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Monday, July 24, 2006

New Times has Russia's Number

Writing in New Times, one of the most important sources of English-language insight about Russia from the horse's mouth (it is a compendium of material from the Russian weekly Novoye Vremya) Russian commentator Boris Tumanov offers a brilliant summation of the Russian question which ends with the conclusion: "We are to face a collapse of economy like the ones that wiped off first the Monarchist Russia and afterwards the Soviet Union. In both cases Russia went down, not under the pressure of an opposition. … It was crushed by the weight of its own stupidity and inefficiency." It begins with the caption: "Even if the West wanted to destroy Russia, it would not lift a finger to do so. Because it sees us doing it successfully on our own."

In the days of painful thoughts of Putin’s third presidency, of the fate of Russian liberals, of the future of the REN-TV channel and the smart sweep of the national corruption one has but one wish: to see the end of it all, and the sooner the better. And right away it comes to one’s mind that it all can end only with the end of Russia itself. At least with that national and territorial phenomenon that has been the meaning of Russia’s existence since the times of Peter the Great. In the terms of history, the end of that phenomenon is quite close.

Sooner or later energy prices are bound to hit the bottom and with it will come the end of Russia’s oil and gas. In the second half of this century hemp, blubber and timber will hardly be hot items on the world market. To all appearances, we are inherently unable to produce handicrafts competitive with those of Japan and China which, having almost no minerals, manage to produce a mass of useful goods. And in that Russia that we, unfortunately, have not yet lost, there is hardly anyone to master the crafts. Besides, with the current rates of mortality in Russia, within some thirty years, that is, by the time specialists say Russia’s oil bonanza is bound to end, there will be 30 million less Russians.

In other terms, we are to face a collapse of economy like the ones that wiped off first the Monarchist Russia and afterwards the Soviet Union. In both cases the authority in Russia went down not under the pressure of an opposition or an intelligent civic movement: it was crushed by the weight of its own stupidity and inefficiency.

Repetition of the past

True, though, the inspired but chaotic activity of the masses left for a time out of government control both in February of 1917 and August of 1991 was interpreted by genial observers as a democratic impulse of the Russians after suffering the horrors of, respectively, czarism and totalitarianism. Actually, in either case it was a feast of disobedience when the children who had overrated the uncustomary freedom soon got tired of it and felt uncomfortable. Just like the people who had heard much about some exotic dish and stuffed themselves with it when they got a chance, suffering from indigestion after which they resumed the rustic diets with more devotion. In both cases, Russia’s other trouble was that the men who thrust themselves as pastors upon many millions of ex-serfs of the monarchy and the Soviet regime did not have the slightest idea of practical application of democracy that was to them like a collection of ritual incantations.

It was so much evident in 1917 that even superficial observers did not miss it. In May of that year, that is, between the abdication of the last Romanov and the October coup d’etat, the St.Petersburg reporter of the French Le Temps (forerunner of today’s Le Monde) published in Paris a booklet with an exhaustive description of the situation prevailing in Russia at the time. He wrote about the civic inertia of the Russian masses, about the absolute uselessness of the petty lawyers who were sitting in session in the Tavria Palace only to enjoy their own oratory, and predicted (hitting the nail!) a speedy and inevitable coming to power of fanatical maximalists (Bolsheviks) as the only organized political force that knew what aims it was pursuing.

It should be noted that their purposefulness was exceptional for the Russian tradition of senseless riots. Simply, intent on a world revolution, the Bolsheviks were following an inaccurately aped idea of Karl Marx in the hope of turning Russia into the bridgehead for a future offensive against the world’s capitalism. There is no water in the assertions that the Bolsheviks cut short violently a democratic development of Russia. It was as naive to hope that in the early 20th century the Russian masses led by drawing-room liberals would joyfully rush to the temple of freedom as to attempt to teach a dinosaur to jump a hurdle. In fact, Russia got pregnant with a dictatorship right after it had got rid of the autocracy, and the Bolsheviks’ part had been just that of a midwife. Even more: it was impossible to bring the stirred up Russia back into obedience by means other than most ferocious.

