia seemingly experienced the “end of history” in 2014.

2014 will undoubtedly go down in history as the year of Vladimir Putin’s most memorable achievement. Russia’s annexation of Crimea led to many changes both at home and abroad, but what mattered most was that it was accomplished easily, quickly, and bloodlessly, and led to an incredible surge in the president’s popularity due to the fact that a large segment of society rallied around him. The more alarming the circumstances of spring 2018, the dearer to the president and his entourage are the memories of the happy spring of 2014. Surkov’s article can read as a belated reiteration of Faust’s “Stay a while, you are so beautiful,” as a reluctance to accept the inevitability of change and the ephemerality of all “forevers.”

The flip side of the myth of a new era’s beginning is the fear 2014 was actually the culmination of modern Russian history and things will only get worse in the future. The tendencies of recent years have fully confirmed this fear. Only four years have passed, but the spring of 2018 is nothing like the spring of 2014 in terms of feeling and mood. Russia is not on the offensive; instead, it is on the defensive. The west’s pressure on it has been multiplying and causing palpable problems for the economy. For the first time in four years, the country’s leaders have been forced to acknowledge the dangers posed by US sanctions and give up repeating the argument that all sanctions are a boon to the economy. It is no wonder. In 2014, the sanctions were much weaker, and given the euphoria in the air, they went almost unnoticed. Besides, in 2014, it was still possible to believe the sanctions were temporary. They would be lifted in the very near future, the west would swallow what had occurred, and everything would go back to what it had been. In 2018, the euphoria has long vanished, and if there is still talk the sanctions will soon be lifted, it should be put down more to inertia and confusion than anything else. Although it was intentionally timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the Crimean triumph, the presidential election did not produce anything comparable to the inspiring impression generated in the wake of Crimea’s annexation. The celebration of Putin’s electoral victory lasted only ten days, cut short by the disastrous shopping mall fire in Kemerovo and the official day of mourning announced in its aftermath.

Russia cannot look forward to proud “political solitude” in the coming years or at any other time. The modern world is too small for anyone to isolate themselves, especially on their own terms and inside borders of their own choosing. At home, especially among the elite, one can still live in the past for a time and pretend this is still the triumphant year of 2014. One call still pretend Russia is threatening everyone, denouncing everyone, and demanding a reaction from everyone, and that it has centuries and millennia ahead of it. In fact, however, it is Russia that is threatened, Russia that is denounced, and Russia from whom everyone demands a reaction. There are no grounds for supposing this onslaught will wane in the foreseeable future instead of intensifying. Russia’s main trump card in 2014 was its willingness to engage in confrontation and brinksmanship, which the west was not willing to do. That card has now been trumped in turn. After a long period of wavering, the leaders of the Nato countries have also proven capable of engaging in deliberate escalation and frightening their opponents with determination. This seems to have been a major surprise to the current regime in Russia.

A new phase in modern Russian history undoubtedly began in 2014, but there is no proof it will last for centuries and be a time of endless rapture over the annexation of Crimea. For the time being, everything points to the fact it will end much more quickly than many of us would imagine and in such a way that we shall not want to remember 2014 at all.

Fyodor Krasheninnikov is a political scientist who lives in Yekaterinburg. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

Grigorii Golosov: An Anti-American Dictatorship

An Anti-American Dictatorship: The Russian Concept of Sovereignty
The regime is sovereign, not the people, and only if it does not seek to benefit from cooperating with the US
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
November 9, 2017

4f1d12efea4954e40cedcc6cf03e3d2bVladislav Surkov. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant

Recently, after a long silence, Vladislav Surkov made another public appearance in print. The article itself, entitled “A Crisis of Hypocrisy” and written in a style typical of intellectually pretentious picture magazines, is not very interesting. It is not that Surkov rebukes the west for insincerity. That would be like the pot calling the kettle black. He does claim, however, that the effectiveness of hypocrisy as a means of control has been forfeited in modern democracies. Surkov thus finds himself agreeing with “prophetic comics” and other authoritative sources that a king of the west might appear to forcibly lead the world out of chaos. A good example, perhaps, of how such a king might act is Surkov’s own work in the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.

As many of you will remember, until his forced immersion in the affairs of a neighboring country, Surkov laid claim, albeit not very successfully, to the role of the current Russian regime’s ideologue. It was Surkov who back in the day coined the controversial term “sovereign democracy,” which was supposed to be either an alternative to western democracy or a variation on it. In this case, Surkov messed up royally, as was pointed out to him with appropriate severity by his more senior comrades. The point of Russian electoral authoritarianism, like electoral authoritarianism anywhere else, is to feign being a democracy without actually being a democracy. Since everyone realizes there really is true democracy in the west, any juxtaposition is invidious. Russia has democracy, and that is that. It is no worse than other democracies. It is just like them. There is thus no need to qualify it with any adjectives.

