Henry Hale is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs in the Eliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and Co-Director of the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia or PONARS Eurasia. He’s the author of many articles and books on post-Soviet politics. His most recent book is Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective published by Cambridge University Press.
Richard Hell, “(I Belong to the) Blank Generation,” The Stiff Records Box Set, 1976.
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By Sean — 4 years ago
The Russian Duma has passed the second and third reading of a new law that would limit foreign ownership of a media to 20 percent. The law goes into effect on 1 January 2016, but companies have until 1 February 2017 to divest their foreign holdings. The bill had tri-partisan support from the get go. Vadim Dengin (LDPR), Vladimir Parakhin (Just Russia), and Denis Voronenkov (KPRF) sponsored the bill. Every Duma deputy voted for its passage except three. Just Russia’s Dmitry Gudkov and Sergei Petrov voted against, while Valerii Zubov abstained. Given how these things go the bill will likely skate through the Senate and be signed by Putin sometime next week.
The vast majority of media affected by this law are cooking, lifestyle, fashion, health, and entertainment magazines. But the real targets are the few last bastions of Russia’s independent press: Vedomosti, which is owned in partnership with the Finnish media group Sanoma Independent, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and Forbes Russia, owned by the German firm Axel Springer. Both Vedomosi and Forbes are often critical of Putin and the government.
Russia’s fortress mentality where Russia’s venerable politicians perceive the country as besieged by internal and external enemies prevails once again.
But how to explain this mentality? Andrei Sinitsyn’s editorial, “The Psychological Justification of Isolation,” in Vedomosti explained things thus:
In the discussion of the [law on the media] in the Duma it was possible to hear from deputies that social networks result in disorderly sexual relations, glossy magazines work as a “fifth column,” and Russian journalists would not resent censorship.
This besieged fortress and moralizing rhetoric—the rhetoric of a Soviet teachers meeting—now accompanies many of the government’s decisions. The West is soulless, Russian orphans are tormented in America, the CIA controls internet, NGOs “work off grants,” the State Department is organizing rallies. And accordingly, Russia has risen from its knees; the state is most important, etc.
Curiously enough is whether the quasi-Soviet rhetoric is simply a political instrument or part of a more general and objective phenomena that can be called the revenge of the “sovok.” Perhaps both. Dividing the rhetoric of society is beneficial for maintaining power. Concrete decisions that accompany it may carry a specific economic benefit to interested groups. But they also reflect decision-makers’ misunderstanding of the tenets of a post-industrial economy and an open society. Perhaps here we see the effects of the conscious (and the accumulated) lag behind the progress.
. . .
Returning to the words and actions of the times of the president’s Komsomol youth can be explained by many factors. Perhaps the reason for the vitality of the psychology of the “sovok” is that a radical restructuring of the consciousness of society did not occur over the last thirty years. This correlates with the incompleteness of political and economic reforms. The European Social Survey’s study of Russians’ value system consistently shows that, in comparison to people in other countries, Russians’ conservative adherence to security and tradition (“the conservation of values”) outweighs the willingness to take risks and change, and the aspiration for power and wealth are by far stronger than goodwill and the respect for others.
The same fear of the new and the desire at all costs to hold on to the steering wheel characterizes the ruling elite.