This is emphasized by the fact that even today more than a half of Russians recall with some reverent nostalgia Stalin’s “order.”In 1991 ‘the putsch of the shaking hands’ put a merciful end to the Soviet regime’s agony.The Soviet people (who were, in fact, government-owned serfs), after the starvation in the desert of one-party system and planned economy, decided right away that they had to change their biotope and come out to the expanse of the ocean of the world’s liberalism. They thought that all would end with the change of slogans to “Long live liberalism and its daughter democracy!” And we would live like in the States. When it became clear that such a voyage presupposed elementary knowledge of shipbuilding, sailing and navigation and that their intricacies required extensive studying, including learning from mistakes, the people felt offended again and got pregnant once more, this time with statism.

Quality of the population

In simpler terms, as soon as it became clear that the road to democracy presumed a cardinal change of relations between the authority and society, as well as a civic responsibility, we hurried to pull back ashore the raft we had just launched imitating a sea travel while attempting to live in our habitual milieu. We sound bells, steer the ship and promise to catch up with the Portuguese caravel in about fifteen years. We do it sitting on sand far from the ocean surf but next to the oil well that has been feeding us since the Soviet times. Well, this is but a lyrical digression. Actually, the post-Soviet reality made its start almost in the same way as the post-monarchy reality had done early last century.

I am far from shooting at our home-made liberals: they did what they could. They did it within the limits of their conceptions of the “invisible hand of the market” that allegedly puts things in their proper places, and within the limits of their too naive or totally absent ideas of “the quality of Russia’s population” of which Academician Abalkin spoke sceptically and quite rightly as far back as the perestroika time.By the way, speaking of the population’s quality. Our so to say elite limply protests against epithets of “wild” and “bandit” that the civilized countries apply to our capitalism, but is secretly convinced that it is akin to Dickens’ capitalism and is sincerely waiting for Russia to turn into a Great Britain of today within some twenty or thirty years. Meanwhile, it lures the populace into crediting institutions with low taste advertising bordering on profanity of a kind that cannot be imagined not only in a European nation but even in the poorest member of the CIS.

So, ours is not a wild or a bandit capitalism. It is a homespun lumpen capitalism. So it is not only the question of whether the economic decisions of our liberals were right or wrong. The homespun environment is capable of digesting any faultless rules. The matter is different.After the Soviet system crushed, it left behind, in fact, a political vacuum. The Communists were deep in a prostration, while the so-called liberal parties and movements were rather clubs according to their interests where the Russian intellectuals bared their true nature at last and plunged into empty discussions and conceptual fights. Zhirinovsky’s success in 1993 election did not put our democrats on guard, and, up to the stunning slap of 1993 Duma election, they had been sincere in their conviction that they were deservedly and irreversibly incorporated into the governing political spectrum. It took a complete and, apparently, irreversible loss of their electoral chances and shrinking to the size of the exotic Committee-2008 for young Maria Gaidar to recover sight and give up her initial intention of balloting for a seat in the Moscow Duma. She evidently followed advice of grownup liberals and said that since she was going to stay in politics, she would do everything to prevent her name from flickering in the society pages. Who knows, maybe, had Irina Khakamada in her time resisted the temptation of partying and speaking from rostrums, she would have been still taken seriously by her now past electorate.But, speaking of serious matters, who can say today what would have been the fate of the liberal idea in Russia had our liberals taken the trouble to look back at Russia (evident to everyone who has even rudimentary knowledge of its social nature) to realize that our so to say middle class, victimized as it is by its feeling of inferiority, represents, by definition, the feeding ground not so much for liberal ideas as they thought but for a thick super power sentiment.

Many people still harbor the illusion that the current marginalization of the liberals is temporary, that any moment now a new and enlightened generation of Russians will come, inside which a full-value liberal faction and a full-value opposition will ripen. Forget it, gentlemen! There will be nothing of the kind. The people, who once again came to believe that they are a God-bearer and again have fallen into their customary Byzantine lethargy, will not let it. The people who traditionally snarl at Europe and still easier believe in their rustic majesty. And, of course, the authority would not let it. The very authority that is so much afraid of the word ‘opposition’ that is ready to shoot at anyone in the vicinity of the Kremlin who announce, without permission, an intention to run for the Duma or, God forbid, for the presidency.