Now Surkov, being a person who is, on the one hand, quick on the uptake and, on the other, not averse to particular flights of fancy, has adopted the politically correct stance while creatively elaborating on it in the sense that democracy in the west is on its last legs, even as Russia still cherishes the ideal of people power. Naturally, there is no point in debating the nature of democracy when the issue is put this way, and sovereignty comes to the fore as in Surkov’s original take on the matter. Sovereignty is the central concept of modern Russian ideology.

Sovereignty is now the talk of the talk of the town, the favorite topic not only of the media but even of those people who speak from the highest bully pulpits. The Russian concept of sovereignty includes two axioms that we should examine thoroughly. I should note in advance that neither of these aspects is unique. Each of them is ordinarily found in any logically consistent concept of sovereignty. The whole trick is how they are applied specifically to modern day-to-day circumstances.

The first axiom states that all decisions about power in a given country are taken at a purely national level.  The point is incontestable. It suffices to have a look at how acutely the Americans react to any outward attempts to shape their own politics to be convinced that they, too, operate in full accordance with the axiom. The specific nature of the Russian interpretation, however, is nevertheless apparent. To detach it from its basic content we should look at the events in Syria.

The cause of the events was the crisis generated by the extremely brutal, truly barbarous dictatorship established in Syria by the Assad family. Only an intellectually unscrupulous person could publicly state the Assad regime had been the choice of the Syrian people, at least at some point in time. The Assads came to power in a military coup and were elected to the country’s presidency solely on an uncontested basis, under circumstances in which all opposition was quashed. An uprising took place in 2011. The regime survived it, but was unable to crush it completely. A civil war broke out. It is characteristic of modern civil wars in more or less important countries that they involve outside actors.

The last point has been at the heart of the Russian concept of sovereignty. Frightened out of their wits at one time by the specter of “color” revolutions, the Russian authorities, first, regard any regime in any country, except Ukraine, as legitimate, and any attempt to overthrow it, however bloody and tyrannical it may be, as solely the result of outside interference. I would again underscore that outside interference is a perpetual occurrence, but nor does Russia miss its own chance to catch fish in troubled waters. This aspect is always secondary, however. Western political thought has traditionally argued the people’s sovereignty consists, in particular, in its ability to put down tyrannies. Since elections in such circumstances are not a tool for doing this, all that remains is civil disobedience and insurrection. If we approach the matter differently, the notion of sovereignty has been replaced by the notion of the regime’s sovereignty. This is exactly how sovereignty is treated in modern Russian ideology.

Second, the Russian concept of sovereignty consists in the notion that all decisions on foreign policy must be taken at the national level. When expressed in such concise form, the claim is also indisputable. However, when it is applied in Russian public discourse, the claim is more controversial: since most national governments take the interests of the US (or, alternately, the EU) into account when making foreign policy decisions, their sovereignty is limited.

The problem with this interpretation is that it is advantageous to pay attention to the interests of the United States or the European Union, or both. This coincides with the preferences of most governments. They themselves limit their freedom to maneuver when it comes to foreign policy. Take one of Russia’s biggest grievances against the west: Nato’s eastward expansion. It is true that when the Eastern European countries joined Nato, they limited their freedom to operate, but they did this not merely voluntarily, but with colossal enthusiasm. They applied to join Nato and celebrated their joining the alliance as if it were a national holiday. Ask Donald Trump why they wanted to get in. He would tell you what percentage of the alliance’s expenditures are footed by American taxpayers. It is not even worth enlarging on the fact that the new European Union members received certain perks. Actually, back in the old days, even Vladimir Putin was given to saying it would not be a bad idea for Russia to join the western alliances. It follows that he saw the benefits.

For it would be wrong to say no one takes Russia’s interests into account. Even some of the Eastern European countries, which the Russian media arrogantly disparages as satellites of the western powers, occasionally express a dissenting opinion on issues sensitive to Russia, such as sanctions. When they do this, are they limiting their own sovereignty in favor of our country? No, they are just taking care of their own business. The general rule, however, is that most countries regard the interests of the US as more important than Russia’s interests. There are exceptions: Iran, North Korea, Syria, and five or six other countries. By a coincidence that is hardly strange there is not a single democracy amongst them. All of these countries are small or medium sized. It is naive to believe China is one of these countries. China regards the US as more important.

We no longer speak of sovereign democracy. The idea has not vanished, however, but has merely acquired a more appropriate guise as an anti-American dictatorship. It is this guise that has become Russia’s own political pole star. And why not? It is a matter of choice. We should be aware, however, that how you define yourself defines how people treat you, taking this into account when assessing the prospects for improving relations with the rest of the world.

