Russians Gird for Civil War

In a three-part report, the indispensable Paul Goble informs us that as Russian unemployment reaches the “magic” figure of 10% that bodes ill for civil unrest, Russians are arming themselves to the teeth and talking secession and disintegration:

Frightened by the instability the current economic crisis is creating and by the possibility that the powers that be may lose control of the situation, Russians are choosing to arm themselves in unprecedented numbers, with more than one Russian in ten – some 13 million people — across the country now having a lethal weapon in their possession. Those figures, which are included in the “Small Arms Survey-2007” that was prepared by the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies a year ago, are far higher than Russian officials acknowledge but almost certainly are lower than at the present time, according to an online news agency report today.

Because not only the Russian authorities but also the owners of weapons who often do not register them tend to under-report the number of weapons they possess, the agency used a novel approach: it examined the number of Yandex searches on the Internet over the last four months for “weapons purchases.  In September, there were 4034 Yandex searches for guns, a figure that jumped to 19,312 by November before falling back to 10,494 in December. Figures for knives and other weapons, the agency said were “analogous,” a clear indication that ever more Russians are interested in and likely acquiring weapons of various kinds.

The news agency also queried the owners of shops selling hunting rifles and other weapons about the state of the market, and the latter confirmed that ever more people were buying weapons even though these were quite expensive – up to 12,250 rubles (400 US dollars) for the Makarych pistol. But many Russians are willing to spend even more for weapons they don’t have to register, including even weapons from the Russian Civil War that are 90 years old but still “completely serviceable.” And they are doing so despite the possibility that they could be sent to prison for up to three years for illegal acquisition and possession of such weapons. And reported that there is also a growing market for stun guns and weapons of foreign manufacture, many of which are entering Russian markets illegally and thus making it more likely that those who are prepared to violate Russian laws concerning the purchase and registration of such weaponry might be quite prepared to violate other Russian laws as well.

Some of the organizers of popular militia units – the so-called “druzhinniki” – have urged their members to arm themselves, and consequently this report about the rising number of weapons in private hands in Russia could presage violence among ethnic groups or between workers or automobile owners and the state. At the very least, those possibilities may help to explain both the actions of the authorities in recent days – Moscow interior ministry officials have formed special militia groups to combat nationalist units – and commentaries concerning the possibility of unrest in Russia.

In a lead article discussing the likelihood that the kind of disorders that have occurred in Latvia might spread to Russia, “Gazeta” suggested that “the Latvian variant” does not threaten Russia. Instead, Russia may be confronted by something far worse: increasing despotism from above or a revolution from below. Unlike in Latvia where there is a genuine parliament with real parties, the Moscow paper pointed out, in Russia, there is no real parliament and no real opposition within the system, a political arrangement that makes any demonstration in front of the parliament take on an entirely different meaning.

In Russia, “Gazeta” continued, “it is naïve to demand the replacement of governors because the population doesn’t choose them. In Russia is absurd to demand the disbanding of parliament because the parliament does not have any independence and, what is most important does not form the government.”  Indeed, the Moscow paper continues, the Russian system is so constructed that demands for the dismissal of the prime minister look “almost like a government coup – to the extent that the chief of the state [the president] in fact was assigned by the head of government [the prime minister].”  And unlike in Latvia where seeking the dismissal of the government or the proroguing of parliament is entirely within the system, in Russia, such demands if they are made almost immediately point toward “a revolutionary situation,” one in which any change threatens to bring down the existing system as a whole.

“Democracy,” the paper notes, “is besides everything else a quite effective means of warding off revolution. Russian-style ‘sovereign democracy,’ in contrast, like any authoritarian regime, transforms any serious protest not simply into a ‘threat to the regime’ [as is the case in Latvia] but into a threat to the stability of the country.”

And the chance that this threat now looms in Russia was underscored by Yevgeny Gontmakher, who told “Gazeta” that “Russia will not survive 2009 in the form in which it now exists … either there will be a civil war or a [complete] collapse,” the outspoken economist said yesterday. That more Russians now have weapons in their hands, as the report underscores, makes this outcome more rather than less likely, something that Russian officials and the Russian people are certainly thinking about even if those at the very top in Moscow and many in the West continue to assert that the Medvedev-Putin tandem is a guarantee of stability.

Goble continues with a report on the secessionist movement in the Urals region:

The opening of an exhibit in Sverdlovsk featuring the coupons – called “Urals francs” — that officials there used in the early 1990s to replace the ruble in local transactions calls attention to a phenomenon often neglected then and later: the desire of many Russians in the regions to escape Moscow’s control through secession.