The dependents

It is clear today that the liberal area has shrunk to the dissidents’ kitchen parties. The liberal opposition has deteriorated into a kind of hobby. LR: Let's be clear about the reason this has happened: Nobody is selling liberalism in Russia for the same reason nobody is selling Communism in Ameria. There are no buyers. Russia is the illiberal nation.

Things went so far that, lacking any election-worthy personalities within their ranks, the caretakers of democracy have become, in effect, dependents of the authority.A misfortune came to help. The Kremlin people were foolish enough to jail Khodorkovsky and thus provided a martyr – a candidate. What would have happened had he not been jailed? Would it be necessary to wait until the dacha of Kasyanov was seized and he jailed? One wonders: do they really believe that our population will be filled with sympathy for the persecuted? Or did they give way to despair?

By the way, another manifestation of our liberals’ dependence is still their counting on the West. They believe that if they explain to the United States and Europe that the Putin regime is moving on to authoritarianism, they will fold up with it, and the scared Putin will behave. They just do not want to believe that the West does not care a damn for the fate of democracy in Russia. Not because the West is so egoistic and hypocritical, and not because it does not like the Russians. But because of its quite right philosophy that saving a drowning man is that man’s own job. You got your desert if you had failed to make use of the chance history has given you. This position of the West was exhaustingly set forth by the French ex-minister of the interior Charles Pasqua who, in a private discussion with this author some fifteen years ago, complained about the ‘chaos’ that Gorbachev’s perestroika had inflicted on Europe. “Indeed”, he said, “for half a century we had in the East the Soviet Union as a dark and hostile force, a kind of an ice shelf.

But we knew, at least, what it was capable of and we knew how to behave. We had quite a comfortable life compared to these days when we do not know what it will boil down to with you when the habitual order is being crushed. You can object, of course, with reference to your fierce regime, your people’s sufferings, to the GULAG and repressions, but, excuse me, young man, those are your problems. Even if we assume the West’s sweet dream is destruction of Russia, it will not lift a finger to contribute to its ruin because it sees us doing it quite successfully on our own. To make a harsher comparison as long as the Russian society exists it has always been the hill of a certain substance described by Krylov and La Fontaine, but, unlike the one of the fable, with an abnormally high content of pearls. Using the politically correct language, it means an inert mass inherently incapable of articulating its interests, whatever the government, and of consistently standing for them, as well as a much smaller part of our society that is known for its intellectual and creative achievements, culture, erudition and thirst for free thought.

These two components do not interact at all. The populists’ attempt to disregard the laws of social chemistry and to share with the mass of farmers their knowledge and views of the world with the aim of awakening its civic consciousness was useless and ignorant. Because, with all their erudition and passion for European examples of social evolution, these people do not even suspect that emancipation of society does not come about as a result of freedom-loving speeches but as a result of economic freedom.

Uncontrollable authoritarianism

Alas, the Russian society has so much ossified in its Byzantine rut that an economic freedom as such is no longer sufficient to stimulate a natural progress of the civic society. In other words, to emancipate society, a catalyst is needed to provoke the fusion of the mass and the “pearls,” that is, the meaningful enlightening interference by the state to encourage an evolutionary formation of the civic society.

One cannot say that the Russian authorities have always been unaware of this public need: it is not by chance that since the times of Empress Catherine II to these days our rulers have been talking hypocritical nonsense about “enlightened authoritarianism” and “controlled democracy.” But enlightenment and democracy, and particularly economic freedom, invariably would stop at the point where the authorities had to give account to the society that had realized its rights and the consequent danger of losing its limitless omnipotence appeared. Let us face the truth: there is an objective phenomenon of Vladimir Putin’s popularity today, his invariably high ratings and the willingness of a majority of Russians to keep him in power for a third term if not for life. But it is not at all related to his personal or political merits. Above all it is rooted in our slavishly thoughtless reliance on the kindly, God-fearing and teetotal master. Provided things don’t go worse.

But has Putin used his real prestige once in the last five years to insist, for instance, on eroding the officialdom’s boundless sway that suppresses economic freedom but encourages the “bandit capitalism”? Or on a real encouragement of small and medium business? Has he, or his entourage resorted in the last five years to the authority of power at least to explain to his unwise flock the virtues of democracy? (After all, he used to talk about the patriarchal and paternalist nature of the Russian society)? Or of an unbiased civic thinking? Or of a general obedience to law by all without exceptions? Or of civic responsibility? Answers to all these questions are evident to all.

