This week’s Russia Magazine column, “Russia’s Widening Wealth Inequality,”
The Putin years have been financially good for many Russians. Petrodollars have trickled down to a large portion of the population. Overall, Russians are wealthier than ever before. Economic stability and prosperity are pillars of the Putinist social contract, Putin’s personal longevity as Russia’s head honcho is tied to the country’s continued economic prosperity. But Putinism is not just based on a rising tide lifting all boats. It’s rooted in the ability of Russia’s wealthy elite to get even wealthier. The concentration of Russia’s wealth into a few hands is bore out in recent statistics reported in Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2013.
The report presents some startling findings concerning Russia. The gulf between Russia’s haves and have-nots is ever widening. Despite increases in Russian household wealth from an annual $1,650 in 2000 to $11,900 today, a mere 110 billionaires own 35 percent of Russia’s $1.2 trillion in household wealth. According to the report, 93.7 percent of the population owns $10,000 or less, and dispelling the notion of a monetary middle class, a paltry 5.6 percent own between $10,000 and $100,000. Poverty fell over the last decade, but inequality rose. “Russia has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world, apart from small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires,” the report concludes. The report’s authors seem surprised by this wealth concentration. Perhaps it’s because they ascribe to the ideological notion that Russia’s transition from communism to capitalism should have produced a vibrant middle class. “At the time of transition there were hopes that Russia would convert to a high skilled, high income economy with strong social protection programs inherited from Soviet Union days. This is almost a parody of what happened in practice,” the reports states with its own parody of a tired tenet of liberal teleology.
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By Sean — 9 years ago
Russian unemployment is growing fast, especially in Moscow. Mikhail Nagaitsev, the chairman of the Moscow Federation of Labor Unions, reported on Ekho Moskvy that during the holiday period the number of people registering for unemployment doubled. Now there are about 290,000 unemployed in Moscow compared to 56,500 a year ago. Some statisticians are saying that unemployment is perhaps higher that the official 6.6 percent. According to a survey conduced by FOM, only one percent of Russians register as unemployed when the lose their job making the overall figure probably closer to 7.5 percent. If correct, that would put the number of unemployed in Russia at 6 million out of 76 million people of working age. Experts believe that social unrest tends to occur when unemployed surpasses the 10 percent mark. With officials admitting that joblessness in Russia might increase by 2.1 to 2.2 million people in 2009, that 10 percent mark is inching closer and closer. Couple this with another FOM survey which finds that every fifth Russian not only expects an increase in labor strikes, but are also willing to participate in them and the situation is looking more ominous.
Unemployed, disgruntled Russians might not need to worry too much longer. Walmart has made some serious steps for entering the Russian market. It’s cheap goods, enormous stores, and abundant service jobs will certain ally the frustrations of any downtrodden public. But as anyone from small town America knows that box store on the hill is a temple of false gods. Walmart is cancer to small businesses, acid to the idyllic downtown Main Street, and a snake oil cure for disparity. Walmart may have branded itself as that blue vested, smiley faced cornucopia of consumerism, but its real face is a low wage and viciously anti-union substitute for the loss of well paid jobs. I urge Russians to beware.
But Walmart’s penetration into the Russian sales and labor market is still a while off. In the meantime something is needed to get a grip on any future public disorder. Perhaps this is why a few Duma members have gotten together and proposed a new law titled “On the participation of citizens in the defense of social order.” Bad economic times tend to mean not only an increased possibility of social protest, but also a guaranteed rise in street crime. Like their Soviet predecessors, the militias will mostly concentrate their energies on preventing everyday, low level criminal activity. They will certainly have their hands full. In the last year, Russia has seen an 10-15 percent increase in street crime. This includes 1.7 million acts of minor hooliganism, 2 million incidences of public drinking, and about 4 million detentions for public drunkenness.
The lawmakers hope to stem the tide of these growing instances of public disorder by adding to the already existing 214,000 militiamen among the 363,000 law enforcement personnel. The law gives citizens three ways to help maintain social order. A person can assist or collaborate with police organs. He could also suggest proposals to the police on issues of maintaining social order. Or interested citizens could form their own “independent groups in their place of residence” which will give them the right to use physical force and armed defense if necessary. There’s just one problem: Where is the money going to come from?
