For those of you in the New York area, I will be a participant in “What is Russia Thinking? The Word from the Last of the Independent Media.” The event is organized by the Paul Klebnikov Fund, a foundation started by the late journalist’s family, and the Eurasia Foundation to honor Mikhail Fishman, this year’s recipient of the Paul Klebnikov Prize for Excellence in Journalism. Fishman is the editor-in-chief of Russian Newsweek. The panel will include a discussion between Fishman, Andrew Meier, Sarah Mendelson, and myself.
If anyone makes it to the event, be sure to come up and say hello.
An invitation for the event is available here.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
Who is leading the tandem dance? Is it Medvedev’s or Putin’s turn this week? The answer to who is at top in Kremlin Inc. is superfluous to those who live at Russia’s poverty line. Like in most places, the little guy is mostly a creature for cardboard cut out used for political rhetoric and posturing to those inhabiting the commanding heights. For the class conscious lumpen, it’s not who’s dancing that matters. It’s the dance itself. Each twirl, dip, side step, or skip is another assurance that the Russian elite will remain prosperous and the Russian prols will have to continue fighting over the scraps that trickle down.
For those living at the very bottom of Russian society, that trickle down is a fine mist. With costs of food, energy, and other staples rising that mist is leaving many Russian more and more parched. All the Russians can take comfort in is that they are not alone. With food riots in Haiti, Bangladesh and Egypt, fuel costs hitting pocket books the world wide, and a commodities bubble fueling the shebang, one can only wonder what will come next. For the Russians, its a sign that being part of the globalization block party isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Medvedev may pirouette and motion to West as the source for the despair all he wants. But the nature of the economy can no longer be thought of in terms of states or even regions. It’s all connected making the latest global economic crisis structural in nature.
With rising inflation in Russia (up 5.3% in the last three months), those living at the poverty line are forced to make it by with less. According to the Russian State Department of Statistics, Rosstat, the minimum subsistence level in Moscow is 62 Euros a month (or about 95 in sinking dollars terms) . This is supposed to cover food, clothes, housing utilities, and transportation in the capital. As of 2006, 21.6 million (15.3%) of Russians live below this threshold. Just to add some perspective, a recent figure says that there are 131,000 millionaires in Russia. That’s about sixteen impoverished Russians to every one millionaire. Sixteen live on what every one minigarch throws down for decent sushi. Can living in Moscow on 62 Euros a month be done? If so, how?
For answers we have to turn to Polit.ru journalist Liz Surnacheva, who recently pulled a Barbara Ehrenreich to see if the seemingly impossible is indeed possible. She chronicled her travails in a three part series on Open Democracy. The latter recently teamed up with Polit.ru to provide a bit more comprehensive coverage of the Russian scene for the English reader.
In part one, Surnacheva quickly finds that Rosstat’s statistical “shopping basket” and what is actually possible to do with it are two different things. Also, she finds that livin’ on the line is not just about cheap food, its more about what one has to do to first find it and then not getting screwed over when you get it. Kiosks are cheaper, though you run the risk of getting cheated. Prices at supermarkets are “catastrophic.” “From now on,” Surnacheva writes, “everything that saves time is out: nothing oven-ready, and above all, no eating out. Breakfast cereals, yoghurt, sweetened curd cheese, buns, frozen ready-meals, pel’meni and pizzas have all become forbidden foods. Kinder, Kuchen, Kirche.” One day of shopping: 628 rubles 90 kopeks. 1552 rubles 80 kopecks left.
By the time part two is published, Surnacheva is down to 920 rubles 50 kopecks. Sick of the “soup selection,” she laments that she has no choice. “I can’t afford meat, poultry or fish.” The Moscow favorite business lunch is out and days at work are spent hungry. But what is most revealing is not that she’s not managing, but why. Here is her conclusions:
1. I’m inexperienced. This is my first attempt at living on so little money. The worst time in any crisis is the beginning, when you haven’t worked out a survival strategy.