While the efforts of non-Russians, from the Tatars to the Chechens, to achieve greater autonomy or even independence in the 1990s attracted a great deal of attention and concern, the efforts of Russians in the regions to do the same did not, largely because most observers assumed that ethnic identity among Russians and their attachment to Moscow were both firm. But neither was as overwhelmingly strong as many assumed. Not only have some nominally ethnic Russians experimented with other identities, including regional ones like “Sibiryak,” but many more have resented the way in which Moscow has assumed their loyalty and devoted more resources to non-Russian groups that stood up to the center. Such feelings were certainly stronger during the early and mid-1990s, a period in which many parts of the Russian state were in a shambles and to which the exhibit in Sverdlovsk is devoted. But its opening now, when many Russian regions, which receive less from the center than they pay and may be more restive as a result, is an indication that such attitudes may persist.

In reporting the opening of the exhibit, Novyy Region says that “the unique facts of the contemporary history of the Sverdlovsk oblast were reanimated today at the opening of an exhibit” featuring the “Urals francs” which “could have become the monetary units of the separatist Urals Republic.” These coupons are “now recalled only by older or middle aged people” in the region, journalist Aleksandr Rodionov said, but the region’s leader at that time Eduard Rossel hastened to say that the radical ruble inflation of the early 1990s meant that such regional coupons were needed because “there wasn’t enough cash to pay people their wages.”

Rossel said that he had gone ahead with printing these coupons after talking to Yegor Gaidar, who at that time was economics and finance minister of the Russian Federation. “I told him,” the governor said, “that there wasn’t enough money” to pay people and asked for his opinion about the coupons. After a brief reflection, Gaidar said to go ahead. An exhibit guide interrupted and pointed out that 60 percent of the residents of the Middle Volga voted for secession from the Russian Federation. But Rossel responded by saying that “no, at that time 70 to 80 percent of the population voted for separation,” a level of support that caused Moscow to move against him.

Rossel’s comments on this point, Novyy Region continued, reflect the fact that “the present government has remained at the helm of Sverdlovsk oblast longer than any of his predecessors,” a longevity that Rossel himself explained as the result of the political skills he learned in Soviet times. “To survive politically in Soviet times was more complicated than now,” he said. “Before us were put tasks that could not be fulfilled” but that came from places in that “power vertical” which could not be ignored. “That I survived says that I mastered sufficient flexibility already in Soviet times.”

It is thus entirely possible that his decision to be speak out about the local currency or script that he introduced more than 15 years ago now that once again his region and many others are suffering as a result of a combination of economic difficulties and demands from Moscow that they do more with less than they had. But however that may be, the explanatory note that Novyy Region provides is worth noting at the very least as a window on the past if not a guide to the future. According to the news service, “the Urals francs were account checks of the Urals Market cooperative. They were printed in 1991 at the initiative of a group of young entrepreneurs and public activists. “The causes for the issuance of the banknotes were the lack of rubles and the need to pay out family subsidies, wages and other local payments.” In addition, Novyy Region reports, they “tangentially” represented a form of “propaganda of the idea of a Urals Republic.” Some 1.93 million bills were printed in denominations ranging from 1 to 1000 “Urals francs.”

Finally, Goble reports on a new book that prophesizes Russian disintegration:

In recent years, Russian writers have routinely dealt with many of that country’s most difficult and intractable problems in dystopian novels, but most such books have been set in a distant or indeterminate future and thus strike many readers as early warnings rather than descriptions of what is taking place in Russia today. But a new book, Yevgeny Zubaryev’s “2012. Chronicles of a Time of Troubles” (in Russian, Moscow-St. Petersburg: AST Asterl-SPB, 2008), describes events so close to the present that it is leading readers and reviewers to treat it as a commentary on present-day Russian political and social life.

One reviewer,’s Tatyana Chesnokova, in fact argues that all of the events described in the book are entirely plausible extensions of the current political and social situation in the country, a conclusion that makes Zubaryev’s novel more worthy of attention than might otherwise be the case. In his book, she writes, Zubaryev offers “a dramatic picture of the sudden degradation of the social order of Russia,” a world in which “Moscow begins to lose control over the situation in the localities” and in which “the inability and unwillingness of the powers that be to restore order and take responsibility [for that] is masked by liberal demagoguery.” As public order decays around the country, the security services “work exclusively for themselves and for a narrow circle of the most senior bureaucrats,” and Moscow remains “the single zone of relative order” because there “the corrupt bureaucracy seeks to preserve a peaceful life for itself.” Everywhere else, according to Zubaryev’s story, “chaos” continues to spread.

Criminals rule the streets, and the authorities do nothing, fearful that going after the criminals will only exacerbate “national, social and regional” tensions and make the bad situation even worse. And as things deteriorate, most people withdraw from public life hoping to avoid becoming victims of either criminal elements or corrupt officials. But as is often the case with such dystopias, a hero emerges who stands up to these forces. In Zubayev’s novel, it is a student of the St. Petersburg Polytechnic who having returned from military service agrees to organize the delivery of supplies from the northern capital to the city of Elista. This group overcomes any number of difficulties and helps those in need, and “quite quickly around this small nucleus of decisive men begins to form a new structure – people who want order, who want to live, who want a strong and decisive leader.” And these people, in what Chesnokova argues is “an entirely predictable way,” save Russia.

