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Welcome to the first edition of the SRB Weekly Dispatch, a newsletter that will include some weekly thoughts, highlight important news stories, commentaries and analyses concerning Russia, and recent SRB blog posts and podcasts.
Thank you for subscribing! I hope you stick around, and more importantly you actually look at the damn thing and find it interesting.--Sean
Putin as Tsar-Batiushka
Before I address this week, it’s apropos to begin with last week’s Direct Line with Vladimir Putin™. In its fourteenth season, this slick and techno-spectacle of a very old tradition allowed Putin to slip on his Tsar-Batiushka costume and grant the people an audience. As several commentators have noted, this year’s affair lacked the bravado of the last two and mostly dealt with social-economic issues. But really it was just another demonstration of manual control. As Kirill Martynov put it in Novaya gazeta:
If you watch Direct Line for a few hours, you couldn’t help but feel the magic happening. At the table sits a highly competent person who, albeit imperfect, still has all the answers to every question—from the situation with utilities to Ukraine, and all the way up to what’s going on with hospital respirators. For a simple spectator Direct Line sends a clear message: our President, even if he isn’t ideal, is still indispensable . . . Direct Line, which for the second consecutive season allowed relative freedom to discuss sensitive issues, remains the last working state institution in the country [emphasis mine].
And literally within minutes the magic started happening. People began to get paid, criminal investigations were opened, roads fixed, and even a 5th grader got accepted to his desired summer camp. But let’s not get too excited. A day before this year's Line, a supplicant from last year’s was arrested for trying to organize a protest against unpaid wages. Shortly after the show, another was harassed by company security. Even the magical kingdom has its limits. Because, while Putin wants you to think he’s the All-Father, he really isn’t.
Ever wonder how the audience for the Direct Line is organized? RBK and BBC Russian have very good reports on how the audience is corralled and prepped.
Uncle Bastrykin
This week started off with someone letting Uncle Bastrykin out of his room and allowing him to talk to the guests again. Bastrykin’s Kommersant Vlast article (English translation here) was nothing less than the scribblings of a paranoid psychotic, or if we want to ascribe some rationality to it, a sad plea for bigger budgets. Now, one can certainly argue that the General is just “speaking Putinism” with all the fixings of the omnipresent conspiracy carried out by the evil genius United States. But as historians have shown, the Stalinists spoke the same way privately as they did publicly. So it’s entirely possible that some Putinists sincerely believe this stuff. As for his prescriptions for creating a Russian Internet firewall, as Andrei Soldatov points out, some of that’s been going on for a while.
The Center for Economic and Political Reform (TsERP) reports a sharp increase in labor protests over the last month. You can view a map of what kind and where here. TsEPR also conducted a survey in 25 regions to gauge citizens' support for including opposition parties (KPRF, Just Russia, and the LDPR) into Russian government. The survey found that 61 percent wanted their inclusion, 18 percent were against, and 21 percent found it difficult to answer. The support for the opposition's inclusion varied by region. But according to TsERP, support for its inclusion is strongest in regions deeply hit by the economic crisis.
And the state is preparing for the potential social and economic resistance. This week, a Duma committee suggested giving the newly formed National Guard the right to shoot crowds (1905 anyone?) and in Smolensk local police carried out a training exercise on how to quell protests. It’s telling that this training was not to put down urban liberals protesting for their rights or for fair elections, but provincial residents angry about high utility costs.
See how effectively the cops unfurl barbed wire. The message of this video is clear: you f-ck with us, we’ll f-ck you up.
Putin wants some “new blood” in the Russia political machine. What will be done to decalcify his blood remains an open question.
Speaking of calcified blood, Lenin turned 146 on Thursday. The Russian government has allocated $200,000 for the maintenance of his “lifelike condition.” All the while, 60 percent of Russians think they should just bury the old man. One has to wonder what’s the argument the other 40 percent give to keep Lenin preserved.
Mediazona reports that women’s detention center #6 (SIZO-6) in Moscow houses 1415 prisoners in horrible conditions even though the limit is 892, leaving 2.3 square meters per person.
Anna Karetnikova, one of the authors of a complaint [to prison authorities] describes conditions in SIZO-6 on her blog where among the detained are elderly women, women with serious illnesses, including cancer, and pregnant and nursing mothers who are in prison with their children up to three years old.
And finally, the latest issue of Foreign Affairs is dedicated to Russia and includes articles from some relatively decent people: Stephen Kotkin, Gleb Pavlovsky, Sergei Guriev, Dmitri Trenin, Fyodor Lukyanov, Maria Lipman, and Daniel Treisman. I haven’t gone through all the articles yet, but I assume they’re worth it considering the cast of characters.
To come full circle, Pavlovsky offers a cogent diagnosis of the “Putin system”:
The reality, as attested by the past two years of chaos, is that despite his image as an all-powerful tsar, Putin has never managed to build a bureaucratically successful authoritarian state. Instead, he has merely crafted his own version of sistema, a complex practice of decision-making and power management that has long defined Russian politics and society and that will outlast Putin himself. Putin has mastered sistema, but he has not replaced it with “Putinism” or a “Putin system.” Someday, Putin will go. But sistema will stay.
Down the page, he gives this very interesting exposition on sistema and its current place in Russia’s ruling structure. Forgive the lengthy quote:
In her 2013 book, Can Russia Modernise?, the political theorist Alena Ledeneva applied the term sistema to contemporary Russian governance. During the Soviet era, that word referred to the relationship among the state, the Communist Party apparatus, and the people. Ledeneva defined the term more broadly, writing that its meaning was “elusive” but suggested “the paradoxical ways in which things get done in practice—adhering to official rules and formal procedures but also following unwritten codes and practical norms.”
I have used the term in my own work, as well, and I define sistema as a style of exercising power that turns the country’s people into temporary operating resources, against their wills and in breach of their rights. Sistema is a deep-seated facet of Russian culture that goes beyond politics and ideology, and it will persist long after Putin’s rule has ended. Sistema combines the idea that the state should enjoy unlimited access to all national resources, public or private, with a kind of permanent state of emergency in which every level of society—businesses, social and ethnic groups, powerful clans, and even criminal gangs—is drafted into solving what the Kremlin labels “urgent state problems.” Under Putin, sistema has become a method for making deals among businesses, powerful players, and the people. Business has not taken over the state, nor vice versa; the two have merged in a union of total and seamless corruption.
In this version of sistema, a government minister who does nothing but give his staff a directive and oversee its implementation is considered an idler. To do his job properly, he must involve some “real” people—that is, he has to open things up so that private interests and powerful individuals can profit in some way. Thus, “orders” become “deals”; in Putin’s sistema, governance requires the temporary appropriation of the state regulator by groups of players. While participating in this game, a player may alternate his roles, moving from private entrepreneur to law enforcer, while continuing to benefit from the deals. Sistema can often work quite well, at least in the short term. In 2010, Anatoly Serdyukov, who served as Russia’s defense minister from 2007 to 2012, launched a $430 billion reform program that involved notorious instances of corruption but that also successfully modernized the Russian armed forces.
Sistema is perhaps most visibly embodied by the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament. The council is essentially a club whose members consist of institutional, regional, and business interests that set up competing “projects.” A winning project transforms a council member into a temporary monopolist who in turn distributes some of the spoils to many smaller beneficiaries. Russians are sincere in their denunciation of corrupt officials, and yet they defend and take pleasure in the paternalist comfort of sistema. They are proud of its maneuverability and flexibility: you can always find a way to get something done.