First, Putin realizes perfectly well that his compatriots will not understand him should he address them with such sermons. The chief’s raving, they’d say. Second, his own people will censure him if not suspect him of treason, with all the ensuing consequences for the guarantor of the constitution. Indeed, for the first time in many centuries the Russian authority has got the good fortune to rake in fantastic money without trouble and for everyone to see (o God, oil at $70 a barrel and even higher in the future!). Would it kill the hen that lays golden eggs? As to the constitution which is being courted by numerous advocates of the third term, it is certainly a thing of no use in Russia. It is something like an Egyptian pyramid drawn inside a peasant’s cottage to look as good as the neighbors’. There is nothing the thing can be applied to, it doesn’t let you walk around your rooms, and so it is being dismantled piece by piece so that it doesn’t make life difficult.

We have no other country

A few days back a sentence to today’s Russia was passed by Dmitry Kozak, the president’s plenipotentiary in the Southern Federal District. At a meeting with mothers of Beslan he heard irrefutable facts concerning the investigation of the Beslan school seizure by terrorists. The investigation cast off all evidence that may contradict the official version of why hundreds of people had died a tragic death. “As to the conduct of the investigators.”, started Kozak, and suddenly stated: “That’s our country.”Yes, that is our country. The country where the investigation and courts exist for the sole purpose to serve the authority’s whims. The country where corruption has become a way of life. The country where the authority is not responsible for its criminal mistakes. The country where human life is not worth a penny. The country where the authority customarily identifies itself with the state and thus considers the budget money its property. The country where the law is a tool in the hands of the powers that be. The country that wages a senseless and suicidal war against its own citizens. The country whose population is absolutely indifferent to these glaring abominations of their existence. And so it is doomed to disappear.

Either President Putin has inadequate knowledge of his own society, or customarily plays the hypocrite. Of late, he has been making too frequent hints that today he is called to account for some people’s crazy idea to break down the wonderful and efficient Soviet Union populated by brilliant professionals. It means that the current authority does not have, nor will ever have strength, will or elementary sense to make changes in its behavior, not even for its own self-preservation. Also because the people keep silent traditionally and obediently.But let us imagine something improbable: President Putin gets grace and says all the truth about the real situation in Russia, and in an outburst of patriotic repentance begs his electorate to grant him a third term so that he would, as far as possible, repair “the sad fruit of his labors.”

You know, I think I would vote for him. At least out of curiosity. The trouble, however, is that people will not vote for such a “weeping Bolshevik” if he said he needed a third term to screw nuts tight for the grandeur of Russian State and to keep in awe the foes who seek to grab a tasty piece of the long-suffering Russia, to punish “the fifth column” fattening with the money of Soros and other foreign non-government bodies, to show the world what’s what, etc., our people would vote him in for a life presidency. And do it with delight.So, do not harbor illusions, there will be no ennobling evolution in the Russian society. Nor a revolution. Particularly one of an orange hew.We shall disintegrate on our own. As soon as we run out of money.


copydude said...

quote: Sooner or later energy prices are bound to hit the bottom

This article starts by getting the laws of supply and demand back to front. Notice no rationale ventured whatsoever.

quote: To all appearances, we are inherently unable to produce handicrafts competitive with those of Japan and China

Neither is America, by the way. But unlike America, Russia is not running a 200 billion trade deficit with China, nor has it lost 1,5 million jobs to the Far East.

And unlike America, Russia has vast reserves of energy. If the sky really is falling, it's going to fall on your friends in Langley first.

Quote: New Times, one of the most important sources of English-language insight about Russia

Says who :-)

La Russophobe said...

COPYDUDE: So what are you saying, that you think Russians are foolish? Welcome to the club! If you think this fellow misunderstands economics (we don't agree), just imagine what you would think if you heard Vlad Putin talk freely about it, he who has never run a business or studied economics.

In any case, the article makes truly brilliant and cuttingly accurate observations about Russian history, something you seem deeply unfamiliar with, and hence we greatly admire it. What's more, the author shows tremendous personal courage and we feel this qualifies him as much more of a national hero than the "President" of Russia himself.

