‘Russia’s “special path” is a red herring’: A few thoughts

William Echols

My latest piece for Intersection Project, ‘Russia’s “special path” is a red herring’, like anything we write, did not come about in a vacuum. Even stories that appear academic in nature can be propelled by a sense of pathos which comes from the heart of lived experience. That was certainly the case with this piece.

Something I was recently discussing with Jim Kovpak, who is raising hell across Eastern Ukraine at this very moment, is how much of everything we write about Russia is infused with countless memories from years gone by.

Memory juice

Memory juice

It might come as a surprise that an article referencing Thomas Khun and historical dialectics would be evocative of anything, at least anything personal.

But in truth, most of the ideas expressed on Russian Avos can be traced back to raucous nights that descended into drunken philosophizing, uninvited diatribes from cabbies and thugs, grey-skied tea time with neighbors and acquaintances, and everyone else that’s come my way since I first found myself dropped off in a rat-infested hole in northeastern Moscow all those years back.

They taught me everything I know about love.

They taught me everything I know about love.

The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe once said it took an entire village to make a single character in one of his books. And while I might not be writing 20th century’s greatest bildungsroman, even a blog about Russia has its inspirations, big and small.

Seemingly sterile sentences can be minefields of memory; pathos-free paragraphs an attempt to distill down a million floating fragments of lived experience into a single drop of coherence. Its funny how the mind words. An article you vaguely remember reading five years ago blends with a conversation you had six months back to create something new. You spend all that time collecting tesserae in your pocket, until one day you go about creating a mosaic. Results, of course, will vary.

The same can be said for my latest, where ideas formed while reading Khun many aeons ago on Fitzwilliam Street in Belfast collied with an op-ed I recently encountered in the Moscow Times by Jim Kovpak’s favorite whipping boy, Pyotr Romanov.

The piece which caught my eye (and my ire) is titled  ‘Russia Won’t Be Rushed by the West’. Such writing is really indicative of a tendency I (unfortunately) encountered quite often in Russia — the ability to condescendingly talk about your supposed backwardness; to arrogantly dismiss assumed arrogance; to use relativism as a whip to sanctimoniously lash out against judgment.

It’s why I keep returning to the undercurrent of cognitive dissonance in Russian society. It takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics to argue that a simmering latent inferiority complex is a manifestation of superiority, just as it takes a lot of prevaricating to say that the hallmark of Russia’s civilizational and spiritual superiority is a populace which, for some reason, is incapable of governing itself.

As for Romanov, if one had an interest in understanding how the Russian propaganda machine’s 4D tactic of rebuttal works, he would be a good place to start. Dismissal, distraction, distortion and dismay —most anything he writes is a semantic attempt to draw and quarter a straw man (if not a scarecrow.)

That'll show Obama!!!

That’ll show Obama!!!

And when it comes to Russia’s “special path”, it seems like the Russian people are destined to take a backseat and let the hand of fate steer them. Or, as Romanov puts it: “Russia will ripen when it ripens,” Russia has just one healer and helper — time.”

This special pleading is fatalistic to the core. It is the essence of Russian Avos (the concept, not my blog!), and it is also a deeply, deeply flawed proposition.

Why? Because there is no guarantee that Russia will ripen at all. Maybe it will rot and disintegrate; maybe it will be the mulch from which a new civilization arises. The world, after all, is littered with the graves of once-great (and not-so-great) civilizations.

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The problems is, when viewed in an ad hoc way, history can seem inevitable and progressive. Of the seemingly infinite variables at hand, there is a tendency to weave a web of meaning around those events which did transpire, as if there could have never been another way. And while there does appear to be an overall arc of development spanning the roughly 200,000 years of human existence, nothing should be taken as inevitable.

Although some steps in our historical timeline do necessitate the emergence of others (the industrial age certainly precipitated the information age), other steps were wholly unnecessary social and political constructs which led to needless centuries of stagnation. The bronze age most certainly begot the iron age, for example, but Europe’s 600 year feudal holding pattern was neither necessary or beneficial. That it was did not mean it ever had to be.

Ultimately, Romanov on the surface is right in arguing that a country’s unique history should always be taken into account when analyzing its current political order. That Moscow would take prominence over (and eventually subsume) the proto-democratic Novgorod Republic due to the former’s collaboration with the Mongols (among other factors) should not be overlooked in understanding Russia’s centuries-long dance with despotism.

