Putin’s Russia is a land of Thugs

Hudson Institute senior fellow Laurent Murawiec, writing on HI’s website, explains how to get ahead in Vladimir Putin’s Russia without really trying:

In the badly overcrowded Moscow metro, a third perhaps of the young male population, by hairstyle, facial expression and body language, projects an image of themselves as thugs. The dress emulates the rest: it is drab and mostly black. They’re defiant tough guys. Immediately beneath the surface lies a strain able to explode at the next minute. All behave identically: they push, they crush, hard and mean, they display a callous indifference toward all others, including bent old women who hobble in corridors. Civility is not only absent, it is unlikely.

Moscow Officially has 12 million inhabitants, more if illegal residents are included. The grimy public transportation network is old, built in earlier times for a much smaller population. It ought to be enlarged and modernized: in metro and buses the overload is huge. In the prevailing Hobbesian mood, there are no lines, but catch as catch can. The city treats people like cattle, and people treat each other likewise. Go as far as you may in meanness; jostle and shove, don’t make eye contact.

Boys and young men want to look like thugs; in equal proportion, girls and young women look like tarts. Their demeanor matches their hypersexualized looks. In the 1990s, sociological surveys asked both what preferred profession they intended for their future. The job that topped the boys’ list was “manager,” i.e., mafia-man, and girls, incredibly, “prostitute.” In both cases, the aim was quick and easy money. The girls’ in-your-face sexual attitude is predatory in a female way, just as the males’ way is the predatory thug.

In today’s Russia, innumerable posters exhort women to have three children (“Be a patriot! Accomplish your patriotic duty!”) and the government subsidizes the second and third child. But the plague of abortion, once 4, 5 and even up to 8 or 9 abortion per Soviet woman in her fertile years! that had dropped in the 1990s, has picked up again.

Russia is awash in oil and gas money; half a billion dollars pour in every day. The cash is on display in Moscow, from the successful rehabilitation of beautiful pre-1917 houses, mansions, buildings, churches and palaces, to the luxury cars that overwhelm the streets and create a permanent traffic jam, to the fashionableclothing worn around town by “golden” kids. But the women who abort their unborn child do not receive the proceeds of the oil bonanza. Some measure of social safety net has been developed in Moscow, I’m told, but not in the provinces, in small towns and villages. They remain mired in Soviet-style poverty. The oil wealth has not succeeded, anyway, in improving metro and bus in the showcase capital. The curse of oil is at play: too much, too fast, without effort.

What is missing, a sociologist tells me, is a new entrepreneurial culture. There is money – at the top, in the giant monopolies like Gasprom or the oil oligopolies. Banks and services sprout to service the bonanza. Russia is a rentier state that lives off oil, gas and weaponry exports, and nothing else. The tighter the international balance between growing demand and static supply, the hotter the geopolitical dangers that add a risk premium to the final market price, the happier the Russian rentier class is. Russia today is something of a super-Saudi Arabia. The incentive structure is dramatically clear: the way to prosperity is to be a “manager” in the employ of the mafia in power, not to be an innovative entrepreneur. Property rights are not secure. Tax treatment is variable. Racketeering is a danger. Politics will make you or break you. One of the major growth industries is private security: big thugs in uniforms are ubiquitous in stores and restaurants, in banks and office buildings.

A decade ago Russia defaulted on its external debt. The new riches have not only enabled it to repay its debts, but also to accumulate a big treasure chest. It is spent in recreating the traditional Russian state, a state designed tightly to control society rather than being of service to society. The “power ministries” and agencies, defense, interior, security services, have recovered their power. The generals are getting big amounts of new high-tech toys. Hospitals, schools, roads, normal residential housing, have not benefited. A large number of the accursed communal apartments still house a large part of the Muscovite population! But city authorities announce the construction of 200 huge towers to house offices and luxury apartments. A real estate boom flourishes in the capital and in Saint-Petersburg.

