“Senator”

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I wonder whether Zygmunt Bauman, Mike Davis, Joseph Stiglitz, Immanuel Wallerstein or any of the other twenty-one of “the world’s greatest minds” featured in the book 22 Ideas to Fix the World (NYU Press, 2013) has commented on the sudden fall from grace of Vladimir Yakunin, their fellow “greatest mind,” co-author, and benefactor (because it was Yakunin who shelled out for the book and the high-toned geopolitical hootenannies in Rhodes that, no doubt, some of them had also attended)?

The CNBC article I have linked to, above, says that Mr. Yakunin is slated to become a “senator,” which is also a hoot, because there is no senate in Russia. (But there are, literally, megatons of needless and misplaced America-envy, which sometimes spills out into, alternately, “rabid anti-Americanism” and slavish imitation of America.)

There is no senate in Russia, but there is the “upper house of parliament,” the so-called Federation Council, and Mr. Yakunin is carpetbagging to Kaliningrad, of all places, to get “elected” to the non-Senate by the good people in that lonely enclave of the empire. Or, probably, the good people of Kaliningrad don’t even have to do that much to have Mr. Yakunin as their “senator.”

Personally, I think he’s a shoo-in.

See my earlier smack at the Yankuninshchina and its marquee leftist collaboratorsPhoto courtesy of Politika.ru

UPDATE.

It seems that the would-be senator has changed his mind about what sinecure he would like to take.

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Vladislav Inozemtsev: Russian Society Has No Future

The Secret of the Putinist Consensus
Vladislav Inozemtsev
February 11, 2015
Snob.ru

Nowadays, when discussing whether the political system produced in Russia in the 2000s is secure, the majority of discussants ignore its internal complexity. Arguments about authoritarianism, the return to the Soviet past, the oil curse, and the propaganda effect, like many others, divert us from the vital principles of how current Russian society functions and prevent us from assessing the potential and prospects of the Putinist stability.

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In my opinion, in recent years Russia has developed a unique type of societal structure for which it is difficult to find an analogue. I am least inclined to believe that its image was first shaped in the minds of the inhabitants of the Ozero dacha cooperative and then brought to life, but what has eventually emerged requires long and deep analysis. Essentially, it is a kind of “non-social society,” however clumsy the term sounds.

Russia has entered the second decade of the twenty-first century an utterly peculiar country on several grounds. It is an open society whose citizens are most afraid of this openness. It is a relatively rigidly controlled society, but it has no ideology. It is a society encumbered by a mass of formal constraints, but it permits an incredible degree of personal freedom. Finally, and most importantly, it is a society that seems to be united and cohesive, but is based on unrestricted individualism.

The shaping of this social system proceeded along several vectors, with the regime achieving impressive successes in each of them.

Its first victory was overcoming the threat posed by the outside world. If we recall the Soviet Union and the phobias of the communist elites, the most obvious of these was the fear of transparency and openness. Information about western societies was filtered, and travel abroad was restricted. The assumption was that the authoritarian model could exist only in isolation from the world. However, the 1990s and 2000s specifically showed the opposite was the case. First, large-scale market-based reforms, firmly linked in people’s minds with “western values,” dealt a severe blow to the welfare and pride of Russian citizens, and then growing prosperity came at a time marked by a more independent policy. Yet, preservation of the Soviet principle of identifying oneself with one’s country meant that the successes of the few were regarded as society’s achievements. I myself once overheard rather poor Russian tourists in Paris discussing how the French drove such cheap cars compared with Muscovites, although none of the speakers could afford an oligarch’s limousine.

In the new Russia, the west has come to be seen as a source of problems for our country. “Getting up off its knees,” the great power has nothing to learn from the west, which depends on us more than we depend on it. It bears repeating that these notions were molded by the experience of the 1990s, the economic recovery of the 2000s, and skillful propaganda. But the fact remains that the authorities have managed to achieve full immunity from the influence of the west, which in the twentieth century had destroyed dozens of previously closed authoritarian regimes.

