From Tue Nov 8 18:30:23 2005
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Snapshots from Russia now
Date: Tue, 8 Nov 2005 23:59:18 +0100 (CET)

A culture of turmoil and hopelessness

By Carine Clément and Denis Paillard, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2005

Snapshots from Russia now

Russian culture is on show in an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and at the 20th Europalia festival in Brussels, which was opened by President Vladimir Putin. But the realities of Russia now undermine his image-building efforts more than any hostile propaganda.


Stereotypes about Russia and the Russians abound in the West across the political spectrum: greatness of soul, generosity, excesses, vast spaces, boundless freedom, all revised and corrected after a dip into Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The mythical Russian soul, with its unplumbed depths, is seen as a mixture of revolutionary romanticism and fatalism or a combination of market virtues and religious devotion. Russia, it seems, is in another galaxy where the inexorable logic of capitalist globalisation and pressures for an alternative do not apply.

The reality is more banal. Besides the harsh government and brutal social relations inherited from Soviet times, Russia is now experiencing the violence of market forces, the cynicism that goes with quantities of money, the creed of every man for himself, the materialism of the consumer society. Here, as elsewhere, humanity is in short supply.


The Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991 and replaced by 15 states. Russia survives within the narrower confines of the Russian Federation, heir to the Soviet Union and the tsarist regime. But what does the future hold for this country, or this continent, Eurasia? Neither Boris Yeltsin nor Vladimir Putin has really found the answer. Will it too collapse or become a great power once more? Opinion in Russia is divided.

Putin rapidly reversed Yeltsin's policy of granting full autonomy to the regions. It is widely thought that he intends to rebuild Russia and restore the authority of the state, privatised by Yeltsin and the oligarchs, but this seems extremely doubtful. Order has been forcibly restored in a situation that was out of control and threatened the country's existence. But the concentration of power, advocated after hostage-taking and the Beslan massacre of 3 September 2004, may generate further tension with regions resisting encroachment by the central authorities.

This show of force by the government, with the police turning out each time, masks an inability to establish the rule of law. Putin's Russia, like the Soviet and tsarist regimes, is a state-dominated society. The president has successfully nipped in the bud any party, trade union or association that could be capable of representing and defending the interests of classes and sections of society against the state. Moshe Lewin has shown how this lack of a political system was an important factor in the Soviet crisis (1).

Russia has made it clear, in its dealings with the states of the former Soviet Union, that it has by no means abandoned the imperial pretensions of the tsarist and Soviet regimes. Unfortunately it lacks the resources to support its claims, as may be seen in its conduct of the war in Chechnya and its waning influence in the Caucasus and the new states that emerged after the break-up of the Soviet Union.


The conflict there is a festering sore. The Russian forces and back-up troops are engaged in theft and violence, and the radical Islamists are gaining strength, with the appointment of Shamil Basayev as vice-premier of Ichkeria/Chechnya on 25 August 2005, after the assassination of Aslan Maskhadov in March. The Chechen people are the real victims in this war which, from the Russian point of view, is both too remote and too close for comfort.

It is affecting the rest of the Caucasus and southern Russia. The human rights organisation Memorial reports that Ingushetia and Dagestan are going the same way. War has not broken out yet but abductions, purges, denial of justice, raids and assassinations are rife. Violence is spreading like poison. The terrorists can strike anyone, anywhere and at any time. The regular troops and militia carry the Chechen syndrome home with them, haunted by the horrors they have witnessed and committed. It is said that police violence has increased because the state has adopted and legalised the summary methods employed by the Russian army in Chechnya.

In Blagovetchensk, Bashkiria, hundreds were injured in police raids in December 2004. But no one was called to account, despite mass protests. At Lgov, in the Kursk region, 800 prisoners cut their wrists on 27 June 2005 to protest against ill-treatment by guards. They were charged with breach of the peace. At Elista, in the Republic of Kalmykia, 300 people were chased and beaten after an opposition demonstration on 22 September 2004; 120 were imprisoned and one died of his injuries. More than a year later, not a single policeman has been brought to trial. In the district of Elbruz in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkar, there were raids in June and July 2005 to punish the people for daring to voice their opposition to the head of the republic.

The Putin government has no compunction about invoking the war against terror to justify infringements of democratic rights and attacks on the opposition. Many demonstrations have been banned because of the terrorist threat; the election of regional governors was cancelled on the same pretext after the Beslan tragedy. Is a governor appointed by the president better equipped to fight terrorism than one elected by the people?


The collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States was accompanied by substantial migration. Between 1990 and 2002 more than 8 million out of 25 million Russians living outside the country managed, with some difficulty, to return to Russia. Jews, and many non-Jews, half of them from Russia, emigrated; 940,000 to Israel and 170,00 to Germany; 2.1 million Volga Germans left for Germany, 600,000 from Russia and the rest from Central Asia, where they had been deported by Stalin (2).

The pattern of migration has changed since then. People who had chosen to settle in western Siberia and the far north are returning to European Russia. Refugees from the Caucasus are flooding into southern Russia. Many people in the new states, from Ukraine to Central Asia, are drawn towards the Russian Federation in search of work and better pay: 3-5 million depending on the season. Most are employed in the building trade, forestry, farming, commerce and services, with a million in Moscow mainly on large construction projects. Immigration from China, limited to Moscow and the border areas, is sporadic and brief, each stay being less than four months.

Almost all these workers are nelegaly, illegal immigrants living outside the law. This makes them vulnerable to forced labour: their passports confiscated, they are housed in huts, work inhuman hours on subsistence wages, are paid late, dismissed at the least hint of protest, and subject to harassment and extortion by the militia and to the whims of the authorities, who often conspire with the slave-drivers that exploit these workers.

Nelegaly within the Russian Federation are in the same boat. These are workers who leave their own region for a more prosperous one, in the hope of finding work on a building site. They are open to exploitation. They may be citizens of the Russian Federation in their own region but they have almost no rights in any other. In a hang-over from the Soviet period, political and social rights, such as access to housing and medical care require a residence permit issued under the system of propiska.

The nelegaly, both foreign immigrants and Russian citizens, are a graphic example of the realities in Russia, where lack of rights, corruption and random policing are endemic. The government imposes immigration quotas but they are mostly fictitious and controls are lax. Demographic experts stress that immigration is vital to a country that is losing a million people a year to emigration. Even more manpower will be needed to rebuild the economy.


According to a survey conducted by Yuri Levada's Public Opinion Research Institute in June 2005 (3), 58% of people agree to some extent with the slogan “Russia for the Russians”. This is an indication of the growing hold of nationalist ideas in a land where people are encouraged to regard outsiders as the chief cause of their present ills. This view of the world coincides with the unofficial line that the government has taken since 2000, claiming to pursue a policy of defending the might of Russia against those at home and abroad who want to undermine it. These include NGOS, denounced by Putin in his 2004 address to the nation as a fifth column financed by foreigners.

This nationalist gloss on the government's ultra-liberal policy marks a turning point, a change from the 1990s, when such talk was the exclusive prerogative of the patriotic opposition led by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which accused the Yeltsin government of being in the pay of foreigners intent on destroying Russia. The idea has been widely publicised and has become common currency, with shelves of nationalist literature in libraries around the country. The opposition, robbed of its favourite subject, is reduced to sniping, accusing the government of not defending the interests of Greater Russia vigorously enough. Anti-semitism is still rife but the xenophobic talk is focused mainly on the war in Chechnya, on non-Russian immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, and on United States imperialists, still seen as enemies of Russia.

Such talk has a real impact on the population, who are ready to accept it. People in Russia, like anywhere else, look for scapegoats and blame outsiders near and far, given the deterioration in their living conditions and the feeling that they are powerless to influence the course of events and have no future to which they can look forward. In some regions the influx of refugees, particularly from Chechnya, represents a real threat to those people already living in poverty. The treatment of Russians in some newly established states, especially the Baltic countries, and the bloodless revolutions, which are seen as a US plot, add to the sense that Russia is the victim of sinister foreign machinations.

Words are translated into deeds, which usually go unpunished; there have been hundreds of attacks and many murders (40 in 2004, according to human rights organisations' records). “Skinheads” are mostly responsible. They were relatively rare in Soviet times, found mainly among Moscow football supporters, but there are now 50,000-60,000 or more. There is little intercommunication between their gangs, but they all share the same far-right ideology behind their actions—acts of aggression, anti-Caucasian pogroms in markets, attacks on demonstrations or concerts. A sign of the times: the skinheads accused the Yeltsin government of being Zionist, but they support Putin and praise him as a defender of national values. They are reciprocally wooed by the majority United Russia party and the pro-Putin youth movement, Nashi. They have recently turned their attention to opposition militants rather than people whose skins are the wrong colour.


