It was a great discovery to have my eyes land upon the relatively new book by Marc Bennetts Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin at my local public library. While I do not follow the news religiously with a discerning eye for legislative procedure, I do my best to keep a good read on a situation in a country of interest. I suspect that in 2015 Russia will be a still more enlarged topic everywhere from between friends to academic circles. Ever since the banks in Cyprus were forced to tax their general savings accounts in May 2013, I have been watching for cues for other western countries to start putting pressure on Putin, Russia, and Russians, and this has come to two boiling points in 2014 with Ukraine and now pushing the prices of oil down to six-year lows. I will return to this subject more with the 2015 tarot analysis next week.
I do not want to give the impression at all that I think Vladimir Putin is a benevolent figure or to give the so-called oligarchs unfettered access to resources and markets. I also had a rather dark experience myself when visiting in 2005. However, it seems most reasonable to take these two items into consideration: when it comes to corruption and above all deceiving the public, we could probably benefit from looking at every leader and administration as a series of line items rather than a total package. If Putin or Barack Obama takes a negative action, call them on it, but strictly stick to the fact and do not try to discredit everything they do or the entire administration. Likewise, if something negative happens, it is not necessarily the fault of the team in power. There are forces in trends that are extremely difficult to overcome. The second important factor is that even if there is a nasty coup, to some extent we get the leader that reflects our true nature as a collective, or the leader that fills a particular need that we think we have. Once the administration or regime has taken over, it’s often hard to undo, and there is the acerbic juxtaposition of most leadership situations then not representing the majority at all, but at the same time, they will get re-elected again and again because the electorate is scared of worse to come or the establishment controls the narrative to the extent that nothing else can be imagined.
I have not finished reading Kicking the Kremlin, but the means by which Putin seized power, as told in the book anyway, are far more systematic and vicious than I fully understood – environmental activists opposing some of the rapid development having their children seized by child protective services, liberal use of batons to be cracked on protestors’ heads, busing in skinheads from the provinces to intimidate and threaten dissenting Muscovites, arresting and sometimes possibly ordering the assassinations of journalists not loyal to the Kremlin… it goes on and on. However, Bennetts still writes that Putin may be the most lenient leader in the history of the USSR and Russia. Particularly in Putin’s first term in the early 2000s, the rising economic prospects of the nation were greatly appreciated by the population and most were willing to look the other way from any kind of opposition.
It was right around this time, right after the beginning of his second term, that I visited St. Petersburg and Moscow with a study group in 2005. It is very difficult to encapsulate the spirit of a time and culture in a short passage, but the New New Russia in its two principal cities was a bit like the Wild West from my limited visitor’s perspective. The first impressions largely revealed a surly way about a lot of transactions (visa stamps, ordering food, checking into a hotel, and so forth) that cannot fully be discomfort or resentment with differences in language if one is not able to speak Russian, however, this is coupled with a frankness that Americans in particular are not used to (see The Evil Eye is Not the Stink Eye). Relations between the US and Russia were particularly good at the time, at least as far as the public was concerned, and Putin had given the impression of his approval for George W. Bush in a recent visit, so there was not an anti-American or anti-English sentiment at the time (I would fully expect that as of this writing in late 2014). There was a certain climate of “hustling” that could be seen everywhere with vendors on foot rushing to our tour bus with each stop, prostitutes camped in the lobby of both of our hotels (many who studied with me that year will remember their stupefied reaction when I bought each of them a flower in an attempt to break the cynical atmosphere). Our guide indicated that the previous year that he had come to St. Petersburg to that same hotel, one of the former students from our school was working as a call girl in the hotel because she had secured two regular clients she met twice a week and charged €150 for each interaction, thus bringing in $40,000USD per year in those days, much more than she could earn in any other profession. The income disparities were quite obvious with this backdrop, not to mention an intense paranoia with any type of loitering especially in the capital, as they were still reeling from the Beslan Massacre that left 334 dead the previous fall, Russia’s own traumatic 9/11 event.
Most dramatically, a few of my peers were held up at gunpoint by the police or people posing as police when they had hailed a taxi. Three of them capitulated out of fear and handed over approximately $200 each, while the fourth insisted that he be taken to the police station to report them, a threat that worked, incredibly. This fourth person left the group in disgust and ventured into the Moscow night alone. My memory may be distorted but his father was in the CIA or some kind of Special Branch and his outlook was such that he had a bit more knowledge of the rules of engagement with brutish transactions at the street level. We later learned that police officers made the equivalent of $300 a month (corroborated in Kicking the Kremlin, unchanged several years later) and this kind of tactic was sometimes a necessary supplementary income. We were all, even at 21- and 22-years-old, familiar with the business culture of the Putin era, joking about oligarchs and such, but the extremes of propaganda versus the actual human condition can only be understood when facing them yourself: a vigorous campaign to bring the Olympics in 2012 to Moscow was everywhere, but the public was very much against it due to the expenses, and though this city had the most expensive commercial real estate in the world, most people were getting by on less than $1,000 a month, with long commutes to the suburban highrises.
Though I expect the middle class has gotten a bit more prosperous in these ten years, that particular combination of rising prospects coupled with downturns being easily attributed to the activities of foreign powers (in their case, with the commodities trade, particularly with oil) makes a population vulnerable to nasty nationalist propaganda and strong support for a dictator. Again and again we hear that Russians want a strong leader, and when Putin makes aggressive remarks in response to actions by the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and Israel in particular, his popularity figures increase. My unsolicited advise is no matter what the long-term goals of Western private interests are, it is better for the safety of the world if there is more delicate rhetorical kowtowing practiced in order to negotiate the most amicable situations, even if a fair bit of corruption persists. All of the tactics and conditions described here from Russia are actively in use in the US, but to a lesser and more subtle, perhaps covert, extent. My hopes are that a nice balance can be struck whereby the intellectual capital of a great nation can coexist with the big-scale business interests that also bring the nation prestige.