Three Russias

This week, the American press, and in particular the New York Times, has provided us with three contrasting images of Russia. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

First, the New York Times ran the article which was the subject of my last post – Franz Sedelmayer’s denunciation of Vladimir Putin. I won’t spend much time on this, as it would involve repeating myself. Suffice it to say that the intense focus on the person of the Russian president creates an image of Russia as tightly controlled from the centre. When anything happens – e.g. the arrest of Paul Whelan on spying charges – it’s because Putin ordered it. This, one may say, is ‘image no. 1’ – Russia as autocracy.

Image no. 2 is very different. It’s Russia as chaotic mafia state, and it can be seen in a long article published by the New York Times about the murder of Russian Duma Deputy Denis Voronenkov in Kiev in 2016. The Ukrainian authorities have accused the Russian state of involvement in the murder, the idea being that he was killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin after he fled Russia and gave evidence at the trial of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. Indeed, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iury Lutsenko called Voronenkov’s death a ‘typical show execution of a witness by the Kremlin’.

So far, this is all very much in keeping with image no. 1 – Moscow’s hand is in everything. The New York Times, however, notes that there is no evidence to support the accusation of Kremlin involvement in Voronenkov’s murder. Rather, it claims that, ‘To the contrary, the story of Denis Voronenkov is about something else entirely: a story of the chaos at the heart of the sistema (i.e. the Russian system).’ So here we have image no. 2 – Russia as chaos.

Voronenkov, says the Times, was a typical ‘adhocrat, someone who moved fluidly between the worlds of intelligence, crime and politics’. To construct this thesis, the newspaper describes Voronenkov’s corrupt activities and how he eventually chose to become a Duma Deputy in order to acquire immunity from prosecution. What eventually did him in was his involvement in a classic piece of Russian reiderstvo (raiding), in which he and his co-conspirators seized control of a building worth $5 million. It seems, however, that Voronenkov cheated his colleagues out of their full share of the profits. When the matter became public, he fled Russia and took refuge in Ukraine.

The article concludes that rather than being murdered by the Kremlin, Voronenkov was most probably killed on the instructions of one of those he cheated in the building ‘raid’. The fact that he was also a member of the Russian parliament indicates the close ties between government and criminals, ties which are so close that the two essentially operate as one. As the Times puts it, ‘Voronenkov’s tale, to those who know contemporary Russia, illuminated the chaos of Putin’s sistema: the personal rivalries, criminals, elites, crooks and clans trying to keep from running afoul of the country’s ever-shifting red lines.’ Instead of being a case of a Kremlin hit, his story instead shows how in Russia ‘criminal activity and state activity’ merge into one.

In a third article, however, the New York Times provides us with yet another image of the Russian state – one which, rather than robbing everybody blind, is investing heavily in improving the country’s infrastructure. In this article, the Times notes that the Russian government has built up massive financial reserves and is set to splurge a large proportion of these in a drive ‘to spend about $100 bn on big infrastructure projects.’ The Kremlin, says the article, is also pressuring wealthy businessmen to display their patriotism by increasing their investments in the Russian economy, and apparently ‘the arm twisting is working.’

So here we have a Russia in which the state is involved in much more than just theft (after all, if the state has built up reserves of over $400 bn, it would appear that most of its revenues aren’t actually being stolen). Moreover, this isn’t a country operating in a state of pure chaos. It may not be as tightly controlled as in image no. 1, but there’s a fair degree of order here, far more than image no. 2 would suggest.

Supplementing this third view of Russia is an article in Bloomberg by Leonid Ragozin. In this Ragozin notes that, ‘Since 2011, the Kremlin has been promoting a multibillion-dollar campaign to modernize Russian cities and towns.’ He describes an urban redevelopment project in the town of Torzhok, near Tver. This has included the opening of a new high speed rail line to Torzhok and the revitalization of the town’s tourism industry, and has been successful in attracting investment and in persuading people to move back into the town. Among the latter are a businesswoman, Tatyana Sokolova, and the new town mayor, Aleksandr Menshchikov, both of whom have played leading roles in redeveloping Torzhok. The two are credited with obtaining funds from international development banks and renovating the town square and key local landmarks, as well as developing a ‘museum and conference space and art residencies.’

Menshchikov is described as ‘a graduate of the elite Moscow School of the Economy’, and is portrayed as a highly educated, successful, and apparently dedicated official. As such, he’s far removed from the likes of Voronenkov. Nor is he entirely alone. A businessman who came to speak to my students last year told them that back in the 1990s Russian officials were largely ignorant both of law and of how modern economies worked; they produced very poor legislation, full of loopholes for corrupt practices, and were also incompetent when it came to putting plans into practice. Now matters were rather better. This is not universally true, of course. Nevertheless, in a way which wasn’t possible in the 1990s, one can now find hard-working, well-educated, competent, and honest officials with whom can work to do business in Russia effectively.

