Recently I was reading this article in the NY TImes and to tell the truth it was actually rather accurate in many ways. To give you the gist of it, the author walks the reader through places like Moscow’s Gorky Park and shows how cosmopolitanism and modernity still thrives in the midst of an increasingly authoritarian state. Granted, this kind of thing is only in Moscow, and largely localized in its center, but as someone who has lived in and traveled extensively in Europe and who has been in Russia since 2006, I have to say that some areas of Moscow look completely transformed, and in a positive way. In fact I was actually in Gorky Park the day before writing this and I was impressed to see how it has changed over the years.
I’ve written in the past about how Russia’s dictatorship defies our traditional understanding of dictatorships. While the state does still seem to be moving in the direction of a more traditional dictatorship, it still cannot completely control the people. They cannot stop the hipster fashions, girls getting tattoos, people taking an interest in foreign languages, dancing or yoga. Russia’s nowhere near the point of revolution barring some unforeseen cataclysm, but the cat is already out of the bag, meaning that Putin and his cronies cannot hope to save their hides by restoring the authoritarian measures of the USSR as some people needlessly fear. Too many people have tasted the advantages of “the West.” Sure they can try a full crackdown, but that will mark the beginning of the end.
I was happy to see a more nuanced, realistic picture of Putin’s dictatorship, but unfortunately the author seems to have fallen for a bit of the regime’s propaganda as well. Check out this passage:
But the rich are not the only beneficiaries. Russians are substantially better off since President Vladimir V. Putin first came to power in 2000. The average salary has roughly tripled, after inflation, and poverty has declined sharply, bringing a feeling of stability and well-being that was lacking in the 1990s. More Russians can now plan life in advance (Where will I go on vacation this year?) instead of snatching it a day at a time (What will I eat for dinner tomorrow?).
Oh dear. That looks familiar. Let’s pick this apart, starting with the idea that ordinary people benefited just like the rich under Putin’s management. The first question to ask is why they benefited. The answer is that the rich were growing so fat and happy that they were content to let some of it spill over to the populace. Putin took a chaotic struggle between competing thieves and introduced order to it. With stable source to steal from, the Wild 90’s style raiding and violence mostly died out…mostly. At the same time, Russia still has very poor protection for private property, which is a problem they never managed to solve.
Now let’s look at that third sentence. First of all the tense is wrong. Present prefect would imply all these things are still true, when in fact that worm has already started to turn. Saying “Russians can now plan…” also implies this is still true. When it comes to the issue of salaries and living standards, so many are quick to attribute all this to Putin, when in fact a lot of it has to do with high oil prices, more dependency on Russian gas at the time, Russian integration into the global economy, Western investment, Russian entrepreneurship, and so on. Yes, Putin has to get some credit for working to create enough stability to attract Western investors, some of whom had literally been ran out of Russia in the 90’s. But that is just one underlying factor.
While Russian standards of living are still better than the worst parts of the 90’s, that is certainly where they seem to be headed at the moment. As for vacations, the crisis and the ruble collapse have forced Russians to stay home rather than go abroad as they did just a few years ago. More chilling is the increase in Russian poverty as pensions and salaries shrink due to inflation. Oh is this just biased Western doomsaying? Perhaps you prefer to hear the same thing from Russia Insider. Russia Insider, Carl!
This goes back to one of the most annoying things about the Putin myth, that he “saved” Russia. Putin was hand-picked by an oligarch and served under Yeltsin. He is a product of that previous regime. And while yes, he did actually do some necessary things early in his career, so what? It’s 2015. If we look at Gorky Park and remark how great it is that young Russians can enjoy free concerts, play sports, or create flash mobs, if we can compare this to New York, London, or some European city, then the question remains- why do we still need Putin to have any of this? Did the US or UK need a 15-year president for life to create any of the things that Russia, or at least Moscow, can somewhat reliably imitate? Do the Russian people need religion and xenophobic, morally bankrupt ideology rammed down their throat if they’re able to enjoy modern urban culture without degenerating into chaos? Of course they do not. Just as the atheist can say that all the legitimate positive aspects of religion such as charity and community building can be provided via secular means, so too can Russia have a vibrant, cosmopolitan culture without the rotten, corrupt structure that is actually holding back its development.
To understand the full foolishness of this myth, consider the following analogy: One day you are in an accident and bleeding severely. A passerby comes up and using their shirt as a makeshift compress, they manage to stop the bleeding, at least temporarily. But you still might have a concussion and you’re feeling dizzy. You need real medical attention. Unfortunately your good Samaritan won’t contact the paramedics. Eventually, with what seems like your last strength, you ask to contact the paramedics yourself. No dice. Now you ask him to purchase a first aid kid from the nearby pharmacy- you’re prepared to try to treat yourself if need be, if only to get away from this guy and get to a hospital. Nope- can’t do that either. You need him. Don’t you remember how he initially stopped the bleeding with his shirt? What? That shirt wasn’t sterile and the wound needs to be disinfected and properly dressed? How dare you! You don’t appreciate his help? You must be suicidal! You want to die!
This is basically the Putin regime in a nutshell. Once upon a time a corrupt politician from St. Petersburg was chosen by another corrupt politician on the advice of a corrupt oligarch to come to Moscow. That corrupt man then reshuffled things so that old oligarchs were replaced by his friends, and the corruption continued, though in a more stable, predictable way. And the Russian people have to be thankful for this because we have bike paths in Moscow now. Okay.
All that aside, do read that article because it actually is good and it’s the type of journalism outlets like NYT ought to be doing.