Moscow, so the film title went, does not believe in tears, and stories of massacres by criminal gangs who control major enterprises, contract killings over business and political disputes, and savagely beat or kill journalists who don’t recognize the limits of Russian press freedom still pop up in today’s “middle class” Russia, where this sort of thing is no longer supposed to happen. Vlast (the authorities) often pretends that is the case.
But what of “stability” and Putin’s March presidential election win? (Admittedly, the result is disputed, though even many critics think Putin likely broke the 50-percent barrier, even without outright fraud; nevertheless, we can’t be certain about that.) As noted in Part 1, existing political alternatives leave something to be desired, and certain levels of predictability, along with improved living standards overall, have made life more tolerable relative to the recent past.
In 2012, your plane will be fueled and will take off, dear reader, though the schedule may be chaotic (and the plane may crash, but we will get to that); you will probably be paid (though wage arrears remain a problem); and your factory operates on a full schedule (though working conditions are harsh and dangerous). The Russian attitude is “It could be worse!” Yes, it could; we have already seen that. And we should not forget Russia’s elite: Putin has proved himself skillful at maintaining a certain balance among the clans. For the people at the top, “stability” meant that they might still wind up dispossessed and in prison, but the possibility of assassination has faded.
Under Putin, the elite developed some uncharacteristic prudence. As oil prices boomed, the government encouraged easy consumer credit, and, unlike other “kleptocratic” regimes, the constellation of clans at the top did not empty the treasury. An accumulation of financial reserves saw Russia through the 2008-09 financial crisis. There was foresight in the tack taken by vlast, prompted by a deep fear of the masses, the narod, with the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union and the “Arab spring” very much on the collective mind of those with influence. Vlast will make some concessions if the political tremors are frightening enough, and the Kremlin, since the appearance of Bolotnaya (the protestors), has eased rules on party registration and pledged to bring back direct elections of regional governors, while Putin has voiced support for constitutional changes limiting future presidents to two terms (a restriction that, he was quick to point out, will not be retroactive). But questions likely linger in the elite mind: Can Putin still keep us safe, and for how long?
There is one more thing. A great deal of popular animus was recently manifested in a way quite typical for Russia historically: The czar’s court has been blamed for the country’s troubles, while the czar himself has largely remained above politics. Putin, though shaken politically, is not yet the chief focus of popular ire, apart from that of Bolotnaya’s core supporters. In last December’s Duma campaign, much of the population’s anger was directed at the “party of power,” United Russia. And a fair portion of those who voted against the ruling party did not direct their anger at Putin personally, who formally headed the party but never joined it. Putin also distanced himself somewhat from United Russia by cannily placing the hapless Medvedev in the first spot on December’s party list (as shown on ballots), while creating the nonparty “Popular Front” as his vehicle for the presidential campaign.
Vlast can and will manipulate the political concessions it has made to its advantage, of course, but the core Bolotnaya constituency was far more sober in outlook than its self-proclaimed leadership, was not aggressive, and did not want revolution. (Remember: It could be worse!) Bickering among the protest leaders, divisions among liberals, nationalists, and communists, and the Kremlin’s ability to put even larger crowds on the streets (stage-managed, paid or coerced, bused in, and uninspired as they were) all played a role in taking the steam out of the protest movement, which was sagging considerably even before Putin’s election, following the protesters’ failure to force new Duma elections.
I will not bother examining the question of fraud in the Duma race: Fraud is normal in such elections. This time, however, there was a reaction. The protest movement backed the strategy of voting for any party but United Russia. It was an effective strategy, as vlast did not feel confident enough to boost United Russia’s official vote count even to 50 percent. But not to worry—the “systemic” opposition parties are cooperative.
In February and March, the whole point of the demonstrations was to force Putin into a runoff, to undermine his “national leader” status and gain political leverage relative to vlast. No one really expected to beat Putin, though some probably thought that elite pressure in reaction to the protests might force him to reconsider running again, with Medvedev as the alternative.
The familiar Russian fatalism appeared to kick in, at least for a time. And there is the simple fact that many who made up Bolotnaya have the means to leave Russia, the constant “brain drain” of emigration acting as an additional safety valve for vlast.
Nevertheless, Bolotnaya revived itself on the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration, with perhaps more than 50,000 demonstrating in Moscow. The frustration with Putin’s return to the Kremlin was evident in the increased aggressiveness of the protest movement’s radical wing, with clashes with police resulting in hundreds of arrests. But the radicals risk further alienating the moderate base of the protests. And it is noteworthy that there were no significant demonstrations in other major cities, while the size of the protest crowds has not increased.
The spirit of Bolotnaya is mostly alien to Russia. Describing Russia as prone to fatalism may not quite capture the truth about this country. Apathy, indifference, and a strange disregard for both the safety of others and one’s own personal well-being mark the Russian character and probably mean that any “modernization” plans will falter.
