Import replacement. Self-sufficiency. The classical Russian endurance to hardship. Spiritual values. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov doesn’t have time for any of these things. See all that patriotic bullshit is for ordinary Russians, not the elite. The elite gets to have weddings in an elite hotel where rooms start at $580 a night. The elite gets to wear watches worth over half a million dollars, in spite of their far lower official salary. The children of the elite, like Peskov’s daughter, prefer to live abroad, in the decadent West. It matches their lifestyle, after all.
In my early years in Russia this kind of thing wasn’t too shocking. I mean sure, the idea of a watch whose value could buy several decent houses in the US is by itself shocking, but in the glory days of Putin’s Russia, or better said the Golden Age of Medvedev the Great, such a watch would simply be a drop in a vast sea of conspicuous, dick-waving opulence. At the time I used to find the flaunting of such staggering income inequality to be highly offensive. If only I could have known what was coming.
In those days, the elite might have flaunted their power via yachts or diamond-encrusted skis, but they were so secure in their positions at the national trough that they didn’t care as to ordinary people’s reactions. Though the media was still largely controlled by Putin, the internet was practically liberated territory, and people spoke openly and freely about corruption. They didn’t necessarily do anything about it, but they at least felt totally free to express their opinions. To be honest they had good reasons- the glut of wealth from high oil prices and foreign investment meant that they too enjoyed a higher standard of living than they were used to, and thus it seemed like there was a sort of unspoken social contract between the government and the Russian people: “Don’t actually bother us or stand in our way, and you can do whatever you want, or whatever you can get away with.”
Now that situation has changed. While Putin displays a stunning lack of foresight and is clearly oblivious to material reality, his fire-from-the-hip actions in Ukraine have given him something he sorely needed- a seemingly real conflict with the West on which he can offload all the problems for which he or his system bear responsibility. Suddenly people who should know better have started mouthing the regime’s talking points, though they may be 180 degrees the opposite of what they said before. People started pretending like the things they constantly complained about every day for years just stopped. Patriotic propaganda, backed by threats both concrete and implicit, replaced the conspicuous consumerism of the previous years.
Peskov’s watch, at least for a moment, seemed like a dose of cold reality. Not only was it the talk of the Russian internet, but my students spontaneously brought it up in class yesterday evening. It’s really hard to pretend that Russia’s tormentor is the United States when the president’s personal secretary inexplicably possesses so much money to burn. It’s hard to pretend you’re happy limiting your vacations to Russia while the sons and daughters of the elite actually live in New York, Paris, London, or Brussels. Hypocrisy is tolerable when the hypocrites don’t demand your loyalty or submission, but now that’s exactly what’s happening.
None of this should be taken as a sign that mass unrest is spreading in Russia. For one thing, the country has a large elderly population, as well as a large population of middle-aged people who don’t see any change as possible and/or depend entirely on the state for their meager subsistence. These are the types of people who enthusiastically voice their support for Putin, shake their fist at the United States, fervently wish to see Russian armies openly invade Ukraine to drive out the “fascist junta” from Kyiv. They do not have male children of military age, they are ineligible to serve themselves, and they depend on the state, hence they are seemingly insulated from the consequences of these policies.
As a morbid consolation, these people are starting to feel the effect of inflation and cutbacks in medical care, meaning that privation, suffering, and even death might be the steep penalties these folks will have to pay for their refusal to stand up for their rights. Tragic, yes, but the price of such politics must ever be high, lest more people believe they can afford to indulge in them. So while these generations that support the status quo may be more numerous in number, they’re also the type of people most likely to drop like flies as the elite turn the screws of austerity ever tighter.
Where you might see a change is when the younger, internet savvy, more worldly generation starts watching their older relatives suffer and die due to healthcare cutbacks and low pensions unable to keep pace with the rate of inflation. These males are usually able to escape military service themselves, and I doubt that Russia will get so involved in Ukraine as to have dozens of dead and wounded streaming back into the country to create an Iraq War-style spectacle. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the barracks collapse in Omsk killed more Russian soldiers than a week’s worth of combat in the Donbas. On the other hand, virtually all of these younger people have older relatives.
It’s only a matter of time before people start making connections between the money that’s missing from healthcare, education, and infrastructure on one hand, and the massive in-your-face opulence of the elite. How much medicine could Peskov’s watch buy? How many apartments? How many hospitals could be built or at least upgraded for the cost of Yakunin’s massive palatial compound? What could Russia’s citizens have got for the $1.8 billion embezzled from Russia’s space program? And all the while, the recipients of these ill-gotten gains will be lecturing the people on patriotism, enforcing it with the power of the state.
These days anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism is like a veil that gives the appearance of some sort of national unity, but it is a thin veil nonetheless. I’ve seen that by spending a few minutes talking to the most vehement vatniks, they eventually drop the whole act and start complaining about the injustice and corruption they see in their country. Those who weren’t vatniks but adopted the lingo in 2014 do so even more readily. Whether they say it out loud or not, they know. Everyone knows. Russia’s bane isn’t the United States or NATO bases around its periphery. It’s what’s around Peskov’s wrist.