Perhaps an even more important concern is how these militias will ultimately be used. As Valerii Vorchchev, a member of the expert council on the Commission of Human Rights of the Russian Federation, told Kommersant, the economic crisis raises the possibility that these militias with be used “together with OMON to disperse protests just like as in Soviet times when they along with the police cut the pants and heads of stilyagi.” The only thing is that in times of economic unrest, those good militiamen might not be all that eager to help the cops bust up a mob of justifiably angry citizens. Especially when their ranks will most likely consist of bowling ball shaped babas more concerned with repelling local teenage punks whose real crime is luring their granddaughters to evenings of hard drink and quick sex.Post Views: 1,136
By Sean — 5 years ago
In September, strippers from the Moscow strip club ‘Golden Girls’ posed for a calendar, “Make Love Not War”, celebrating Putin’s diplomatic victory in Syria. “I don’t know what Syria is, but still, I don’t want them to bomb it,” declared Miss October. The calendar is the latest in a litany of images and artifacts singing hosannas to Putin. The archive of the Putin cult is immense and features anything from matryoshkas to video games. Next to oil and gas, Putin is one of Russia’s most marketable commodities. Perhaps a testament to the Putin cult’s power is that even academics have turned their analytical gaze toward Putininia. That Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, a new collection of essays analyzing the Putin spectacle, affirms the power of the Putin cult through its deconstruction is not without a measure of irony.
Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon contains eight essays treating Putin’s cult of personality, his language, his public performance, and image, and the role these play in crafting Putin as a powerful symbol of the post-soviet Russian nation. What unites all these essays is Putin as spectacle where, wrote Guy Debord, “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation. . . .The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification.” Putin as spectacle vividly captures Debord’s thesis.
At the same time, Putin as a unifying symbol points to the much older notion of the king’s two bodies. The first body – Putin’s personal life – is rarely visible. The public has only gotten brief glimpses of Putin as a human being with all of the attending personal quirks and emotions. Two examples are when he shed tears after learning he was elected for a third presidential term or when he and his wife Lyudmila publically announced their divorce. Sometimes Putin’s anger comes through, like when he berates underlings or, most recently, when a hot microphone catches him calling a professor a ‘nutball’. But even these moments are for public consumption. As Michael Gorham argues, Putin’s direct tone, slang, and folksy witticisms are part of his tough everyman persona. Even Putin’s softer side is carefully managed through his public relationship with animals and children. Tatiana Mihailkova’s excellent essay shows animals substitute for Putin’s family, who are so rarely shown in public that rumors abounded that he had his wife cloistered in a convent. Putin’s tender moments with his dog, Koni, as well as horses, dolphins, cranes, tigers, and other wildlife are common tropes of his public image. Some of these encounters are even sealed with a kiss. Putin has a penchant for kissing fish and tigers. Perhaps Putin’s most famous kiss, though, was the one he planted on a 7-year-old boy in 2006. All of these endearing moments, Mikhailova argues, positions Putin as the “soft and tender Father of the Nation,” as opposed to him being solely the father of the Putins.
Putin’s second body, symbolizing authority and the nation, is very public – sometimes too public, as his bare-chested pictorials suggest. Putin’s public escapades show him as a hands-on micro-manager who is doing what’s good for the nation: chastising and directing underlings, putting out fires, inspecting construction projects, holding a marathon call-in show where he personally answers citizens’ appeals, and vowing to eliminate terrorists in the outhouse. In such a vast and ungovernable nation as Russia, the spectacle of Putin’s personal omnipotent power gives the impression that he’s a competent leader tirelessly working in the people’s interest. In these spectacles, Putin represents a cross between the powerful leader Russia needs and an action hero.
It would be wrong, however, to reduce Putin to one thing. As several of the authors suggest, the resonance of Putin’s figure lies not just in its symbolic currency, or even market value, but in its chameleon-like nature. He’s ever-morphing. As the founder of the Levada polling agency, Yuri Levada, put it, Putin is “a mirror in which everyone . . . sees what he wants to see and what he hopes for.” Putin represents a nostalgia for the strong Russia of the past, a present-day happy Russia, and a future great Russia. All of these temporal stages are enacted through the variety of Putin texts available for consumption. Even his detractors are invested in Putin’s public body, as the act of rejection and ridicule of the leader cult are nevertheless rooted in its widespread resonance.