Your comment about America is profoundly ignorant. I guess you've never heard of such things as Ford, Levis and Wrigleys. Proctor & Gamble? Frito Lay? Coca-Cola? Hmmm? America dominates the world economy like a colossus and Russia, for all intents and purposes, is not even present in it.

Even if you were right about America, the world's economic and military superpower with the world's oldest and most stable constitution, being doomed, it's the sad (rather pathetic actually) last Neo-Soviet resort of a Russophile to say that even though Russia is doomed, America is also doomed. Not much consolation in that absurd canard for the Russians who live in squalor, I'm afraid.

Russia's energy resources are finite, American ingenuity is infinite (by the way, America produces roughly the same amount of energy as Russia does, it simply uses far more because of its huge econmy). Russia's resources will get harder and harder to extract (as the author points out) and the world will move away from fossil fuels, making them less and less desirable anyway. When Russia's resources run out it will disappear, that is what the article is saying with great perspicacity. That's why you, for example, don't move to Russia.

copydude said...

Neither you nor the New Times is able to support its glib propaganda.

There's a lot of hype abou eco and bio fuels. Just one being that they aren't 100% bio - biodiesel is mixed minimum 30% with petroleum products. Brazil's much hyped biodiesel vehicles are actually running around on just 2% vegetable-sourced products and will take some years to achieve 20%.

Another problem of biofuels is that they use more energy to produce than they deliver. Yet another that they cost more than regular gasoline. Moreover, the likelihood of Europe being turned over to soya beans and sugar cane is also infinitesmal, even if it had the land mass, soil and climate.

If you really think energy prices are going to bottom, saybe you and The New Times would like to consider why the UK Government has just announced revisiting nuclear energy, even with its fantastic start up and waste disposal costs, long implementation times and banked public opposition.

So, yes, I'd put my money on a country that has energy rather than one that hasn't.

Your comment about America is profoundly ignorant. I guess you've never heard of such things as Ford, Levis and Wrigleys. Proctor & Gamble? Frito Lay? Coca-Cola? Hmmm? America dominates the world economy like a colossus

America dominates the world because it prints dollars at will - no indication of economic health - and because it has the world's biggest gang of genocidal war criminals. However, the dollar's reserve currency status is being eroded while America's increasingly ugly unnacceptability is decimating its international consumer base. Of course I have heard of Ford - and the 15 plants it has closed in the last year. At the same time, GM has been overtaken by Toyota as the world's biggest car maker and Coca Cola is scratching around in Turkmenistan bribing despots to support its flagging European sales. Levi Strauss profitability is underwritten by exploiting 12 year old girls in Chinese sweat shops, as if 2/3 of the world needed any excuse to boycott American goods. At this rate, the only American commodities people abroad will buy will be flags. For burning. And even those will be made in the Far East.

La Russophobe said...

COPYDUDE: There is no need for either of us to support anything until you challenge a specific factual assertion we have made. When/if you do, by producing your own evidence that the statement is wrong, we will happily provide source material to substantiate any claim we have made. It's rather odd and hypocritical for someone whose comments are totally devoid of citation to source material to have raised this claim.

America produces roughly the same amount of crude oil as Russia does, look it up. The only reason that Russia has energy to export is that it's domestic industry is a total disaster, on the verge of extinction, so it doesn't need energy. If Russia didn't have that energy, it would be bankrupt.

What's more, America's close ally Canada has oil shale resources that exceed Russia's and when these come fully online Russia's resouces will become largely meaningless.

If America printed dollars at will, it would have massive inflation. However, in actual fact it is Russia that has double-digit inflation, not America. It is Russia that has an average monthly wage of $300, and it is America that has a massive hoard of people waiting to enter the country, while Russia's population dwindles to nothing.

You cannot name a single significant consumer product Russia has ever placed into the international stream of commerce.

If you choose to invest your money in Russia rather than America, we wish you good luck and bountiful painkillers. If you are betting against America in the geopolitical arena, we think you've already overdosed on them. If you are betting against America and on Russia, we're sure you on something way stronger than painkillers! Enjoy your trip!