2. I’m irrational. I can’t even turn the classic female trick of making a salad and a scandal out of nothing. My grasp of energy and nutrition values is weak. 2000 calories still means half a kilo of sugar to me rather than so much cereal, milk and meat. Apparently I even use carrots inefficiently – I’ve had readers explaining to me that that the body can’t digest raw carrots without fat.
3. I haven’t got my bearings. I haven’t a clue where to get things cheap, or what to buy. In the first week I discovered that a perfectly fresh carrot that’s broken is half the price, and that apples that cost 15-20 rubles per kilo do exist – they just don’t look so great. For me, the word ‘meat’ means an expensive cut, and I haven’t yet learned what to do with cheaper cuts, bones and offal.
4. I don’t belong to the local network. Those who live on really limited means belong to a sort of informal club, whose members know where, what and how much. The moment cheap dairy products appear on a neighbouring stall or good cheap meat in the market, its members find out about this from one another. Outsiders like me only get to hear about these bargains by accident.
5. I live alone. Of course it’s a bit different for families- wholesale is cheaper. I went to this conference on regional poverty a month or so ago. The researchers noted something interesting: people always think of pensioners as the group most at risk of poverty. Actually, the group most at risk are families with children. Without going into the reasons (discrimination against single mothers, tv propaganda about programmes of social support etc) I must admit I made this assumption myself when I took on the role of lonely pensioner for this experiment. True, it would have been complicated trying to simulate being a family with lots of children – I might have had to starve the entire editorial team of Polit.ru.
Apparently living poor isn’t just about surviving, it’s about surviving artfully.
In part three, it’s day twenty and Surnacheva is down to 583 rubles, 70 kopecks. Life is consumed with a new consciousness of prices and looking for alternatives and substitutes (margarine for butter, damaged fruit and vegetables for fresh ones, and organ meats–liver, kidneys, and bones–for quality meats). Other items are put into perspective. “I could live for half a day on dictaphone batteries, and as for a ticket for the Paul Anka concert at the Kremlin, I’d last almost six months on that.”
Advice from babushkas on the street and readers begins pouring in. “Eat ground elder and dandelions. Sunbathe. Make rusks. Buy sea kale. Make friends with some Uzbeks and eat pilaf. Plant Jerusalem artichokes,” a reader suggests. Students tell her to eat “lots of kasha,” pop vitamins instead of fruits and veggies, and processed and canned meats instead of the real deal. Heroin chic devs write in urging a diet plan where eating less is more. A spoonful of cottage cheese for breakfast and soup for dinner. Surnacheva admits she could live on six days with a diet like that. But for your average person? Forget it.
By day 31 she’s down to 18 rubles. Even her colleagues at Polit.ru began feeling sorry for her. Invitations to lunch and offers of food began to pour in. The desire to be fed restaurant food even leads her to agree to a date.
In the end, Surnacheva survived one month on Rosstat’s “shopping basket.” Barely. Proving that living in poverty is as much about how you live than what you have to live with. “I did survive,” she concludes, “but I won’t be doing it again.”
If only 20 million or so Russians had such a choice.Post Views: 759
By Sean — 9 years ago
Yesterday, December 1, was 75 years since the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the first secretary of the Leningrad Party Organization, and Stalin ally. It was on the night of December 1, 1934 that a certain Leonid Nikolaev, a disgruntled party worker, shot Kirov in the secretary’s third floor office. Nikolaev was immediately caught and interrogated under Stalin’s personal supervision. He was executed shortly thereafter.
Rumors have been circling for years as to what Nikolaev’s motives were. Some have suggest that Kirov was having an affair with Nikolaev’s wife. Others have suggested that he had a personal or work beef with Kirov. These questions remain mostly unanswered. Partly it is because they are unanswerable. But also because the majority of historians believe that Nikolaev did not act alone. For them, Stalin was the main culprit and wanted to get rid of Kirov because of his popularity. Since Kirov has been held up as a “moderate” and even “opponent” to Stalin. Nikolaev, therefore, was merely a patsy in a more sinister plot on the part of the vozhd to justify the use of terror against his enemies, real or imagined.