There is a more complex explanation for the revenge of the “sovok.” Each manager is forced to choose between the loyalty and the competence of his subordinates. For a long time, Putin kept for himself the possibility of choosing the competent and the loyal, and supported initiatives of both. But at some point, it became necessary to choose the loyal to maintain power. The “conservation of values” again took over the willingness to change. At the same time, however, it was necessary to cut off contact with the complex outside world, which for sure arose as a project of the CIA, “and so it develops.”Post Views: 802
By Sean — 6 years ago
Gerard Depardieu’s rapid naturalization as a Russian citizen has raised ire inside and outside of Russia. For one of the better comment’s on Depardieugate, I recommend Vadim Nikitin’s op-ed “Depardieu and the New Capitalism” in the New York Times. Nikitin makes the clear headed argument that Depardieu’s run to Russia for a tax haven is nothing more than a symptom of neoliberalism. In a world of fluid capital, outsourcing, global competition, and anything goes profit maximization, isn’t the star of Green Card entitled to do what many multinational corporations do on a regular basis? As Nikitin writes,
It’s odd that people should feel so shocked by Depardieu’s decision. After all, in escaping from a messy, expensive democracy to a cheaper and simpler autocracy, the actor is only doing what thousands of Western multinational corporations do every day by moving their factories to China, and their management to the United Arab Emirates.
For example, when it invests in China, a company like Apple can reap all the benefits of totalitarianism — streamlined governance, low wages and no labor unrest — at the same time as it opts out of the abuses, restrictions and indignities faced by ordinary Chinese people.
Depardieu has done the same thing. In Russia, he can benefit from the double standards the country affords members of the pro-government elite vis-à-vis the general public. Due to his personal friendship with President Vladimir Putin, Depardieu will benefit from the country’s low taxation and other perks of dealing with a democratically unaccountable system, such as having his citizenship fast-tracked by presidential decree while ordinary people have to wait years to get their passports.
When put this way, Depardieu’s dart to Russia seems quite harmless.
Yet it is the last sentence of this passage that I want to dwell on. It’s quite indicative of the way Russia is ruled that it took a mere three days after Putin signed an executive order granting Depardieu citizenship that the French actor had his passport in hand, let alone delivered by the First Migration Officer Putin himself. If anyone was looking for an example of the “power vertical” or, perhaps more poignantly put, the “Putin vertical” it’s the speed in which the Russian bureaucratic machine worked in this instance. It goes to show that in some cases, when the vozhd speaks, someone listens, and with a high profile friend of Putin in the limelight the wheels are all the more greased.
This feat on the part of the Russian bureaucracy was not lost on Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent for the Independent, who tweeted: “It took just 3 days for Depardieu to get his Russian passport – and during public holidays. What a triumph for Russian bureaucracy.”
It may be a triumph for the Russian bureaucracy, but is for Putin? Frankly all he’s proven, and this extends to all controversial laws the Duma subserviently passed since March, ending with the Yakovlev Law, which was concocted in Putin’s office, is that he can still rule. He can still command. But can he still govern? That, I’m afraid, remains to be seen.
Gazeta also found this “triumph” curious and decided to investigate on what it takes to get an internal Russian passport and whether Mr. Depardieu had to jump through the hoops. What they found proves that when it comes to citizenship and passports, Putin is still in front of the cue ball.
According to the Russian law on citizenship, the following documents are required to get an internal passport:
“Two copies of an application, a notarized translation of [the applicant’s] national passport (which must be at least six months before its expiration date), a notarized copy of the birth certificate or a notarized translation, a notarized copy of a marriage or divorce certificate, “extracts from a housing register,” a copy of personal finance records, four 3.5 x 4.5 photos, a receipt for the 2000 ruble application fee, a copy of a diploma, a renunciation of previous citizenship (unless the country of origin has a dual citizenship agreement with Russia), and a notarized confirmation of passage of an exam showing proficiency in the Russian language.”
It’s quite doubtful, in fact it’s damn near impossible, that Depardieu got all of these in order. Especially if you consider that Depardieu made his desire to move to Russia public on December 18 and the next day Putin declared, “If Gerard really wants a Russian residence permit or passport, consider that done.” True to form, Putin said that all the required forms, notarized copies, and other scraps of legal documents wouldn’t be needed since it was suddenly urgent to attract people “spiritually and culturally close to [Russia].” Given how natural Depardieu looks in a traditional Russian peasant blouse the spiritual and cultural part appears covered. All he needs to do now is grow a beard and he’d be a shoe in for the next production of Boris Godunov.