But it also demonstrates that the absolutist, statist, expansionist and militarist aspects in contemporary Russia were not inevitable facets of Russian reality. If Novgorod proves anything, there was nothing intrinsically despotic about the “Russian soul” at all. That Russia was a victim of circumstances in the past does not mean it should forever be bound to them, though some, for various reasons, would disagree.

I think you should always be wary of system apologists who promise for tomorrow what they (or their patrons) are doing nothing to build today. Often, they are tearing down the very scaffolding which they claim they will climb in due time. It’s just an intellectual shell game to deflect criticsm from a regime which is selling out its own people while claiming their interest is one and the same.

That Venice, which, in the words of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, went from “economic powerhouse to museum”, proves that the elite, in a bid to maintain their privilege, can strangle the polity, sometimes irreparably.

venice

As Romanov himself said, this isn’t rocket science.

Despite my somewhat discursive analysis, you don’t have to dealve into dialectics or history to answer a few simple questions.

Over the past 15 years, has Putin’s administration worked to make a more or less inclusive political system? Have the instances when Moscow cracked down on democratic rights been warranted or necessray in light of any genuine existential threat? Has Putin used his 15 years in power to diversify the economy to the point where it is no longer exposed by the externalities impicit in any resource-cursed economy?

Speaking of rockets, that the same country which helped put the first man in space over half a century ago struggles to put a sensor on a rocket rightside up is telling. One Rocket crash may be a mistake. Fifteen in five years is systemic.

One only need to look at the swift pardoning of Evgeniya Vasilyeva, a former defense official who stole millions from the military, to see the signal being relayed from the government.

 (Adding insult to injury, Vasilyeva managed to weaponize the money she stole.)

Is it a coincidence that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was found to have committed $1.8 billion in financial violations in 2014 alone? Is it a coincidence that rockets are falling from the sky when such a vital agency can bleed nearly $2 billion in one year?

None of this is occurring in isolation. It starts at Putin’s one billion dollar Black Sea palace and ends with the postal worker stealing your mail. This is the house that Putin has build. And now some apologists are telling you to wait for it to come crashing down on your head rather thank pick up a hammer and fix the damned thing. Madness, utter madness.

As that old proverb goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Rather than plant treets, Putin is busy burning saplings for a patriotic orgy. He is robbing Russia of its future to give people a false sense of greatness today.

And frankly speaking, there is nothing unique about that path at all. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

In Putin’s Russia, burning bread is now the circus

William Echols

Fearful of its own populace and systemically incapable of shoring up Russia’s deepening economic woes, the Kremlin has resorted to burning the bread of appeasement just to keep the circus going.

In a country where absurdity is deeply woven into the fabric of political discourse, this has been a week which gave pause to even the most jaded of Russia watchers. Two images, one of a presidential spokesman wearing a $620K watch at a wedding befitting of a mafia don, the other depicting tons of food being burned amidst deepening poverty, provide the perfect symbol for modern-day Russia.

It pays to be a public servant in Putin's Russia.

It pays to be a public servant in Putin’s Russia.

There once was a time when Russia’s elite had their cake and the rest were content to live off of the crumbs. Now the masses are forced to watch them burn those crumbs for the sake of political theater. As Ilya Gaffner, a regional lawmaker from the ruling party United Russia said earlier this year, if you don’t have enough money for food, “eat less.”  

Now one might add, “if you don’t have enough food, burn more.” But sacrifice is clearly a one way street in Putin’s Russia. Cut off your nose to spite your face, yes, but only if you are one of the 99 percent. The government’s priorities are clear. Protect the wealth of the elite, keep key industries (many of which provide the source of elicit gains) afloat at all costs, and ramp up military spending amidst an ongoing clandestine war in Ukraine.

The proposed so-called Rotenberg Law, which would require the state to compensate sanctioned Russian businessmen for subsequent losses, was the first indicator of where Moscow’s priorities lay. And speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek, Dmitry Polevoy, chief Russia economist at ING Bank Eurasia in Moscow, recently speculated that Russia will divert funds from a $75 billion dollar wealth fund —intended to shore up Russia’s pension system —to provide corporate aid in the (increasingly likely) event that a separate $73 billion sovereign wealth fund is depleted.