Grigorii Golosov is a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader 

Conservative

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It is almost as funny to read that Putin and his fellow gangsters in the Ozero Dacha Co-op and its subsidiaries are “conservative” as it is to read that Putin is utterly powerless (“impotent”!) to reign in his underlings or do much of anything else.

Even in the frightening, undignified mess in which Russia now finds itself, people want to make more of the mess than saying that, when push comes to shove, it is a vast criminal conspiracy that can only be laid low by an equally vast popular resistance, if only because that might commit them to do something about it.

It sounds much more dignified to say the county’s elites, including two “former KGB officers,” President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, who were trained to lie through their teeth, gull the gullible every chance they got, and pretend to be “communists” and “internationalists” and “democrats” and “conservatives” and “Russian Orthodox” and “nationalists” as the situation demanded, have taken a “conservative turn,” than to say the country has been taken over by a band of greedy, unprincipled liars who will not balk at any trick or power play to increase their dominion and grab more money, land, oil companies, yachts, real estate, and other goodies.

It is the same thing with my favorite bugbear, Russia’s completely nonexistent “senate.” Russia’s upper house of parliament is called the Federation Council, and its members are sinecured rubber stampers, not “senators,” but that was what they took to calling themselves (or a spin doctor like Vladislav Surkov told them they should call themselves) a few years ago, and so nowadays almost everyone, including the entire domestic and foreign press corps, part of the leftist commentariat, and even some perfectly sensible, educated people call them that, too.

But they are not senators, if only because there is no senate in Russia. More to the point, Russia’s unsenators are well-connected, highly paid sock puppets who could no more act independently than I could fly to the moon under my own power.

Likewise, a perpetual, self-replicating mafia dictatorship has about as much to do with real conservatism as my dog has to do with the Shining Path. And that is the thing. Given its sovereign wastefulness, major league legal anarchy, hypercorruption, and sheer absurdity, the Putin regime is an exercise, mostly improvised, in a new kind of radical governance by “former KGB officers” and their gangster friends, not in conservatism.

The “conservatism” is a put-on, just as Putin’s public support of democracy was a put-on when he worked as Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s deputy in the early 1990s. Then he was the Smolny’s bag man. Nowadays, he has moved up in the world considerably, but he has basically not changed his profession. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

The Standard Narrative

Is this the “real” Russia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is this the “real” Russia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos by the Russian Reader

Ilya Matveev: The Childish Face of Russian Fascism Today

Our friend Ilya Matveev writes:

I have noticed, incidentally, that the focus in the current state-sponsored fascist upsurge is on children—moreover, both as objects of various bad actions (“propaganda,” pedophilia, etc.) and as subjects, as “young militants.” For example, teenagers were clearly involved in the “attempt to clean up the dormitory” in Moscow’s Kapotnya District: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were thirteen or fourteen. This was all shown on national TV almost as an example to be emulated. Children also play a large role in convicted Russian neo-Nazi Maxim “Tesak” Martsinkevich’s Occupy Pedophilia campaign (likewise hyped on TV). The same kids have opened up their own shop (Occupy Gerontophilia) and set to bullying their gay agemates. Kids beat up activists at LGBT protests. Eighty percent of attendees at the so-called Day of Russian Rage were children. Finally, a sixth-former (!) has detected homosexuality in T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and again it has made the TV news. This stuff is served up completely seriously, as the new moral standard.

In general, I see two major differences from previous years. Very rapidly, just as described by Hannah Arendt, whole groups of people are denied the status of human beings. For example, it is taken as a given in fascist rags like Komsomolskaya Pravda that the Interior Ministry is using a gang of teenagers against illegal immigrants. Legally, migrant workers are no longer human beings; the issue of “purging” them is a technical matter, not one of law enforcement, and anything goes here. LGBT are also not human beings, but defective biomaterial, so their “hearts should be burned” and so on.

That is the first difference. The second is the focus on children. In the noughties, “youth policy” was about the eighteen- to twenty-year-olds who embedded themselves in a fake albeit political organization (Nashi), with its own program, ideology, and so on. (Although Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko and Kremlin ideology chief Vladislav Surkov daydreamed of units of stormtroopers combating the “orange menace” on the streets.) Now it is a matter of fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds, with a distinct taste of hatred as something absolutely irrational, along the lines of school bullying. The state has no doctrine or theory of hatred: there is only the pure emotion displayed by laboratory mice-like children. Grown-up “psychologists” and “educators” comment on this, arguing that we really are facing a gay threat and IT SHOWS in children. In short, the shit has hit the fan. Now things really are serious.