A Journey into Putin’s Country



Anne Garrels is a former foreign correspondent for National Public Radio and the author of Naked in Baghdad which chronicled the events surrounding the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her most recent book is Putin’s Country: A Journey into the Real Russia.


Aesop Rock, “No Regrets,” Labor Days, 2001.

A Letter to the Russian Elite


I was on Brian Whitmore’s Power Vertical podcast this week. In thinking over some of my comments, I realized that I was basically giving the Russian elite advice on how to be a functioning bourgeoisie. The bourgeois class project in Russia has been a historical failure. Russia’s third bourgeois is currently too busy with its head buried in the trough or is too paranoid to see the reality before it.

You can listen to my appearance on the Power Vertical here:

It’s so pathetic that me, a Marxist, has to tell it how to be a functioning bourgeoisie.

But I feel that I must. Because let’s face it, the Russian elite sucks as a ruling class.

Here’s my open letter to the Russian elite.

Dear Russian elite,

I understand you’ve historically had a rough go. Your forefathers have been decimated three times in the last 100 years. It’s difficult to reconstruct yourself as a class over and over again. But you must.

There are many types of bourgeoisies. You don’t have to be like America’s or Europe’s. You should take some lessons from them, but you can be your own Russian bourgeoisie. Find the right fit for you.

Now, I don’t think you’re currently teetering on the precipice. But the next few years will pose challenges. You have economic crisis, parliamentary elections, and a presidential election. Elections are supposed to be legitimizing rituals but as Putin’s tenure has dragged on, they’ve increasingly become periods of potential instability.

So it’s time to use this opportunity to get your shit together.

Your problem is a simple one, but indulge me, and let me put it in Marxian terms. You are a class in itself, but not for itself. That is, you exist as a sociological category but you don’t collectively pursue your class interests. Sure, you do this individually but that leads to inter-class cannibalism. You’re a lawless creature without inter-class rules. This is why you always need an arbiter to keep you from killing yourselves. Becoming a class for itself means coming up with collective rules of the game: fight amongst yourselves but don’t destroy, expropriate but do it legally, rule but mostly through consent.

So, you need to make a decision and there’s no time is like the present. The question is simple: Are you going to ever become a proper capitalist ruling class?

If so, then you first need to learn to govern. Not rule. Govern. Governing requires a few things at this historical moment.

1. Rebuild your institutions.

You had them in the past—the zemstvo, real courts that settled real disputes, competitive Dumas (think about it, the Fourth Duma (1912) was far more competitive than Putin’s today. It had 15 Bolshevik representatives. Bolsheviks! And ten political parties. Real ones.), the soviet, the Party, and many, many social and cultural organizations.

Today’s Russia is not totally de-institionalized. It’s just that institutions merely act as fiefdoms for ravenous elites. You just can’t help yourself from eating them up or hollowing them out.

Do you want to have your cake and eat it to? You need to start the Atkins diet. You can still feast very well. You just can’t eat everything.

2. Nationalize the Navalny Experiment

You have Duma elections coming up. Face reality. You’re really not as popular are you think you are. Your provincial elites know this. But the Kremlin and its puppies in the Duma still think they can manage popularity by crude propaganda, stuffing the box or, worse, letting uncle Bastrykin talk to the guests again. You need to take a political hit. All you’ve done is pass idiotic laws just to let the media know you exist. What was the 6th State Duma’s great legislative achievement? How did it represent its constituents?

You don’t have to continue like this. Just look to Navalny as your savior.

Navalny’s 2013 mayoral campaign was a class success. You had a more or less free election. You let an opposition candidate run and allow him to get 27 percent of the vote. The election helped pull the opposition’s plug, not that Navalny and the urban “creative class” pose any real class threat. They just want to be part of the club. And you should let them in (see item #5). But in all you let him run and you’re still securely in power.

My advice here is simple: nationalize the Navalny experiment.

3. America is out to get you but not in the way you think.

The United States would love to see the Putinists go. But the United States does not have wondrous powers. Yes, it plays all sorts of dirty tricks and interferes in other people’s countries. It does love to bomb. It has a lot of power but its ruling class has forgotten how to effectively use it. It’s slowly decaying because it’s bourgeoisie gave up governing. But besides military power, its influence is rather circumscribed. But for some reason you keep eating its bullshit up. Stop acting like you’re a besieged fortress. You just aren’t.

4. Putin can’t keep driving you.

It’s time to learn to drive yourselves. Ruchnoi kontrol’ is not governing. It’s a substitute for governing.

5. If there is any lesson you should take from the American and European bourgeoisie it is how to build hegemony.

Let an autonomous civil society exist. Don’t see it as a threat but as another transmission belt for strengthening your hegemony. Gramsci described civil society as a system of “fortresses and earthworks” that propped up the state when it was in crisis.

