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.’

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7 thoughts on “In Putin’s Russia, burning bread is now the circus

  1. “Even when the authorities so brazenly flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, the Russian people still look West for the source of their social ills. ”

    I think this has a lot to do with the fact that Russians were politically apathetic(they were trained to be thus), and then when they actually got active the hammer came down on them and the screws continue to tighten in spite of the high approval ratings. At the same time, the government presents them with a safe target, an authorized target, and it plays on their masculinity crisis and humiliation culture.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I also think there’s a critical lapse in logical thinking. Perhaps all of the pieces are present, but viewing them as a cohesive whole would require more analysis than many are willing to countenance. But I also think the government-sanctioned rage is something of a safety net to keep people from reaching personal despair, which is either directed inwards and destroy’s a man’s soul, or is directed outwards and potentially destroys society (or the political order). Whatever the case, I think the Kremlin’s ability to deflect attention away from the real culprit will come to an end one day. The question is when. The question is: what on god’s earth replaces it?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Question to both commenters: Jim Kovpak mentions Russia’s “masculinity crisis and humiliation culture.” Is the Kremlin, in televising the burning of sanctioned food, trying to display the Kremlin’s unchallenged dominance over the Russian citizenry? I.e., is Kremlin trying to publicly ‘humiliate’ the Russian public? I can’t think of any other reason for publicizing the official destruction of food to a citizenry that desperately needs food.

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    • Well, I would not say by and large Russians desperately need food, though there are segments of their population that struggle with getting by, like everywhere (though they numbers will inevitably vary from country to country.)

      I think it actually relates to Gaffner’s comments, who appealed to the memory of Russians who were seemingly tempered by struggle during the Great Patriotic War (and not just). What he’s essentially saying is, we are a tough and robust people, we don’t need your luxury goods, we are self-sufficient and can do with less. Or rather, what he’s really saying is, the everyday Russian citizen can do without such luxuries, while the ruling class will do everything possible to maintain their standard of living, including dining on the very food items they seek to make unavailable to the general public.

      It’s a very perverse appeal to nationalism and shared memory. He is exploiting the memories of Russians who suffered greatly in the past so as to rally the citizens to needlessly suffer unnecessary privation now for the sake of political posturing.

      I think publicizing the burning, burying and bulldozing of the food is an attempt to make a symbolic appeal to the above sentiment. We are strong, we don’t need you. What makes it corrosive and humiliating is that the failed policies of the Russian government are leading to economic collapse, and they are attempting to make the inevitable suffering to follow seem like some sort of patriotic orgy. What’s worse, they will do everything they can to make sure their standard of living does not drop one iota. Their kids, their money, their future plans often remain firmly in the very Europe they turn their propaganda teeth on on a daily basis. And there is no hell they won’t put their own people through to keep it that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 1 – In Putin’s Russia, burning bread is now the circus | Exploding Ads

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