Let us shed a tear for poor Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos petroleum company, the oligarch hailed by the West as a martyr to the Kremlin's repressive policy when he was sentenced on 1 June to nine years in prison for embezzlement. Dozens of oligarchs should have been tried with him, since they were all equally unconcerned with legality in their rush to get their hands on national resources. But the democrats who hasten to his defence should not forget other prisoners of conscience in Putin's Russia, including dozens of young militants of the National Bolshevik party (4). Some have already been sentenced to terms of one to three years in prison for purely symbolic acts, others face up to eight years for attempting to seize power. Their crime was to occupy presidential administration offices, armed with tracts and banners.

The oligarchs—Vladimir Potanin, Oleg Deripaska, Roman Abramovich, Alexander Khloponin and many more—are doing very well, thank you. They had the foresight to assure the Kremlin of their loyalty, unlike Khodorkovsky, who gave the government an opportunity to declare war on oligarchs, a concession to public opinion, which is deeply hostile to the men who are privatising national resources on the cheap.

The older generation of oligarchs have retired from politics to concentrate on their business interests but there is a new generation coming up, more discreet than their predecessors but just as rich and powerful. Seven members of the president's entourage controlled 40% of Russia's GNP in 2004 (5). They are directors or managing directors of private or semi-state-owned companies that enjoy quasi-monopoly status. The most prominent include Dimitri Medvedev, head of the presidential administration and director of the gas monopoly Gazprom; his assistant, Igor Sechin, director of the Rosneft oil company; Alexander Voloshin, former head of the presidential administration and director of the electricity giant RAO EES; and Alexei Kudrin, finance minister and director of the Alros diamond company and the powerful Vneshtorg bank.

The tendency for top political and economic jobs to be held concurrently certainly does not represent any covert renationalisation of important sectors of the economy. The state continues to retreat, and the companies controlled by these oligarchs constantly regroup to avoid any risk of diminishing profits.


The CPRF, which was the principal opposition force in the 1990s and the majority party in the Duma until 1999, is now a shadow of its former self. Its fall is due as much to its own change of direction as to any blows from the Kremlin. As soon as it was formed in February 1993, the CPRF threw itself into the task of building a grand patriotic movement, with national rather than social aims, designed to defend Russia's position as a great power. The chairman of the central committee, Gennadi Zyuganov, became a fervent proponent of the Russian ideal, producing a pamphlet, Russian by Blood and Russian in Spirit (6). In another tract, Great Power, he depicts the Soviet era as an unfortunate episode in a long history in which continuity, from the tsarist empire to the USSR, is more important than any break.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this as an attempt to repair the ideological damage after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This national state idea is deeply rooted in the past. During the debates that accompanied the birth of the Soviet Union, Lenin accused Stalin of defending the idea of Russia as a great power in direct line with the tsarist empire. But, as Moshe Lewin points out (8), what Lenin regarded as the worst insult became a compliment in the 1970s. The historian Nikolai Mitrokhin shows how the nationalism attached to the idea of Greater Russia has been the ruling ideal of significant groups in the Communist party and the state apparatus of the Russian Federation since the mid-1950s (9).

When the Soviet Union broke up, the CPRF devoted most of its energy to retaining a modicum of power at the centre and in the regions. It had some success but was not consistent in denouncing a government that was destroying Russia. Although it held a majority in the Duma until 1999, it never made any real attempt to cause difficulties. It kept a low profile in the trade unions, taking the view that the social struggle should serve its power strategies. Early in 2005 the CPRF tried in vain to lead the protest against the commercialisation of social security rights, opposing any unitarian coordination over which it would have no control.

The nationalist stance adopted by the government has reduced the margin for manoeuvre of the party that claimed to be the defender of Russia's traditional interests. Especially as the Kremlin has no scruples about systematically suborning the Communist leaders. The Red millionaire Gennadi Semigin has carried the offensive to the heart of the party, allegedly paying off officials with sackfuls of dollars. The climax of subversion was an alternative congress in July 2004 timed to coincide with the tenth CPRF congress, a step towards the disappearance of a party whose increasingly poor showing at the polls reflects its lack of credibility as an effective opposition force.


How do you present a political dimension that does not exist, or exists only as a pretence, a show? Since 2000 the Kremlin has successfully blocked the political system that began to take shape in the previous decade, and set about organising political life on the principle of one party, one union, one civil society.

Putin's reelection in March 2004 was followed by measures designed to put institutional life on hold and prevent new players emerging. Official obstacles to strikes and demonstrations were strengthened, direct elections of regional governors and mayors were cancelled, it became almost impossible to hold a referendum or vote for a single member in national parliamentary elections, the threshold for admission to the party register was raised from 5% to 7%, and new parties were not allowed to register. To survive in opposition, they are forced, like the CPRF or Rodina, the Motherland party, to play by the Kremlin's rules.