The idea that Stalin had ordered Kirov’s murder was not solely concocted by historians. According to NKVD reports, it was also one of the most widespread rumors at the time. But it wasn’t the only one circulating around. As Matthew Lenoe noted in an article on the historiography of the murder in the Journal of Modern History, rumors ranged from Leningrad NKVD chief F. D. Medved or his number two Mikhail Chudov personally committing or ordering Kirov’s assassination, to German, Finnish, Polish, or Turkish secret agents carrying out the plot, to speculation that a worker angered by the recent cuts in bread rations did Kirov in. Others thought that the killing was part of a larger plot of murder Maxim Gorky, Lazar Kaganovich, and the German Communist leader Ernst Thaelmann. But the idea that Stalin was behind it all swirled and swirled from mouth to ear, into exiled socialist commentary, on to the pages of defectors’ and so-called confidants’ tell-all memoirs, until it reached scholarly dictum through its reproduction ad nauseum by historians.
A minority of historians, most interestingly Oleg Khlevniuk and Alla Kirilina, who are no Stalin apologists and based their research on new archival evidence, have argued that the Stalin as culprit is “almost entirely myth,” according to Lenoe. The debate continues to rage, however, and will probably go on forever. But as Lenoe notes, ” In the end it does not matter for our overall understanding of Soviet history whether [Stalin] plotted Kirov’s assassination or not. There are far more important questions that need answering in the field.”
Indeed. Whether Stalin actually ordered the hit on Kirov doesn’t erase the fact that regime’s response to the assassination was a blind fit of violence that led to the arrests and execution of hundreds, if not thousands, in the weeks following, culminating in the eventual arrest, trial, and execution of Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, the so-called “Moscow Center.” The lives of hundreds of thousands of others followed. There is also no doubt that Stalin used the Kirov’s assassination to his political advantage to eliminate his political opponents. We don’t need to pin the Kirov murder on him to recognize that.
Perhaps, the biggest lesson of the Kirov murder was not its use by Stalin from 1936-38 to justify terror. The lesson is in the quick adoption of “On Amending the Present Union-Republic Codes of Criminal Procedure” or the so-called Kirov Law on December 1, 1934, that gave terror legal justification. The law was as follows:
To amend the present Union Republic codes of criminal procedure with regard to investigation and trial of cases of terrorist organizations and terrorist acts against the functionaries of Soviet power:
- Investigation in these cases shall be concluded in not more than ten days.
- The indictment shall be handed to the accused 24 hours before the trial.
- The cases shall be tried without the parties present.
- There shall be no cassational review of the judgments or acceptance of petitions for clemency.
- The sentence of the supreme punishment shall be executed immediately upon rendering judgment.
This law is ominous in its brevity. It is this law that was the first legal step to wage terror. What the law giveth, the law taketh away. So in the end it is not Kirov’s assassination that should be remembered but how such events can provide the justification for extraordinary measures to be legally enacted. It is a reminder that the “state of exception” is always enacted by the sovereign in an attempt to preserve the “public good.”Post Views: 1,899
By Sean — 9 years ago
It has been a long haul and I’m slowly crawling out of my hole.
For those who don’t already know, I filed my dissertation, We Shall Refashion Life on Earth! The Political Culture of the Communist Youth League, 1918-1928, on Monday. The process of filing was a bureaucratic nightmare in and of itself. Back and forth between UCLA’s Murphy Hall because my middle name, “Christopher” (which I never use, but I somehow put down when I registered at UCLA), was not on the the dissertation. Then two trips to the library to get it checked over by the dissertation lady. What a thankless job that must be! A quite unpleasant, though somewhat charming, woman sits in a small office surrounded by dissertations, goes through each and every page to make sure the margins and typeface are correct. I was told she busts out a ruler but this must be an urban myth. I made a few slip ups and had to go back to the History Department to repair them, then go back to her to get her signature on the appropriate form. Then it was back to Murphy to get my “Certificate of Completion.” It was a journey that started at 10:30, and should have been over by noon at the latest, but ended at 2:30. The last time I experienced this many bureaucratic entanglements was paying for photocopies from the Komsomol archive and dealing with my health insurance provider. But what am I really whining about? After all, at the end of this red-tapist’s wet dream was a PhD. Still, the 1968 slogan “Humanity won’t be happy till the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat” had renewed relevance.
