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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Masha Gessen Decries the Neo-Soviet Union

Moscow Times columnist deplores the pathetic retro quality of the neo-Soviet Union in her column this week (note well, dear reader, that [a] Russians are such great patriots that the only way you can get them to have more children to save the country from extinction is to bribe them, and [b] Russia is a such a great "energy superpower" that all it can afford to pay for a child is $100 per month):

Some of us took an hour-long trip back to the future Wednesday afternoon. All one had to do was turn on the television and listen to President Vladimir Putin give his state-of-the-nation address to members of parliament and a slew of other officials. It looked contemporary enough, with a slick middle-aged president in a multithousand-dollar suit giving a speech in a well-lit, albeit apparently sparsely populated hall. Aside from the president's microphones not working for the first five seconds or so, the show went off without a glitch.

But if you actually listened to what the president said, you were very nearly transported to a time about 30 years ago, when the speech would have been given by a feeble old man who mangled words that he barely seemed to understand. The effect was amplified if you actually followed the camera and the message it was intended to transmit. Here we had a shot of Dmitry Kozak, once a supposed presidential successor, now exiled on a suicide mission as the president's envoy to the North Caucasus. To say he looked grim would be to say nothing. He very nearly scowled. Here we had a shot of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a current potential heir to the throne. He sat there smiling, looking happy to the point where his skin seemed to have a special oily sheen. The president singled him out during the speech, too, letting him literally speak from his seat and rewarding him with a pleased, "At the Defense Ministry they know what's most important."

Most important, according to the president's suddenly jocular remarks, is love, family and children. In other words, the demographic threat facing Russia, which, he said, is losing 700,000 people each year. To solve the problem, he said, Russia needs to reduce death rates, institute reasonable immigration policies, and grant financial and social support to women choosing to have children. He quickly passed over the first two points -- a surprising move, considering that it is life expectancy rates and weak immigration that distinguish Russia from other developed countries.

Most Western countries have low birth rates similar to Russia but maintain their population because they welcome immigrants and because their male citizens do not tend to die at an age when they would still be considered employable and capable of reproducing, as they do in Russia. But Putin's proposed solution to Russia's demographic woes is to increase the amount of money paid to women who have small children -- to just over $50 for the first child and a bit over $100 a month for the second. This is exactly the sort of thing they used to do in the Soviet Union, where financial stimuli for reproduction were put in place in the early 1980s. The result: A high number of women chose to have their second child right after their first, followed by reproductive retirement and what scholars call a "demographic pit."

Demographics was the official high point of Putin's speech. The unofficial one was his second apparent departure from the written text. When he came to the issue of foreign policy, the president suddenly began to smirk and gesticulate. After pointing out that the United States spends 25 times as much as Russia does on defense, Putin said, "This is what defense professionals call 'their home is their castle.' And good for them, good for them." But, he continued, apparently ad-libbing, that means an ever greater threat to Russia, because the United States' human rights rhetoric goes right out the window when it comes to protecting its interests abroad. But no fear: Russia has two new nuclear submarines, the first two constructed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is developing new strategic nuclear weapons. In other words, the new arms race has been officially declared, and we are off.

The president's speech ended fittingly: with the Soviet national anthem. Strictly speaking, it is the music that's Soviet while the lyrics have been renewed to drop references to the Communist Party and Lenin and to insert God. Putin may or may not know this, however: Observers have noted that he never actually sings along.

Masha Gessen is a Moscow journalist.

PS: Does anyone know why Masha is not updating her blog? The most recent entry is March 23rd and even then she was only posting her columns. What gives?

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