We won’t know whether Depardieu submitted any of the documents, except for the 3.5 x 4.5 photos, judging from the pictures of him gleefully displaying his new Russian passport. When asked if Depardieu filed all the necessary documents his press secretary said that he “didn’t have the right to answer that question” and that he “had the information but didn’t have the right to reveal it.”
It seems that no one really knows, and Dmitrii Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, says that all of the forms were submitted and that French diplomats stepped in and quickened the process on their side. That means, as Gazeta notes, that it took the actor a half a day to assemble all eleven documents. That’s right, half a day.
And it took all of one day for the Russian Federal Migration Service to produce the passport.
When asked how many people worked on processing Depardieu’s passport, Zalina Kornikova, FMS press secretary bobbed and weaved:
“What is Depardieu presence to you? Do you have any information or not? First, we have people on duty during the holidays. I can’t answer now, I have to clear up who issued [the passport]. You have to ask technological services how many people worked on it. Why are you interested? How many people worked on Depardieu’s [case]? You have to excuse me, I also have work to do. Depardieu . . . somebody. I don’t understand the question . . . Who took the blank from the stack of passports? Who printed it? Do you have this in mind?”
Later, Kornikova sent an sms to Gazeta simply stating: “It was an exceptional case by decree of the President. And what you have a problem with this?”
But apparently, as Gazeta notes, there are decrees from a Russian president and there are decrees from Putin. After all, when Medvedev granted the Olympic track star Ahn Hyun-Soo Russian citizenship on 26 December 2011, she didn’t get her passport until 7 January 2012, and only after she submitted all the documents. And when Medvedev granted the American snowboarder Vicki Wild citizenship in May 2012 it also took several days, and Wild had already submitted her documents in 2011. True, these women got their passports fast, but not Depardieu fast. Nor, by the way, did either of these women’s becoming Russian citizens turn into an international scandal.
The difference, it seems, boils down to one word: Putin. It’s Putin who made the Depardieu Affair generate such outrage inside and outside Russia. But it is also Putin that made Depardieu’s rapid nationalization possible in the first place. His footprint is everywhere: from personally decreeing Depardieu citizenship, to the rapid generation of the passport, to Putin personally handing it to Russia’s most popular new citizen.
Yet, ironically, this whole debacle shouldn’t be seen as a sign of Putin’s strength. Sure it shows that things move fast when they are at Putin’s personal behest, even on holidays. But at the same time we need to remember that in the big scheme of things granting citizenship is small potatoes. Putin shows that he can still deliver a passport in good order. But can he still deliver Russia?Post Views: 872
By Sean — 11 years ago
The 3 March issue of the Nation has two reviews of four recent books on Soviet history. The first review, “The Ice Forge,” written by Jochen Hellbeck, examines Lynne Viola’s Unknown Gulag and Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers. Viola’s book chronicles the deportation of Soviet “kulaks” during collectivization. About it Hellbeck writes, “The Unknown Gulag, is an indictment of the utopian folly and criminal neglect of Soviet officials, and a moving account of human suffering.”
Similarly, Figes text is an exploration into private life under Stalin’s rule. “Reading The Whisperers,” Hellbeck states, “one comes away with a powerful sense that stigmatization and self-reinvention were central, indeed defining, attributes of the Soviet experience for many Russians of rural as well as urban backgrounds.” Figes has set up a website for the book which allows visitors to access the many interview he had conducted for his study. Despite a few translated interviews, unfortunately the bulk of them remain in Russian making audience access is limited. One can only hope that Figes will have the funds and desire to translate more of them.