6. Cut a deal amongst yourselves.

Stop using corruption and anti-corruption as an inter-class disciplinary mechanism. Come to some collective class agreement that if you stop stealing, you’ll actually make more money in the long run. And get this. Governance can help you! This is called the Rule of Law. And guess what? You get to write the laws! For the time being, you just need to accept a lower annual rate of return. If anyone steals, you bust them. You don’t have to be perfect. Property is theft after all. But keep corruption at politically acceptable levels. And if you still want to be corrupt, then follow the American example: legalize it.

7. Start thinking about life after Putin.

Botox doesn’t prolong life. Come to an arrangement where Putin will gracefully retire and receive all the benefits of being an elder statesman. He’ll go down in history as one of Russia’s greatest leaders. Put forward a class compromise candidate and establish rules of succession. You almost had it with Medvedev, but you let Papa come back.

8. Put your trust in Kudrin.

Alexei Leonidovich is the perfect shepherd for your journey in becoming a class for itself. He gets it. You just have to listen to him.

These eight points are my advice to you. I could elaborate on each of them more, but I assume you get the point. You don’t have to be successful all at once. Take some time. Just resist your inner Stalinist urges.

Your friend,



Russian Debt Collectors’ Reign of Terror


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.

In some cases, the crushing debt and constant threats and harassment are just too much. The only exit many see from this vicious cycle is suicide.

Read on . . .

The Russian Authorities Not Named Putin in the Panama Papers


As the media world is fixated on Putin’s allegedly stashed $2 billion, the not-named-Putin Russians in the leaked documents comprise of siloviki, chinovniki, parliamentarians, governors and their families. They include:

  • Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s Press Secretary
  • Suleiman Geremeev, Senator from Chechnya and uncle of Ruslan Geremeev, the main suspect in ordering the assassination of Boris Nemtsov
  • Viktor Zvargelskii, Duma Deputy United Russia
  • Mikhail Slipenchuk, Duma Deputy United Russia
  • Aleksandr Babakov, Duma Deputy United Russia
  • Andrei Turchak, Governor of Pskov
  • Boris Dubrovskii, Governor of Chelyabinsk
  • Igor Zubov, Deputy Minster of the Ministry of Internal Affairs
  • Aleksandr Makhonov, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Internal Affairs
  • Maksim Liksutov, Vice-Mayor of Moscow
  • Nikolai Patrushev, National Security Council Secretary
  • Aleksei Yliukaev, Minister of Economic Development
  • Ivan Maliushin, Deputy Head of the Department of Presidential Affairs

You can find a rundown of all their offshore and shell company connections and more in Novaya gazeta’s Panama Papers investigation “Offshore. Uncovered.”

These people’s response to the Panama Papers’ revelations has been either “no comment,” plain denial, or “we conduct business by the book.”

And no one in Russia is under any illusion that these revelations will gain any political, let alone legal traction. No Russian law enforcement body has said a single word about intending to look into these documents. It’s just business as usual. Those in the Western press having their “Gotcha!” moment might as well be saying it in the mirror. Even the Vedomosti editorial board is blasé about the big revelations:

In Russia, offshore companies are first and foremost as a means of protection and for the concealment of property. In the West they are to avoid paying taxes, while we hide ownership. First, it’s more convenient to do business through offshore companies. Second, many of our businesses are linked in some way to the state—either through money or participants—in ways that aren’t always legal.

Our “state official-owners” can’t imagine the existence of something both beneficial for the state and detrimental to the authorities. It’s impossible for them to say that we ourselves will now take taxes from ourselves and we ourselves will punish ourselves. Therefore, we have to say that there is nothing new in these documents, and that it is a hit against the president. In a way, this is the honest truth.


19 Million Russians

Over 19 million Russians live in poverty, according to a recent article in Dengi. But how is poverty determined in the Russian context?

For Rosstat to categorize you as in poverty, you need to have an income lower than the subsistence minimum. For the majority of Dengi readers, this level is mockingly low: 9,452 rubles ($139) a month (10,178 rubles, $150, for an able bodied person, 7,781 rubles ($115) for pensioners, and 9,197 rubles ($136) for children according to levels the government set in the fourth quarter of 2015). There are many such people (19.2 million, or 13.4 percent of the country), and they are increasing (by an additional 3.1 million people last year).

This is, of course, higher than the index the World Bank uses to determine the poverty. Since 2015 it’s at $1.90 a day, that is about 4,000 rubles a month at the current exchange rate. However, here the word “poverty” (bednost’) is a translation of the English word “poverty” which more corresponds to the Russian word “destitution” (nishcheta). But apparently there are still quite a few of these in Russia, though there aren’t any accurate or up to date estimates. Rosstat data provides the best possible approximation: 3.3 percent of the population had an income below 5,000 rubles a month in 2014.