The second outstanding achievement has been the deideologization of society, which in most cases is extremely dangerous for nondemocratic systems. Whereas people in the Soviet Union were united by a particular purpose (moreover, this unity was not purely formal), there is no such goal in today’s Russia. Neither “stability,” “getting up off its knees” nor even rallying the “Russian world” points toward it, because they define not so much a final result (like the “victory of communism”) as a condition or process. Soviet ideology and its manifestations have been replaced by a refined capitalist unscrupulousness, with the principle of personal enrichment as its alpha and omega. Despite all the talk about “spiritual bonds,” it is material bonds that hold the current Russian system together—the mutual and profound consensus amongst thieves who fatten themselves on the public domain.

An ideology that made it possible for the entire society to look in the same direction has been replaced by a conspiracy of silence among corrupt officials and bribe takers that co-opts ever more people to the ruling clique on the basis of personal loyalty. It unites the “elite,” since it culls principled citizens from its ranks and transforms any and all personal qualities into money and wealth. Money and wealth are in fact the new Russian ideology, an ideology that generates not so much a single “platform” as a general principle defining how society operates. Knowledge, positions in the hierarchy, and power are converted into money, and money itself is just as simply converted into anything else. Normal countries have academic, cultural, political, and entrepreneurial elites. In Russia, however, there is a single “elite,” and it unites only those adept at turning any opportunity that comes their way into cash, and vice versa.

In such circumstances, society is divested of its purpose, sense of mission, and role models. It destructures, turning into a crowd.

The third factor is even more important and follows from the two we have already discussed. The renowned Putinist consensus has not involved trading freedom for prosperity, as many liberals have argued. Nobody has taken freedom away from Russians; on the contrary, it exists in abundance in today’s society. Russia’s secret in the Putin era consists, rather, in sham restrictions on freedom that even more strongly underscore its boundlessness. Unlike Soviet times, Russian citizens have the right to leave the country, acquire any form of property, freely disseminate information, and do business. Most importantly, they are virtually unencumbered by any moral constraints in their private lives. Freedom in Russia has not been abolished: it has been ably shunted out of public life into private life. This is what makes the country a “non-social society,” a society where the social interactions habitually dubbed “civil” do not arise, but where at the same time pressure on the regime, always generated by the lack of freedom as such, does not emerge, either. The thousands of petty restrictions about which the indignant press often writes conceal an unlimited space of personal permissiveness. The well-known Russian historian Alexei Miller is quite right when he notes, “[L]iving in Russia, which notoriously lacks in democratic standards, one feels personally free.” [1]

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This explains the steady decline in social activism we have observed in the country in recent years, moreover, against a backdrop of ever-growing enthusiasm for quasi-social activism—communicating on the Internet, social networks, forums, and so on. In Russia, freedom has ceased to be a tool for social change. This would probably be Putinism’s supreme achievement were it not for one more circumstance.

The fourth point seems the most fundamental to me. Since the early post-Soviet years, Russia has given rise to a society in which individuals have been able to achieve almost anything, but in an environment where they have acted alone and not sought to rely on social consolidation. If you want to solve a problem, it is easier to pay a bribe, negotiate an exception or just close your eyes to certain rules, but not try and question their legitimacy or demand they be changed. This correlates nicely with the main principle of governance—the merger of business and government, and the transformation of all public offices into sources of personal enrichment. Corruption functions not as an evil but as a natural element (if not a good) in the new system, as it permits the problems the system creates to be solved. More importantly, it allows them to be solved effectively, while collective action, on the contrary, blocks the very possibility of solving them. This is a life, as the well-known sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written, that consists of “biographic solutions to systemic contradictions.” [2]

As a result, people have, with good reason, come to understand collective action as counterproductive. The system of corruption does not elicit rejection, since it offers an almost ideal version of the daily narrative, making it possible to solve many of the problems every person has, and more efficiently than any other option. The secret of Putin’s Russia consists in the abrupt expansion of the space in which citizens are allowed to solve systemic contradictions individually. Ultimately, the country is populated by people who want to eat and sleep, make money and operate freely within their limited space, see the realities of the other world, but be satisfied with (and even proud of) their own. So Putin can sleep peacefully. He reigns over an absolutely destructured crowd, a liquid postmodernity that engages in apologetics for corrupt government, is incapable of self-organization, and has no common problems and purposes.