This also applies to civil society. In December 2001 5,000 representatives of associations and NGOs attending a citizens' forum at the Palace of Congress in the Kremlin were required to show their loyalty to Putin. Now the government makes doubly sure by setting up representative bodies, such as the new civic chamber which brings together distinguished experts, outstanding artists, heads of associations and union leaders, all chosen more or less directly by the president for their high sense of civic responsibility. They will be invited to give expert opinions on draft legislation to be proposed by the president and adopted by his party. Independent opinions, of course.

But the plan is not without pitfalls. The lack of opportunities for institutions to pressure the political authorities means that sections of society have to find another way to express their anxieties, aspirations and demands. More people are taking to the streets. More than a million came out between January and March this year to protest against the commercialisation of social security benefits. The associations, unions and political parties must choose: either stick to the strategy of chasing votes and lobbying the government, or listen to what people want and begin the risky course of open opposition. In the long term this could well lead to a reaction against the monolithic power of the Kremlin.


Moscow isn't Russia. For most people, the capital is the repository of wealth beyond their reach and the seat of a central government that is plundering the provinces.

Putin is behind moves to recentralise power and resources. In his view, his predecessor allowed the regional authorities too much autonomy in every area, political, legal and economic. Putin took political measures to strengthen the vertical axis of power which is now secured by the appointment of regional governors and the dominant position of the ruling party, United Russia, in almost all regional and local parliaments and other bodies. The central government is equally greedy in resources. Under reforms introduced in June 2003, the proportion of taxes taken by the central government rose from 50% to 60% and was not offset by any increase in budget allocations to the regions, most of which depend on the government for funds. Only 15 out of 49 regions have their own budgets.

Under the current reforms, the regions are responsible for funding most public services: health services for the unemployed, education from nursery to secondary school level, and even some higher education institutions in the public sector, reclassified as regional establishments. In the sweeping reforms of summer 2004, the division of responsibility for the partial funding of social services was changed to the detriment of the regions, which now bear the lion's share of these costs. Only part of the new costs are covered by budget allocations, which are conditional on regional authorities providing proofs of loyalty.

The consequences of this policy are already being felt. Schools and hospitals are being closed, teachers' and doctors' salaries frozen, and free access to healthcare, medicines and public transport is being phased out. In many regions, the regional and municipal authorities' increasing inability to fulfil their social obligations is beginning to undermine their legitimacy. In the long term, these reforms will aggravate regional disparities and fuel the drive to centralise power.


New movements have emerged in the past year. The “useless members of society” are in revolt: the old, the sick, students with no future, workers living in hostels, abandoned to their fate in disaster-stricken regions, all the people who are sick of the government's anti-social policies. They have deserted the traditional organisations and are preparing to carry on the struggle in separate bodies and networks of their own.

Last winter tens of thousands took to the streets of almost every town, sometimes every day, to protest against a law that threatened social security rights. The people met this sweeping antisocial offensive with equal resistance, based on down-to-earth demands: free transport and medicines, educational grants, lower charges for water and electricity. The movement has helped to define a political system that has nothing to do with the official institutional framework:

Besides all these, people are acting on their own initiative. Local campaigns are mounted on specific practical issues, to combat plans to put up a block of flats or car park on a local recreation ground, to turn people out of workers' hostels, or police brutality. There are many campaigns and moves to coordinate them, often with the help of the more active councils. This is a social movement with a future.


(1) See Russia/USSR/Russia: the drive and drift of a superstate, The New Press, New York, 1995.

(2) These figures are taken from Anne de Tinguy, La grande migration, Plon, Paris, 2004.

(3) Quoted by the radio station Ekho Moskvy. The survey covered 1,600 people in 46 regions. The opinion seems to be prevalent among highly educated young people with jobs.

(4) Organisation established by the writer Eduard Limonov, whose eclectic ideological references range from far right to far left. It brings together young people attracted primarily by the prospect of direct action against the government.

(5) Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Moscow, 26 July 2005.

(6) Published by Palea, Moscow, 1996.

(7) Published by Informpechat, Moscow, 1994.

(8) See Le siècle soviétique, Le Monde diplomatique-Fayard, Paris, 2003.

(9) In Russkaya partija: Dvizenie ruskii natsionalistov v SSSR 1953–1985, Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, Moscow, 2003.