The rewarded thuggishness is the result of a long process that started in the mid-1950s: after Stalin’s death, the criminals were released from the Gulag camps, the inside of which they had largely run on behalf of the KGB. The language, codes and mores of the urka, as they were called, spread to society as a whole. The immense success of singer-poet Vladimir Vysotsky, who drank and smoked himself to death at an early age, reflected the enamoration of society for the criminal class: his lyrics glorified the urka. The criminals lived at the edges of official Soviet society. They were tolerated by the authorities as long as they did not become too uppity. They provided a safety valve, and services unobtainable through normal channels. They now have become uppity. They are the authorities. When the system collapsed in 1991, their underground methods allowed them to navigate the uncharted waters of the new Russia and to exploit new opportunities, while honest or simply normal citizens were losing all signposts.

The criminals’ methods were not far from the KGB’s, just less bureaucratic. Killing and threatening, blackmailing and harassing, were tools of the trade. This is what tough guys do.

On November 21, president Vladimir Putin addressed a rally of 5,000 mostly young members of the Da za Putina (For Putin) movement formed just the week before with the aim of “persuading” him to stay on after his second term expires – he would be prime minister, or father of the nation, or whatever. On TV, the din to vote for “List 10,” Putin’s “United Russia” party for the December 2, parliamentary elections, was deafening. Unputinian forces have been ousted of any media of any importance, which the Kremlin had captured by hook and by crook. A steady diet of propaganda isolates the Russian population from all other views. Big Putin is telling you. Having re-monopolized the media as he has re-monopolized business, Putin is re-monopolizing politics. The speech of the monopolist-in-chief was truly remarkable.

“Our opponents all want to see us disunited. Some want to take away and divide everything, and others to plunder,” he says. His Russia must above all be “united.” “To take away and divide everything”? Are they going to take away the snowflakes and divide the mud? The demagogue uses content-free words designed to induce hostility. “They will now come out into the streets – they got a crash course from foreign experts, were trained in neighboring republics and will try it now.” The thin battalions of the democratic opposition are targeted, the enemy darkly lurks in Georgia and Ukraine.

Putin continues: “Those who want to confront us need a weak and ill state.” A strong society? A civic society? What is needed is a strong state, not a novelty in Russian history. “They want to have a divided society, so that they can carry on their deed behind its back.” Clearly, the secret police is the only means of stopping the criminals’ plots. A huge banner hangs in the background: “Believe in Russia! Believe in ourselves!” Often interrupted by the ecstatic crowd, “Russia! Putin!” the president goes on. He denounces the oligarchs who had “made corruption the main tool of political and economic corruption.” His policy has been to rein them in to centralize the corruption in the hands of his administration, his cronies, the KGB mafia. Decentralized crime will not be tolerated.

“There should be no illusions. All these people remain in the political arena, They want to come back, to return to power, to spheres of influence… Unfortunately, inside the country, there are those who scavenge near foreign embassies like jackals, count on the support of foreign funds and governments and not the support of their own people.” It is all innuendo and manipulative vagueness, enemies, foreign conspiracies: Stalinist rhetoric at its finest. The themes culled from the past are there. You can take the Chekist (secret policeman) out of the KGB, you cannot take the KGB out of the Chekist. The only “Westernization” is in the marketing methods.

Even as he wears an Armani suit Putin’s language is thuggish. He borrows liberally from the urka language. He projects the image of the tough guy, the hard hitter. “I’ll crush them,” “we’ll drown them in the shithouse.” Opponents are traitors, dissenters are criminals, foreigners are enemies. Putin will not return to the cumbersome Communist ideology or to the unwieldy C.P. structure. Why should he? The clan in power and the sub-clans are good enough. The new National Day, November 4, has replaced Revolution Day. It falls celebrates the 1612 AD ouster of the occupying Polish army from Moscow – the Poles, Catholics, Westernized, traitors to Slavdom. The ideology is a mix of Orthodox fundamentalism, xenophobic nationalism, quasi-fascist youth movement and autocracy, Russia’s greatness will be reborn. The imperial tradition revives, an almighty state running endless territories and subject nations. It basks in the warming sun of sweeping hatred. Walk into many Orthodox churches, pick up their literature: hate-speech untrammeled, against the USA, the West, Catholics, Jews, Chinese, the Caucasus peoples, Central Asians, foreigners.