Take air travel: In 2011, Russia was ranked the most dangerous country for traveling by plane, surpassing the Congo, as 140 died in nine air crashes. Crews are inadequately trained, safety officials can be bribed, and elementary precautions are routinely dispensed with. In early April, for instance, 31 people were killed in a crash in Siberia: De-icing fluids were not used in frosty weather. The doomed plane was of French manufacture: Ground crews often lack training, or even Russian language manuals, for maintaining foreign aircraft.
In Russia, a staggering number of people are killed or seriously injured every year in car accidents, plane crashes, train derailments, and industrial disasters, the catastrophes often connected to worn-out equipment, poor maintenance, bribed safety and traffic officials, and the bane of Russian existence, alcohol. Drunken airline pilots, drivers, train conductors, and heavy-equipment operators (not to mention military personnel at the controls of tanks and personnel carriers) careen down runways, rail lines, and highways every day, leaving corpses and destroyed vehicles in their wake. Fire officials take bribes, sprinkler systems are inoperable, and emergency exits are blocked. People die, and investigations follow: Maybe some low-level officials are sacrificed, but the bosses usually escape unscathed. And the Russian way of life and death goes on.
The sinking of a dilapidated Volga River cruise ship last year, leaving 129 passengers dead, prompted some bitter commentaries on life in Russia. Vladislav Inozemtsev, writing in Moskovskiy Komsomolets, for instance, noted an astonishing lack of concern among the passengers themselves, an indifference that prompted a question: “What were those who boarded this boat thinking?” The boat was in poor condition—even the captain knew it was unsafe—but Ivan Yartsev, writing on politcom.ru, noted that the captain even brought some of his own family members on board, something Yartsev called “worse than betrayal,” an act that revealed “an idiotism, a cretinism possible only in a country where there is lack of concern not only for the lives of others, but for one’s own life.” Several commentators cast the Bulgaria, a cruise ship in which the toilets didn’t work, lacking even elementary safety precautions, as symbolic of Russia’s decay, with similar, if smaller, disasters happening every day. Corruption, cynicism, nihilism, apathy—will Russia go under as the Bulgaria did?
It might be easy to lose hope. In spite of improved living conditions and a significant slowing of population decline, some estimates have Russia’s population still on track to decline from 143 million to something below 120 million by mid-century. Russia has the same problems as other developed countries—low birthrates, broken families, drug addiction, and the like—but those problems are amplified by a staggering mortality rate, the result of many of the factors mentioned above, as well as high murder and suicide rates, and a stunning number of abortions. Materially, life is better—but morally? Young people (but not many—Russia is rapidly aging as well), they say, are our hope! Why, they never experienced the Soviet past, etc. But I’m afraid that young people as a group are as jaded, cynical, and, strange in a land known for collectivism, as radically individualist as the most hardened middle-aged Russian, and probably more so.
The Levada Center is the most respected and trusted polling agency in Russia. The Center’s Lev Gudkov was somewhat taken aback by a study of Russian youth conducted last year. Gudkov concluded that Russian youth are egotistical, envious, and greedy, do not accept basic moral principles, and have no confidence about the future (after more than a decade of “stability”). But as sociologist Sergey Golod noted, the youth of today (both boys and girls) by and large think nothing of exchanging sex for money or gifts. And these are not necessarily poor people: They have become good consumers, good lovers of money. The market reforms have worked!
So what has changed, and what has not? Life is materially better and more predictable, but the “wild 90’s” in many ways never really left Russia, and the burden of the Soviet past remains heavy. The vacuum left by communism, war, mass terror, and official atheism is being filled by a foul combination of consumerist capitalism and a magnified form of Russian fatalism that can be summed up as indifference, a huge collective shrug occasionally shaken off by a burst of activity, then a return to stasis. And fewer and fewer Russians are literate in the way they once were, while “performance art” and reality TV don’t stack up well even against Socialist Realism.
The secret of Russia is that there is no secret, only mystery. The Church remains one of the country’s most respected institutions, and many Russians will say they are Orthodox Christians, but church attendance is very low, and faith is rare. How is it that unbelief and reverence combine? Russian vlast remains paternalistic, and the narod espouses collectivist values, while displaying radical individualist behavior; indifference and apathy can convert to anarchy or supreme acts of selfless sacrifice in an instant, and then back again. Russians vote for Putin but tell pollsters they know very well whom he counts on for support—the very oligarchs, police, and bureaucracy the people despise. Many of the same people incensed about corruption have paid, or taken, bribes and would rather not have their particular official channel cut off. (How else can one get anything done?) Russians can boast of great cultural and scientific achievements, but life in Russia is in some ways as precarious as that in what used to be called the Third World. As a group, Russians are harsh and unfriendly, but friendships are deep and heartfelt . . . I could go on, dear reader, but volumes of great literature have already dealt with the paradox that is Russia. Russia is a strange country, one of surprises. And, maybe, with the help of God, she will surprise us again.
[Part 1 of this piece appeared in the September 2012 issue.]