It wouldn’t be the first time Putin sold out society’s most vulnerable for the sake of his revanchist policies. Last year, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov admitted that Russia was funding the annexation of Crimea with $7.2 billion siphoned off from the state pension fund. No worries, Russians are a robust people, right? Granny will sell dog hair socks or sing you a tune outside the rail station to make ends meet. Or not. st.petersburg_accordian_-29 For while the government was gleefully televising images of a seven ton mound of suspected EU-cheese being burned, earlier in the week, deplorable conditions in a prison masquerading as an old folks home left one pensioner dead and 18 hospitalized. Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 4.24.33 PM And it will only get worse. In a country that calculates the poverty line at 10,400 rubles a month (just over $160 after the Russian currency took a huge hit this week), 22.9 million people are now living below that ridiculously low benchmark. Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 5.18.13 PM Across the board cuts will continue to hit almost every sector of the economy. Reductions in healthcare spending are already believed to have caused thousands of extra deaths throughout Russian hospitals last year, Bloomberg reported. A hike in household utility costs pushed inflation up to 15.6 percent in July. Annual food price inflation is over 20 percent. Capital flight is expected to exceed $100 billion for 2015.

Russia’s GDP is set to contract 3.25% this year. And while revenues from oil and gas comprise half the federal budget, oil prices are near a six-year low. Things are bad, and about to get worse. And yet they are burning food. Not only burning it, but investing in 6 million ruble mobile crematoriums to keep the circus of pain on the road.

Much like scholastic arguments about the nature of God and evil, Putin is either unable or unwilling to diversify the country’s economy, stamp out corruption and give civil society a chance to develop. But while much of the world might have a less than positive view of Putin’s leadership, his sky-high popularity rate reflects the parallel reality that most Russians, suffering from a form of national Stockholm Syndrome, appear to inhabit. Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 7.49.23 PM As I As I wrote previously, this can by and large be explained both by Russia’s inherit cynicism, and the nationwide phenomenon of “ressentiment”, which can be can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. Even when the authorities so brazenly flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, the Russian people still look West for the source of their social ills.  How long the Kremlin can keep up this shell game of misdirected blame is anyone’s guess.

In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Augustus instituted a system whereby grain handouts and caps on food prices, coupled with free entertainment, were employed to keep the plebeians in place. The satirical writer Juvenal turned his ire on commoners for selling out their freedom and civil responsibilities for bread and circuses.

Russia, with its long tradition of absurdism and maximalism, have even turned that old maxim on its head. For while the elites’ bellies will continue to be full and their children will continue to dine across Europe on Russia’s stolen wealth, the common man is now expected to be content with the spectacle of his own plate burning.

Who ever imagined that the bread would become the circus? Only in Russia…

'Burn it all.'

‘Burn it all.’

The pathosis of Putin’s failed plans 

William Echols

A string of failures which have recently blighted Vladimir Putin’s regime demonstrate that when it comes to Russia’s executive function, the rot in Russian society starts at the head.

Everything is a system. No matter the field of study, a person will encounter complex networks of interdependency, and what happens when kinks in those webs create problems for the whole.

Just look at the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons and scores of internal structures, all of which perform a series of vital cognitive and/or physiological functions. Damage to one part, no matter how small, can spell disaster.

Take the cerebellum, or “little brain”, which plays a vital role in motor control.

cerebellum-by-drgourav-thakre-20-032012-1-728

Unlike the motor cortex, the cerebellum is not an agent of volition. Rather, it takes signals from the central nervous system and fine tunes them, especially as it relates to the coordination, precision and timing of specific movements. In the event that there is a mismatch between intended and actual action, the little brain that could is able to correct for them in real time.

Likewise, there is a type of movement disorder stemming from damage to the cerebellum which throws the above corrective feedback loop out of whack.

In the words of neurologist V.S. Ramachandran,  a person could “attempt to touch her nose, feel her hand overshooting, and attempt to compensate with an opposing motion, which causes her hand to overshoot even more wildly in the opposite direction.”

This disorder is called an intention tremor.

In politics, there is an analogue to intention tremors, which likewise afflicts the executive branch of government.

One primary cause of an intention tremor stems from “corruption-based dysmetria” — a lack of coordination of movement between government bodies. The government, by its own design, is incapable of executing its goals, and often acts against them.

This brings us to modern day Russia, where people have long said fish rot from the head. Even a cursory glance of its political system shows that something is indeed rotten in the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin, doors

In theory, the Russian president is not part of the executive; it is not their job to determine long-term domestic policy objectives. Much like the cerebellum, the president positionally sits apart from the primary body of executive function, acting as a constitutional corrective for the laws and regulations of the Russian Federation.