On the SRB Blog

A Letter to the Russian Elite

I was on Brian Whitmore’s Power Vertical podcast this week. In thinking over some of my comments, I realized that I was basically giving the Russian elite advice on how to be a functioning bourgeoisie. The bourgeois class project in Russia has been a historical failure. Russia’s third bourgeois is currently too busy with its head buried in the trough or is too paranoid to see the reality before it.

Latest Podcast

Russia's Foreign Policy Trajectories

Andrei Tsygankov on the world from Russia's perspective.

Next Week's Podcast

Barbara Allen on the life and times of the Old Bolshevik Alexander Shlyapnikov.

Listen and download past interviews.

Debt Collector Terror

Some of you might recall an article I wrote for Open Democracy on debt collector violence. Well, here’s a couple of recent items on the subject:
In Petrozavodsk, a kindergarten was evacuated after a debt collector threatened to blow it up if one of the schools employees didn’t pay their debt.
In Pushkino, Moscow oblast, a former agent of the Interior Ministry’s Special Rapid Response Unit was found with an arsenal of weapons in his apartment. He claimed the armory was to defend himself against debt collectors. Police found 9 handguns, 3 rifles, various calibers of ammunition, pepper spray, several bulletproof vests and ammunition for a grenade launcher.
In Ufa, a local rock musician was busted for robbing local microloan companies. Between November 2015 to January 2016, the rocker managed to steal 83,000 rubles. He admitted his guilt and told investigators that he robbed microloan outfits so he could pay back his microloans.
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