Russia’s ominous history of cult of personality easily comes to mind when searching for the lineages of Putin’s cult. While Putin certainly has a cult, it would be wrong to see it as a mere facsimile of its communist predecessors. Stalin’s cult, as Jan Plamper shows in his The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, was meticulously controlled, often by Stalin himself. As Julie Cassiday and Emily Johnson stress in their essay, the central control over Putin’s image is only one part of the story. Putin’s cult is as much as product of the free market as it is the Kremlin, and many Russians who serve as its producers and consumers have shaped its content. Putin sells and does so through a myriad of texts and mediums. Some of them are straight adulations. Others are mixed with irony and ridicule. Whatever the intent of Putinina, its value is subordinated to the supply and demand of the market. This, ironically, makes Putin’s cult more democratic, as Putin can be fashioned and re-fashioned to fit a citizen’s identity. One Putin portrait can radiate power and confidence, while the same poster colored with rainbow hues can stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. In this sense, the Putin cult is very much post-modern. The Kremlin’s master narrative is too easily deconstructed and rendered simply as one text among millions.
In Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarch, Richard Wortman wrote: “Symbolic display served as an essential mechanism of tsarist rule. Carefully staged ceremonies and celebrations . . . demonstrated the monarch’s powers of control and direction, providing a simulacrum of a political order responding to his will.” Putin’s cult plays a similar function. However, as Putin as Celebrity demonstrates, though Putin’s cult draws on older Russian traditions, it is inevitably shaped by the post-modern conditions of its existence. Perhaps, then, Putin’s scenario of power cannot be reduced to him as a strongman, tender father, masculine archetype, competent technocrat, or even a stand-in for the Russian nation. Putin’s real scenario is in its mutability. It’s in the ability of the consumer to personalize the Putin cult to satisfy his or her identity. In this sense Putin truly represents, in Debord’s words, the point “where all attention, all consciousness, converges.”Post Views: 783
By Sean — 2 years ago
I wrote an article for OpenDemocracy on microloans and debt collector violence. I’ve been mulling the article since January when I read a gruesome story about a debt collector throwing a Molotov cocktail through the debtor’s window severely burning his two year old grandson. A Google news search revealed that though this incident was one of the most tragic, it was hardly exceptional. But the idea sat and so did the saved links.
Then two things happened.
First, was all of the reporting on Putin’s alleged connections to $2 billion in the Panama Papers. Many Western reporters were bemoaning the fact that the Russian federal media wasn’t covering the story and how the details in the Papers revealed the nature of corruption and power in Russia. As usual, Mark Galeotti provided one of the more cogent comments. But besides Mark’s intervention, most commentary read as recycled verbiage salted and peppered with new flashy metaphors.
Second, on April 5, another story sprang up in the Russian press. In the town of Iskitim in Novosibirsk oblast, four masked debt collectors broke into the home of Natalia Gorbunova, beat her husband and 17-year-old son, and then raped her in front of them. Gorbunova had taken a 5,000 ruble microloan in 2014 and now the collectors were demanding 240,000.
It was the contrast between the global media outcry and analytical mummery about Putin’s alleged billions and the complete silence about what ordinary Russians like Gorbunova have to deal with. But this is always the case. Stories about the Gorbunova’s of the Russia are few and far between. It’s easier to obsess over Putin than to illuminate the complexities of Russian daily life.
I hope that my OpenDemocracy article is a modest contribution to the latter.
Here’s an excerpt:
Media reports of harassment and violence against debtors have become all too common. Most debtors and their relatives are subject to constant harassment —in Stavropol, debt collectors shut down a hospital’s phone system with their constant harassment of a hospital worker over the telephone. Similar incidents have happened in other towns as well.
Threats and outright violence are increasingly frequent. In January, debt collectors in Ulyanovsk threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of a 56-year-old grandfather, severely burning his two-year-old grandson. The grandfather took a 4,000 rouble ($60) loan to buy medicine; the collectors demanded he pay them 40,000 ($598).
In Krasnodar, a debt collector broke a woman’s finger over a 300 rouble ($4.50) debt payment. In Penza, a 54-year-old woman took a microloan for 30,000 rubles ($448) to, once again, buy medicine. She put her home down as collateral. The collectors now say she owes 470,000 rubles ($7,022), and as a result, they’re to seize her home. In Rostov-on-Don a collector was sentenced to ten months in prison for threatening to blow up a kindergarten if an employee didn’t repay his loan.
In Yekaterinburg, collectors “cut the telephone wires and filled the locks with glue” as they locked a debtor’s child in an apartment. Aleksei Selivanov, a Yekaterinburg lawyer who defends debtors against predatory lenders, was threatened by a group of collectors led by Maksim Patrakov, a former Donbas volunteer fighter. According to the jurist, Patrakov threatened to throw him in a car trunk and murder him out in the forest. The media is filled with these stories.Post Views: 1,670