But it is her comments about this group, on the one hand, and remarks about the social degradation, on the other, that are the most intriguing aspects of her review. With regard to the first, she notes that Zubaryev has displayed “ethnic political correctness” by including a Jew and an Armenian in the band, lest it look like some kind of restoration of the Third Reich. Moreover, she points out that the leader of this group is “strikingly similar” to Vladimir Putin: “a simple resident of St. Petersburg, a true comrade, a leader who is not afraid to take tough decisions up to and including the use of force and who hates the rotten liberals and all those liars from the OSCE.” Chesnokova suggests that these parallels may not have occurred to Zubaryev but adds that they are obvious to any reader. However that may be, she insists that the real subject of this books is “about a society which is quickly losing its social capital,” a society which she writes is “very similar to the one in present-day Russia.”

According to the reviewer, social capital, a term taken from social philosophy, refers to “the system of informal rules and mechanisms which exist within a definite group of people, including within an entire country” and whose “chief component” is “trust and the readiness to help others.”

“In essence,” she continues, “this is the social cement which holds formal constructions together,” and that is precisely what post-Soviet Russian society does not have. Before 1991, she says, “there wasn’t freedom and sausages but there was social capital.” Today, that doesn’t exist, and “people do not believe the authorities [because] they understand that the latter often lie.” But still worse, Chesnokova continues, “people do not believe in themselves and do not believe in the essential goodness of human nature.” Instead, they view others and they view themselves as fundamentally base creatures ready and able to commit the worst sort of crimes against others.

In her vision, and she suggests this is Zubaryev’s as well, “corrupt oligarchic capitalism has been able to awaken in all nations and social strata of Russia their worst aspects” by destroying the social capital and cement that had held things together and thus opening the way to a new time of troubles. Thus, writer and reviewer continue, the fundamental problem for Russia and Russians is “the total corruption which has penetrated the entire system of state institutions beginning fr4omt he very top. And if the authorities do not find in themselves the strength to resolve this problem, then the dark prophecy of “The Chronicle of a Time of Troubles” will be fulfilled.”

4 responses to “Russians Gird for Civil War

  1. I don’t know what to make of the increased small arms purchases, but, it is dubious that Russians would use them against their state oppressors. It’s more likely to protect their newly acquired stuff in this economic downturn.

    The majority of Russians will stick with Putin through hard times. There is simply no viable opposition. Putin like Chavez owns all of the airwaves that matter. The large number of Russian sheeple with sovok mentalities that live dependent on the state wouldn’t support a radical change. It’s that mob that counts.

    Putin would have to start shooting civilians in the center of Moscow or starting up mass gulag deportations before the mob turned on him. He’s smart enough not cross that line.

    The sophisticated young who are connected to the bigger world with skills will simply leave as many of them are doing now just like Cubans who have fled Castro.

  2. Yes, the smartest Russians have been emigrating to the west and Israel for many decades. New Russians are not being born quickly enough to fill such a huge country. It is bound to split into pieces.

    But even small pieces of Russia will be too rich to be ignored by large neighbors. Who will pick up the pieces and claim them? China? Japan? Turkey? Poland? Ukraine? Kazakhstan?

  3. Actually Penny, I think there is a fairly good chance Putin IS insane enough to use deadly force on people in Moscow.
    You just have to look at the force used on those protesting the increase in taxation on imported cars.

    In addition the current downturn will severely impact on the ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation, particularly on the north Caucasus and east of the Urals. The real breakup of the Russian federation will come from the loacal reaction to increased repression (as opposed to the current largess bribing such types as R Kadyrov of Chechnya) which will be the result of the reduced funds of the Kremlin.
    The Kremlins current policy of providing effectively unlimited funds to Kremlin loyalists in return for them supressing local discontent will be unsustainable in the current economic situation. Many of these “loyalists” will turn on Moscow once the funds dry up. That is when the civil war will start.

  4. In case Russian disintegration prophecy will come true, China and Islamic world are likely to be the biggest winners. China could easily to take over scarcely populated Far East and Siberia. Islamists could take control of North Caucasus, including the possibility of Kadyrov turning against his Kremlin patrons as soon as the financial and political aid stops. Wahabbis
    could eventually wrestle control of North Caucasus and will try to expand into other regions (i.e. Volga’s Tatar-Bashkir region).

    What Russia needs is a healthy opposition movement that will be able to formulate vision of Russia as united but healthily decentralized so most of the problems are solved on local level. To build a healthy governmental system that is neither totalitarian, nor anarchistic is a huge effort. If Russia will be able to find a healthy alternative to Putin-Medvedev checkist regime, it may not necessarily be a democracy. It could be constitutional monarchy with monarch as a symbol of Russia, but with strong self-government institutions and limitations on monarch power. Other forms also possible, including Orthodox Church playing more active role in political governance. The bottom line is whether the new form of governance will improve or worsen conditions of ordinary Russian people.

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