Completing the picture and going back a little, we can again recall openness. This is the system’s final chord. Soviet society’s weakness was that it prevented too many people and too many different people and social groups from expressing themselves. People who held different views were persecuted. Initiatives were punished. There was a clampdown on alternative culture. Religious life was suppressed. As soon as Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of change, his intentions found millions of supporters. Some wanted the system to be reformed and renewed, while others wished for its complete destruction. But everyone understood that nobody could solve his or her particular problems without destroying the framework that hampered society as a whole. A system that suited almost no one could not survive. Today, the borders are open, and anyone who is so dissatisfied with the system that they cannot be content with the freedom available within these borders is free to leave. There are more and more such people every year, while the “aggressively obedient majority,” as it was once dubbed, grows ever more consolidated.

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Russian society has no future. But the faceless and unprincipled crowd that now populates the country does have one. And that more than suits both the crowd itself and those who parasitize its obedience. After all, nobody is asking the people to make sacrifices: a little humility is all that is required from it. But that means we should not count on rapid change.

Vladislav Inozemtsev is Professor of Economics at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and Director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

Photos by the Russian Reader

1. Alexei Miller, “Ot demokratii XIX veka k demokratii XXI-go: kakov sleduiushchii shag”? [From nineteenth-century democracy to twenty-first century democracy: what is the next step?], in V.L. Inozemtsev, ed., Demokratiia i modernizatsiia: vzgliad iz XXI stoletiia [Democracy and modernization: the view from the twenty-first century], Moscow: Evropa, 2010, p. 101.
2. Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society, Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2001, p. 106.

Can’t Get There from Here

When the world is a monster, bad to swallow you whole
Kick the clay that holds the teeth in, throw your trolls out the door


One of the strangest shocks I’ve had over the past couple years was discovering an advert for this sprightly academic tome in my favorite biweekly review of books:

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In this unique volume from the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations and the Social Science Research Council, some of the world’s greatest minds—from Nobel Prize winners to long-time activists—explore what the prolonged instability of the so-called Great Recession means for our traditional understanding of how governments can and should function. Through interviews that are sure to spark lively debate, 22 Ideas to Fix the World presents both analysis of past geopolitical events and possible solutions and predictions for the future.

[…]

Interviews with: Zygmunt Bauman, Shimshon Bichler & Jonathan Nitzan, Craig Calhoun, Ha-Joon Chang, Fred Dallmayr, Mike Davis, Bob Deacon, Kemal Dervis, Jiemian Yang, Peter J. Katzenstein, Ivan Krastev, Will Kymlicka, Manuel F. Montes, José Antonio Ocampo, Vladimir Popov, Joseph Stiglitz, Olzhas Suleimenov, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Immanuel Wallerstein, Paul Watson, Vladimir Yakunin, Muhammad Yunus

source: NYU Press (emphasis is mine)

What brought me up short was Vladimir Yakunin’s presence on the roster of the “world’s foremost thinkers.” The only Vladimir Yakunin of whom I was aware was the Putin insider and Russian Railways head, who even back then (in 2013) had already been accused by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny of having amassed a vast offshore business empire with members of his family.

Vladimir and Yakunin are common enough first names and surnames in Russia, so I thought that maybe the Vladimir Yakunin in question was a previously obscure philosopher or economist working in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences or Tempe, Arizona.

What I didn’t know then was that the cumbersomely named World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations was a soft-power vehicle, vigorously headed by the one and only Vladimir Yakunin, for advancing Putinism 3.0’s new Cominternist “conservative” agenda, a wild melange of militant homophobia, “traditional Christian family values” (this from veterans of an organization previously and murderously committed to “militant atheism”), “anti-imperialism,” post-capitalism, “anti-fascism,” “anti-globalism,” anti-Americanism, anti-liberalism, a yearning for the (perpetual) “decline of the west,” etc. You name the flavor, they had it (almost).

The main thing, apparently, for the hundreds and thousands of “foremost” thinkers, pols, players, NGOists, bored middle-aged academics, IR chancers, and “youth leaders” invited by Yakunin to dialogue and confab in exotic locations like Rhodes was never to ask too hard (or at all) who was footing the bill for all this grassroots diplomacy and heavy thinking.