Percentage of the Russian population earning less than the highest subsistence minimum

Percentage of the Russian population earning less than the highest subsistence minimum

Poverty, as the Dengi article emphasizes, is also a subjective category. A person is poor if he or she feels poor. The article cites one Dengi reader, a businessman from Moscow who, before the recession, thought that an income of $10,000 a month was poor. Now this entrepreneur’s family of four lives off of $4000 a month, a bit more than Moscow’s per capita income of 60,000 rubles ($886) a month. Not exactly poor compared to many, many Russians but certainly poorer, a condition Dengi calls the “new poor.”

Russia's regions ranked by poverty index.

Russia’s regions ranked by poverty index.

This “new poor” is arguably a bigger political problem than the 19 million Russians living under poverty. These people, after all, are the beneficiaries of Putinism—how could a guy who thought that an income less than $10,000 a month was poor not be—and having tasted the “good life”—vacations abroad, disposable income, and a decent level of conspicuous consumption—are now seeing it gradually whither under Russia’s recession. Other anecdotal evidence from Russia’s educated and skilled classes tell a similar story.

Ranking of Russia's regions by percentage of population living below the poverty level.

Ranking of Russia’s regions by percentage of population living below the poverty level.

But it’s not just “Putin’s children.” Putin’s “silent majority” are also feeling the pains of recession. The subjective sense of impoverishment is a cross class phenomenon.

Indeed, a recent Levada Center poll revealed that Russians think the three most important problems in the country are rising consumer prices (77 percent), poverty (49 percent) and growing unemployment (43 percent).

There’s also been an increase in labor and social protest. The ongoing long distance truckers’ protest is the most visible manifestation of Putin’s “silent majority” becoming more vocal. And while most of these conflicts remain small and localized, they might prove trouble for United Russia in the upcoming local and parliamentary elections.

A new project by the Center for Economic and Political Reform (TsEPR) seeks to track and map labor protests in Russia. According to their first results, there have been 132 labor conflicts in the first two months of 2016. Over half of them have been over wage arrears (as of March 1 recorded wage arrears amounted to 3.3 billion rubles or $48.7 million). Here’s a map of what the TsEPR calls the “social and economic hot spots.” The provinces with the highest number of protests include Samara, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, and Kirov regions. Interestingly, the poverty rates in these regions tend to measure below the federal average: Samara, 12.6 percent; Sverdlovsk, 8.3 percent; Chelyabinsk, 11.7 percent; and Kirov, 12.7 percent. Meaning that it’s not the impoverished who are protesting, but those trying to maintain their standard of living in rough economic times.

And this is all at a time when journalists are digging up real estate and offshore schemes linked to Vladimir Putin, his family, and circle, not to mention many others in the Russian establishment. But, sadly, Russia is no outlier here, only a symptom of a more widespread disease. It should be stressed that Putin’s people are using the very methods and institutions many of the world’s oligarchs, criminals and notables employ to secretly squirrel away their billions.

But, hey, this is all part of a Western smear campaign to discredit Russia before the elections, right?

Well, tell that to the 19 million Russians living on less than $139 a month.


The Gangs of Russia



Svetlana Stephenson is a Reader in Sociology at London Metropolitan University. Her research has involved studying informal and criminal social networks in Russia as well as perceptions of social justice and human rights in a comparative context. She is the author of Gangs of Russia, From the Streets to the Corridors of Power published by Cornell University Press in 2015.


N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton,” Straight Outta Compton, 1988 (clean version, unfortunately).


Pseudo-Doctorates in the Duma


Several years ago when I was living in Moscow I would often see people in the metro holding signs selling doctoral degrees. I even had a friend of a friend who earned money writing them on order. Fake diplomas, theses on order, and plagiarism. Already in 2006, Mikhail Kirpichnikov, the then head of State Commission on Academic Degrees, called the selling of diplomas and dissertations in the metro a “illness of society.” But it’s not just the buying of doctoral degrees that’s a problem in Russia. Plagiarism is quite endemic as well. In 2006, Clifford Gaddy, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute, found that Putin had lifted sixteen pages of his dissertation from a Russian translation of William King and David Cleland’s Strategic Planning and Policy. Indeed, Dmitry Livanov, Russia’s Education and Science Minister, admitted in 2014 that plagiarism was widespread, so much so that a 2013 study conducted by the Russian State Library estimated that ten percent of recent dissertations in history were plagiarized. Many of them were written by Russian officials.

The State Commission on Academic Degrees (BAK) is trying to stem the tide. In addition to adopting guidelines for awarding a masters or doctorate degrees, last year the agency drew up a list of 164 legitimate presses and academic journals for scholarly publications. This list was a extreme paring down of the 2269 on BAK’s 2014 list. The idea here was to especially eliminate the “large number of garbage journals” that will print anything if you’re willing to pay.