So what now? Well back to blogging is an immediate goal. I have a lot of catching up to do in the world of Russia, and sadly, as I peruse the hundreds of news stories I’ve neglected over the past several weeks, I am reminded once again how much of the reporting is a rerun of the shame shit over and over again. Will Putin run for President in 2012? Will Medvedev? Who’s really in charge of Russia? Are US-Russia relations hot? Cold? Do they exist? Does Medvedev really like hobnobbing with Obama? Was dropping the missile shield a concession or appeasement, or just the US facing reality? Who really started last year’s war? Georgia? Russia? A pox on both houses! Iran? Is Russia an abettor to who my wife’s grandmother calls the “Second Hitler”*? Or are they on the side of the “good guys” i.e. the West? The specter of Stalin.** Back in vogue or never left the room? What to make of Medvedev’s stinging critique in his manifesto “Forward Russia!”? Does he mean business or was it just yet another empty gesture? Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan are looking like more of a mess everyday. Oh, and by the way, it kinda sucks to be a journalist (please feel free to substitute “human rights activist” or “oppositionist”) in Russia. Um, like, duh?
It is not like these issues aren’t important. They are. It’s just that when you’ve read one, you’ve read it all. There has to be some expectation of new knowledge, or at least a fresh way of looking at it. Sometimes I wonder if journos have a keyword database of ten topics that are randomly spirited to their Blackberries. A word like “Putin” appears and the article flows accordingly. The names change but the narratives always stay the same.
Now, don’t ask me how this rehashing of narratives can be avoided. Its ideological hold is so strong that even its most aware, dogged opponents (of which I include myself) can’t help but be pulled into its vortex. Events in Russia certainly don’t help. But the news filter is so thick and the categories of thought so rigid, that what’s really going on there is impossible to pinpoint. At most, we, who watch and write about the place, are only able to dance around the periphery of truth in an everlasting rendition of the hokey-pokey. Much of our thought about Russia is governed by a silent watchman akin to what Michel Foucault called a “regime of truth.” This regime is backed by a whole host of apparatuses, economic, cultural and political forces, “scientific” knowledge, categories, and rhetorics that are all deployed by a long list of christened “experts.” All of this makes anyone’s attempt to think about Russia otherwise a poster child of deviance: Putin apologist, Kremlin shill, FSB agent, etc. (See the great Anatoly Karlin’s blog for a full list of said deviants.) It is this power over knowledge, or in Foucault’s terms power-knowledge nexus, that engulfs us. It is the reason why I think everyone, Russophile and Russophobe (two categories which already delimit thought), are ultimately engaged in an orientalist project.
As I enter into a new era of intellectual exploration, armed with a degree that is equally revered and vilified, perhaps I can add a few new steps to the hokey-pokey. Perhaps I can inch a bit closer to the truth lurking behind the mystifications that govern the discourse about Russia. It is this modest task that serves as my manifesto.
Lastly, everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read Claudia Verhoeven’s The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism. I’m about half way through it and it is hands down one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
Oh, and Anna Applebaum has really gone over to the side of lunacy. Whereas before she was merely an intermittent visitor.
*I wonder who was the first post-Hitler Hitler. A friend swears that it was Sadat.
**Another friend recently sent me the best Stalin quote ever. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal it all, because, well, it’s an academic thang. Anyway this tidbit should suffice. Stalin on Party appointments based on personal connections in Transcaucasia in 1931:
“If you pick people that way, then they will fuck you up. It’s no good. They will just fuck you up. It’s a chieftain system, totally without a Bolshevik approach to picking people…. But they do it otherwise: who is their friend, who supports them. Everybody says, “we have no disagreements; why fight?” It’s a gang.”
Makes you wonder how different this is from political appointments anywhere.Post Views: 489