Putin bears their standard. After all, it is under him that all these unresolved crimes, killing of prominent journalists like Politkovskaya, of prominent opposition parliamentarians like Staravoitova, of dissenting ex-KGB types like Litvinenko (in Britain), have taken place. On Nov. 24, Garry Kasparov was arrested and stuck in jail for five days by a “court” for taking part in a street demonstration. Putin reported some years ago that the ideal of his youth was the fictional, unflappable Col. von Stirlitz of Julian Semyonov’s novels, the Soviet military intelligence (GRU) officer who penetrates the highest level of the Nazi SS during the war and mightily contributes to the Soviet advance. The mediocre KGB lieutenant-colonel who vegetated in Dresden, East Germany, morphed into authoritarian leader lacks the finesse of Stirlitz. He makes up for that in vulgarity and thuggishness.

Putin is a rogue running a rogue state. The model he projects for society, which supports him to a great extent – he is “one of ours,” the reassuring strong man after stormy, confusing times, avenging the humiliations of the 1990s – is that of the successful thug. The incentive structure is stacked in the wrong way. Russia is entirely dependent on rising oil prices. It works in the short and perhaps the medium term. If Russia reinvested massively in revitalizing society’s health, education, fostered an entrepreneurial culture and helped the coming into being of a tragically missing civic culture, it could secure a future. As it is, it is securing yet another cycle of misery and another fall, in years and decades to come.

But Putin and his crowd are drunk with the oil wealth. The black gold is forever. “We’re rich!” they exclaim like a teenager who comes into daddy’s trust fund, and spends, and spends like there is no tomorrow. Russia is running out of Russians; the life expectancy at birth of a Russian male is lower than that that prevails in most parts of Africa, at 56 (other figures say 59) years; birth rates are at rock bottom and death rates (alcoholism, pollution, or violent deaths, cardio-vascular diseases) sky-high. Demographers warn that the demographic catastrophe in Russia is an unprecedented phenomenon among all nations in peacetime. But Putin’s advisers behave as if these trends were magically correcting themselves, Putin’s speech gloried that Russia had come back into the Top Ten economies in the world: the rentier mixes up rent and wealth-creation: Putin’s Russia is a top-ten recipient of wealth produced elsewhere.

Russia has turned into a nation of predators: the urka and their imitators, be they presidents, corporate tycoons or chekisty, or mean-looking young men, tarts who try to link up with successful thugs. None of them is aware of a fundamental fact in Russian history: that it is the predatory way of thinking and acting that caused Russia’s unending predicament. A state with overwhelming power was erected to control the huge territories that were conquered; the greater the territories, the mightier the state. Once the almighty state was erected and maintained, no energy was left for anything else. Wealth was not created, it was grabbed and appropriated from the labor of others. Life is a zero-sum game. Dreams of Imperium possess again the predatory Russian elite, powering and funding its internal and external thuggishness

One response to “Putin’s Russia is a land of Thugs

  1. “Russia has turned into a nation of predators: the urka and their imitators, be they presidents, corporate tycoons or chekisty, or mean-looking young men, tarts who try to link up with successful thugs.”

    What do you expect after 70 years of Communism when the Soviet zoo animals were finally uncaged ?

    Russia is a crude and squalid wasteland of perpetual bad ideas with nasty behavior towards each other and their bordering neighbors. They never fail to disappoint.

    Amusing, isn’t it, that for so long the liberal western media and academia defended this vicious and ignorant blight on humanity.

    I give credit to the Germans and Japanese that after atrocious behavior last century were able to profess their guilt, rehabilitate themselves and join the the rest of us. Meanwhile the Russians are rehabilitating Stalin, overwhelmingly in support of Putin and as xenophobic and nasty as ever.

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