After I attended a Russian sponsored conference in Rhodes last year, a friend and colleague separated from me for many months believing I had fallen in with KGB oligarchs and gangsters,” wrote Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, around the same time NYU Press was rolling Yakunin’s vanity publication off the presses and Navalny was publishing his exposés. (If you think I’m kidding about the vanity business, read the editors’ acknowledgements.)

What a rare, perceptive friend Mr. Ruse had! At the time, the only other person on planet Earth, apparently, to notice that something was amiss with Yakunin’s largesse and the seating arrangements at his tea parties was Richard Bartholemew, who writes about religious affairs:

That’s quite a line-up of intellectuals. However, the key name here is not the most famous, and it has the penultimate position: Vladimir Yakunin runs Russia’s state-owned railways, and he is a part of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. He also co-founded the World Public Forum, which co-produced the book and which perhaps therefore has some bearing on why he’s among the “World’s Foremost Thinkers”.

As I’ve discussed previously, the WPF holds regular “Dialogue of Civilizations” events involving academics, activists, and religious leaders. The range of those involved is unusually broad – recent events have included input from figures ranging from Noam Chomsky, whose critical view of the place of American power in the world is doubtless congenial to Russia, through to Don Feder, an arch-conservative “family values” fulminator whose social views fit well with Yakunin’s activism on behalf of Russian Orthodoxy. WPF events have also involved Helga Zepp-LaRouche, and it is claimed that Yakunin has cited her husband Lyndon LaRouche favourably. More on all these links here and here. There’s also apparently some interest at the WPF in extra-terrestrial matters.

Another oddity I’ve noted before is that one of Yakunin’s fellow WFP co-founders is a US-based businessman who is closely involved with the neo-Pentecostal sector of the Christian Right, particularly Rick Joyner and William “Jerry” Boykin. More on that here.

* * * * *

Further shocks to my feeble mental health were to come as, intrigued by my chance discovery of the nexus between leftist grandees like Wallerstein and Russian’s head railwayman, I plunged into the weird and distinctly unwonderful world of the Yakuninshchina.

For example, when I visited the website of the WFP-affiliated Rhodes Forum in July of last year, I was greeted by the following surreal collage:

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Far be it from me to cast aspersions on Professor Chomsky’s deservedly sterling reputation. In any case, it is clear the positive associations and cultural capital the website’s designers were trying to generate for Yakunin with this juxtaposition, probably made without Chomsky’s permission. (The site seems to have been completely redesigned since then, and the offending collage has vanished.)

But what prevented Chomsky or any other of Yakunin’s many forum guests and co-authors from doing a bit of due diligence into Yakunin and his ilk, and deciding whether their progressive causes and scholarly research were well served by dialoguing or associating with him in any way?

What really beggars the imagination is how all this useful networking on the part of an authoritarian, kleptocratic regime with growing homophobic and clericalist tendencies has flown under the journalistic radar for over ten years.

* * * * *

On March 30, 2014, Yakunin popped up as the headliner and co-chair of a timely international conference in Petersburg entitled “Neo-Fascism in Europe: 70 Years Later.” As can been seen in a news report aired on local channel TV 100, Yakunin predictably inveighed against the dangers of “Ukrainian fascism,” even as his own country had tens of thousands of troops amassed along the Ukrainian border.BV5A7638

Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko and Vladimir Yakunin (right) at “anti-fascist” conference in Petersburg, March 30, 2014

Liberal city councilman and journalist Boris Vishnevsky broke the curious story that one of the scheduled speakers at this “anti-fascist” conference was renowned Polish neo-Nazi Mateusz Piskorksi.

Piskorksi later helpfully turned up in Petersburg again in the autumn, this time not as an “anti-fascist” but as an “elections observer.” He was part of an international team putting its facile stamp of (pre-)approval on a farcical but successful bid to transform the “incumbent,” Putin appointee Georgy Poltavchenko, into a “popularly elected” governor, and, by the by, stack the mostly powerless municipal councils with the right sort of folk. (If, unlike ninety-nine percent of the population and the world, you’re actually interested in how it all went down, read this eyewitness account.)