But the real fight against academic charlatans lies elsewhere. Dissernet, a crowd sourced project, stands in the front lines in the battle against fake or purchased dissertations and plagiarism in Russia. After many months of research, Dissernet in conjunction with Novaya gazeta, released the results from investigating the dissertations of State Duma deputies. They found that 57 members, or 12 percent of the Duma, had plagiarized, faked, bought or had their dissertation ghostwritten. Given that even Russia’s top dog did it, it’s not too surprising.

Below is a translation of the results.

A Mandate with Plagiarism
Dissernet and Novaya gazeta‘s guide to State Duma deputies’ dissertations.

We met Zayakin about three years ago. In January 2013, the physicist published his first examination of Duma deputies’ dissertations. Deputies Tatiana Alexeeva, Nikolai Bulaev and Richat Abubakirov were “busted.” You’ve probably heard that on November 20, 2015 the State Commission on Academic Degrees finally stripped Abubakirov of his doctorate in economics. This was the first such case in the history of the State Duma. And it all started with posts on Live Journal.

Over the years, activists from Dissernet, of which Andrei Zayakin is the co-founder, with the aid of Novaya Gazeta and other public and anonymous helpers have examined the dissertations of almost every Duma deputy. Here are the results of this work.

Regular readers of Novaya Gazeta will recall that Dissernet published its analysis as interactive tables where the cells were partially or fully filled with different colors. The more colors, the more examples of plagiarism. We decided to issue the final results about the State Duma along the same lines. Only it’s not a table, but a diagram of the parliament chamber on the Okhotny Ryad. And there are parliamentary seats instead of cells. “We need a smart ass infographic!,” demanded some Editor-in-Chief for some other reason. Here it is.

I clearly remember the meaning of what Zayakin told me in an interview three years ago: “The battle against swindlers and thieves should not be carried out with seriousness. It should be fun, like Carlson playing the bogeyman—ferocious, but loveable. It’s like fighting Freken Bok. After all, if you remember, at the end of the story, Freken Bok found a dignified gentleman and became a very nice lady, and not a terrible housekeeper.”

Nikita Girin, Novaya Gazeta

Research was conducted on all current State Duma deputies. The green group are dissertations we examined and found nothing. This does not mean that these deputies wrote these works themselves. It only indicates that we weren’t able to find any plagiarism.

A number of dissertations fell into the grey group because, for a variety of reasons, we didn’t get around to them, even if we wanted to. There are a few dissertations we didn’t check simply because we didn’t have the time (due to the turnover in the Duma and the bottleneck at Dissernet), but want to check because they don’t fall into the “old dissertation” category discussed below.

In some of the “grey” dissertations we found matching content, but the presence of collaborative work and co-authors in the dissertation doesn’t allow us to make definitive conclusions that these borrowings are wrong or we think there could be additional sources. All such cases are classified as “There are signs of matching content. Our work continues.”

The most interesting group among the “grey” are the phantoms, that is, dissertations that don’t exist. In early November, Novaya Gazeta sent twenty-four requests to dissertation authors and abstracts that don’t have references in the Russian State Library, the St. Petersburg Public Library, or TsITIS. Even the titles of these works are unknown. We received six responses: In one case, it pointed us to an old work, which we missed, in three cases the dissertations were classified, and two cases of fake dissertations. These are useless scraps of paper produced in “mickey-mouse outfits” and not recognized by the State Commission on Academic Degrees. According to our findings, such “dissertations” belong to Elena Drapeko (according to her comments to the press, her dissertation defense was held at a certain International Academy of Education), Victor Pautov (at the International Academy of Authors of Scientific Discoveries and Inventions) and Sergei Chizhov (his “degree” was awarded by the Higher Inter-Academic Attestation Commission of the International Inter-Academic Union of the Higher Expert-Qualification Committee). That said, Sergei Chizhov told Novaya Gazeta (quite truthfully, we might add) that he doesn’t have a scholarly degree, and after our inquiry he removed information about it from his State Duma website. That’s when we first made screenshots of these pages.

As a rule, if a deputy has a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation, this table will only have the doctorate. Master’s theses are usually written in more ancient times, and they are not so interesting to verify. The exception was United Russia’s Sergei Naryshkin and Alexandr Remezkov, who we have an interest displaying a master’s thesis and doctoral work, as it’s noted in the diagram.

Some dissertations weren’t checked because they were written a long time ago and, as a rule, before the deputy had a political career. Such dissertations are difficult to obtain and aren’t interesting to analyze, and in our experience, if there is plagiarism, it is practically impossible to dig it up. Therefore, we assigned such dissertations with the color purple.

Andrei Zayakin, co-founder of Dissernet

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