I think this observation by Hellbeck is quite interesting:
As I read the interview transcripts on Figes’s website, I was struck by how, in at least a few cases, the subjects appear to have been treated to a rather aggressive form of questioning about their thoughts and feelings in Stalin’s time. Yet one interviewee, Dmitry Streletsky, would not yield to these pressures and insisted on his own, decidedly moral, reading of his life under Stalin. Streletsky could have leapt from the pages of Lynne Viola’s book. He was born into a family of peasants who were persecuted as kulaks and exiled to a special settlement in the Urals. The death rate in the settlement was staggering. Streletsky relates how his single most important desire, to prove he was a Soviet citizen like everyone else, was constantly impeded. The Memorial worker interviewing Streletsky understands this to mean that he was driven by a fear of punishment:
Q: Did you fear that they would punish you [for your kulak origins]?
A: There was shame, and there was my conscience, it wasn’t just about the punishment, but about these things.
Q: But you also feared that they might punish you?
A: Who knows? I had doubts, yes doubts. I didn’t feel fear,
Q: And that they would punish you, right?
A: That they would punish me and all the rest. Fire me from work….
A few sentences later Streletsky’s interview partner returns to the same subject: “Tell me, please, what or whom did you fear more, the NKVD or the commander [of the settlement]? Were you afraid?” Streletsky’s response: “Listen, I didn’t feel any fear.
Streletsky then talks about how he dreamed of joining the Communist Party throughout the years of his exile. When he describes his disappointment about being turned down for party membership in 1952, his voice shakes with emotion, the transcript notes. The exchange between Streletsky and his incredulous interrogator is revealing, for it discloses not only Streletsky’s moral reading of his Soviet experience but also the gap that lies between him and the interviewer, who adheres to a cynical view of Communism more characteristic of younger generations of Russians.
In the second review, “Revolutionary States,” veteran Soviet scholar Ronald Suny tackles Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks in Power is the third in trilogy of arguably the best scholarly study of the Russian Revolution. Among Rabinowitch’s many themes, Suny notes that the central issue in this volume is: “Why did a democratic revolution based on grassroots councils and committees turn into a dictatorship that employed state terror against its opponents, real and imagined, within months of its coming to power?” A haunting question indeed.
The second book subject to Suny’s examination is Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia. Tear Off the Masks!, the only of the four books featured which I’ve read, is a collection of articles that Fitzpatrick has published over the last fifteen years on the subject of imposture, denunciation, social identity, and coping in 1930s Soviet Russia. It is this thematic concentration that allows Suny to conclude from Fitzpatrick’s fifteen articles that her notion of the “quintessential Soviet” is “a shrewd manipulator able to adapt to shifting opportunities, maneuver through ever-present dangers and “con” the authorities when necessary.” It is this notion of Soviet citizens as ultimately conscious, rational individuals who always knew what they wanted and how to get it is where I part with her text. In parts, Fitzpatrick’s book reads like the liberal individual triumphant, a move that borders on placing her subjects above the conditioning power of History itself.
Much of Fitzpatrick’s reductionism is partially born in a historiographical attack on what she calls the “Soviet subjectivity school.” I could never understand the propensity to ascribe schools in Russian historical studies, especially to ones like the so-called “Soviet subjectivity school” which have no more than two or three scholars attached to them. Neverthless, such ascription serves many, especially as they try to carve out an island of difference within an mostly academic sea of similitude.
The contours in Soviet historiography aside, the real tragedy is that Fitzpatrick’s effort to undermine Hellbeck’s notion of a illiberal Soviet subject, (Hellbeck and Israeli historian Igal Halfin are recognized as the theoretical hydra of a Foucaultian notion of the Soviet self), leads her to posit an equally reductionist view of the self that the “Soviet subjectivity school” has similarly, and often unfairly, been criticized for. But such is the outcome when one rejects the notion of theory altogether. Such declarations mask the fact even the most empirically based analyses are steeped in some theoretical assumption about the lives subject to them.
A study that somehow captures the inner contradictions of life under Stalin that goes beyond Soviet citizens as either dupes or tricksters is still waiting to be written. My methodological position would be an exploration into the dialectical braiding of the two poles. But that is a whole other story that is still in the making.Post Views: 799