In practice, of course, Putin has usurped the executive, bringing the Government of Russia under his direct control and violating the very constitution he is tasked with defending. The system he has created is ultimately hollow, with Potemkin courts and legislatures stripped of their powers. Corruption, meanwhile, is no longer a byproduct of his rule, but rather an intended goal.

Consequently, when Putin actually does attempt to act in earnest, the coordination of movements between state organs is permanently skewed, with no viable means of correction. Signals sent down the power vertical fail to create the desired response. Putin, in short, cannot act against the internal contradictions of his own order.

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Take the case of Boris Kolesnikov, an anti-corruption crusader and police general whose tragic story was recently recounted by Joshua Yaffa. Kolesnikov, the former deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s anticorruption department, was imprisoned, beaten and allegedly driven to suicide for failing to stitch up his boss and Medvedev-appointee Denis Sugrobov.

The case proved one reality: seemingly honest cops who investigate members of the security services for their role in multi-billion dollar “dark money” schemes are jailed for doing their jobs. Their anti-corruption department is labeled an “organized criminal organization” by actual organized criminals in the FSB. It was the same with the late Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor who implicated government officials in a $230 million tax fraud scheme. After being wrongfully imprisoned and ultimately killed, he was ghoulishly convicted on trumped up tax evasion charges in the first posthumous trial in Russian history. Gogol surely rolled over in his grave.

sergei-magnitsky-russia-grave

Such instances, however, might not represent intention tremors at all; they may very well happen by design.

A less ambiguous case was the Second Chechen War, which was undoubtedly waged to bring the restive republic under Moscow’s thumb. But how does a country without rule of law reintegrate a lawless place? Putin did the only thing he knew how to do; start a brutal war and then hand the reigns of power over to a well-subsidized and slightly unhinged megalomaniac who, incidentally, has succeeded in creating a gross caricature of the Russian system.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov operates with impunity, including the right to build a 20,000-strong army, set up his own tax system, allegedly murder opposition politicians (and personal enemies) on the streets of Moscow, assassinate other rivals abroad, threaten to kill Russian cops on the streets of Grozny, and make polygamy legal. In a bid to reintegrate Chechnya into Russia, Russia has merely subsidized what is independence in all but name.

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Another example is Russia’s recent saber rattling over Ukraine. In 2014, NATO was forced to scramble its jets on 400 separate occasions to intercept Russian military aircraft. But while Moscow’s intention was to show its military might, massive weaknesses were revealed in the Russian Air Force, which is reliant on massively outdated Soviet stock. Since June, seven Russian military aircraft have crashed in as many weeks, prompting an investigation by the Defense Ministry. In an attempt to keep NATO on its toes, Moscow revealed its own feet of clay.

Russia’s covert war in Ukraine has equally revealed that the country lacks sufficient numbers of well-trained troops capable of waging “hybrid war” on a long-term basis.

Likewise, no military reforms will stop barracks from collapsing on their soldiers, or keep overtaxed soldiers from deserting to avoid being forced to fight and die as “volunteers” in Ukraine as long as every institution in Russia puts the needs of corrupt officials first, and the ostensible purposes of those institutions second.

Putin has risked global isolation to keep Ukraine in the fold, only to lose Ukraine, possibly forever. He has further sacrificed Russia’s economy, introducing austerity cuts across the board, while vowing increased military spending to sustain he latest adventures. And yet some analysts believe the invasion of Ukraine has sounded the death knell for the country’s military reforms as well.

Russian-soldiers
During former-president Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008 inauguration speech, he said that Russia “must overcome the legal nihilism that is such a serious hindrance to modern development.”

He rightly noted that the battle against legal nihilism was essential for economic and social development, fighting corruption, and  making people feel safe. Medvedev further said such reforms were vital to boost Russia’s global influence, and to be taken “as equals with other peoples.”

His words are telling. Those at Russia’s helm recognize their system of rule undermines their credibility as equals in the international arena, although such parity (or a lack thereof) is an obsession of Putin’s. A fake president delivered a speech saying the very mechanisms of power which had resulted in his candidacy were scuttling his country’s hopes for a better future.

The irony is palpable. Putin was brought to power to raise Russia from its knees. In the process, it just might end up on its face.