On the other end, presumably, of the political spectrum, 22 Ideas to Fix the World co-editor Richard Sakwa has recently published a hilarious op-ed in The Guardian arguing that Putin may actually be planning to do an end-around on his detractors and liberalize the regime.

So, the furious networking Yakunin has been doing over the past ten years or so has not been without its dividends.

* * * * *

But the really unfunny thing is that Yakunin has a day job as head of Russian Railways. What have they been up to lately?

On New Year’s Eve, they announced they were ending service on hundreds of local routes in Russia’s regions.

Russia analyst Paul Goble explained the likely impact the cuts would have on people in rural and small-town Russia:

The importance of local and regional train service in Russia is far greater than in almost any other country, given the lack of decent roads in much of the country and the availability of critical services only in the oblast capitals.  Without train service, for example, diabetics who need insulin face enormous difficulties in getting it in a timely fashion.

Indeed, in some cases, as in Pskov oblast over the last two decades, the increasing difficulty rural residents face in getting to the capital – there the authorities earlier cut back bus service and then snow removal efforts – has sent mortality rates skyrocketing, reducing life expectancy among rural residents by a decade or more.

Now that Russian Railways is posed to cut back rail services elsewhere, a similar pattern is likely to obtain, and a Russian government which claims that it is acting on behalf of ethnic Russians and what it calls “the Russian world” in Ukraine will be harming ethnic Russians at home in the most serious and immediate ways.

Ordinary Russians, of course, didn’t need Paul Goble to help them see how their lives would be drastically altered for the worse, as The Moscow Times reported on February 4:

“I am a schoolboy in Class 11 and I need to prepare for the Unified State Exams. Most students have tutors that live in Tver,” Yury Arakcheev wrote on petition site change.org after local trains from his town to regional capital Tver north of Moscow were canceled.

“A large number of people work or study in Tver and to leave at five o’clock in the morning and returning at 10 o’clock at night is not an option, especially if a person has a family or small child,” Arakcheev said in a petition addressed to the regional governor that has now 7,700 signatures.

Cancellations of suburban trains have launched a wave of popular anger in Russia, a country where social protests are rare.

Last month, residents of a small village in Zabaikalsky Krai threatened to block Russia’s East-West rail artery, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, after suburban train services were cut, local media reported.

Other protests have taken place against the cuts in particularly-badly affected regions.

Opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, currently under house arrest, has repeatedly raised the topic in his popular blog, dubbing the cancellation of train services a “genocide of Russians.”

On Jan. 12 Navalny said in a blog entry that a Facebook post he wrote about the issue was seen by almost 1 million people, making it one of his most popular posts on the social networking site ever.

Predictably, the uproar has forced Putin to give the minister responsible for transport a televised dressing-down and demand that all local services be restored. Meanwhile, Yakunin has denied any responsibility for the mess.

* * * * *

And who knows, maybe in some sense, despite the charges of corruption and corporate malfeasance leveled by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation against Russian Railways, Yakunin isn’t strictly to blame for this business.

But what if there is a connection between all his generosity and persistence on the soft-power front and the miseries endured by Yuri Arakcheev and people like him as they try and travel between home and work and school in Russia’s regions? (I won’t even mention the possible connections between those things and allegations of Yakunin’s family’s living large outside of Russia.)

What I mean to say is that it takes a lot of chutzpah to imagine that your academic career or political/moral cause or balance sheet is so earth-shatteringly important that you can’t even be bothered to do an elementary background check on who exactly is paying your junket to sunny Rhodes or using your university press’s good name to publish his cultural-capital-generating vanity volume.

Although in the space of this blog post and with the limited means at my disposal, I can’t strictly get from here to there today, I do mean to suggest that you might have been visiting harm on people like Yuri Arakcheev by pretending none of these considerations mattered or even existed when you were getting ready to hobnob with the world’s “foremost” whomevers, who rarely have to worry about reduced public services.

At any rate, I don’t think anymore, after digging a bit into Yakunin’s high-powered glad-handing, that it is exactly an accident there is so much “confusion” in the west over recent events in Russia and Ukraine.

There are less charitable ways of putting this, but I’ll stop while I’m ahead. I really can’t get there from here yet.