So, which image best represents the real Russia? The answer, I suspect, is a bit of all three. There’s a state which is theoretically highly centralized, but which in practice oversees some degree of chaos, but which is also able to exert a certain amount of control and enact plans of economic development; there’s a high level of corruption, but also a genuine effort to improve the country’s condition; there are crooked and incompetent officials, but also honest and efficient ones. In short, it’s a thoroughly mixed bag.

As human beings, we like to label things and put them in neat boxes. We also like to contrast them with things they are not, in order more clearly to define them. Thus we come up with simple ways to describe countries – kleptocracy, mafia state, and so on – and we set up simple dichotomies between us and them– democratic v. authoritarian, liberal v. reactionary, etc. But while such devices shows us part of the truth, their oversimplified nature means that they obscure much more than they reveal. If there is any common theme one can extract from these recent articles, it is that reality is far more complex than we are often led to believe.

13 thoughts on “Three Russias”

  1. I live in Peterborough I’m the UK and my nmebr if parliamen (MP) has just been sentenced to prison.
    This MP is not the first to end up in prison – nor will she be the last.

    This is not saying all politicians are corrupt – just the nature of politics attracts some odd characters.

    Look at France – They have along list of very senior politicians who have been involved in financial corruption

    Then we have systems like the USA where their politicians have powerful corporate money behind their parties and individuals take corporate money.

    This system is open to abuse – who ever pays the piper calls the tune!


    1. He’s the PC kind of Bulgarian. Over the decades, I’ve had numerous contacts with Bulgarian born Bulgarians in the NY metro area in the ages 20 to 50 range. That chap isn’t indicative of their views.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My guess is that the amount of corruption in Russia is exaggerated. Certainly some claim that there has been a s very serious effort to tackle corruption over the past 7 years. (Sorry, the translation is via the Saker-
    the discussion begins after nearly 2 minutes.)

    This claim is consistent with an observation from Eric Kraus that things have changed a great deal over the past 5 years or so.
    “Corporate governance has seen huge steps forward, with accountancy far more transparent, companies increasingly share-holder friendly, and mostly paying generous (occasionally huge) dividends. With the exception of Sistema (whose reference oligarch was involved in a fight with Rosneft head Igor Sechin; we would steer clear of the Rosneft universe) the constant stream of abusive takeovers and value destructive manipulations of the past is a distant memory; insider trading laws are now actually enforced; independent directors are truly independent – front-running is no longer accepted practice; for better or for worse, compliance now rules the roost. A new generation of Russian managers – frequently with international training and experience has taken over from the first, post-Soviet fraternity. It clearly shows.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Among the latter are a businesswoman, Tatyana Sokolova, and the new town mayor, Aleksandr Menshchikov, both of whom have played leading roles in redeveloping Torzhok. The two are credited with obtaining funds from international development banks and renovating the town square and key local landmarks, as well as developing a ‘museum and conference space and art residencies.’

    Menshchikov is described as ‘a graduate of the elite Moscow School of the Economy’, as is portrayed as a highly educated, successful, and apparently dedicated official.”

    Alexander Menshchikov is from the United Russia party. In the perverse world of the “Free and Independent Western Media” ™, when the politically correct form of the “micro-aggression” (a modern term for being a snide asshole) is a rule, they rarely miss an opportunity to diss “Putin’s party of the power”. The “diverse” rhetoric in that Media runs the gamut from the trite “Party of the Crooks And Thiefs!” (rus. ПЖИВ) and, increasingly since 2014, “Literally Commie-Nazis v. 2.0.”

    Likewise, “Free and Independent Western Media” ™ virtually never misses an opportunity to cry crocodile tears over “lack of democracy in Russia” (c). Once again – they missed an opportunity, for town of Torzhok does not elect its own mayor via free, transparent and universal elections (from two or more candidates). Instead, the municipal Duma does this. As of right now, Torzhok’s municipal Duma has the deputies from only two parties : 17 (seventeen) from the United Russia and 1 (one) from the KPRF. Imagine for a sec Blub-blub-bloomberg (the abode and the last refuge of the self-tearing contrarian Leonid Bershidsky) cover the stuff “as usual”, presenting the situation in whole – “warts and all”. The effect then would be to promote the dreaded sistema, which allows “effective managers” from the “Party of the Power” to be appointed/elected without proper shamanistic rituals of the liberal democracy… and then proceed to make the shit done.

    No. No-no-no-no! NO. No sympathy for the Enemy. No thought for an alternative. Tighten your ranks, “democratic journalists”. No quarter to the Eternally Oppressive Russia! Fight, as if your paycheck depends on it (because – yes, yes it does).


    1. In the Netherlands,one of the oldest democracies, a mayor is elected in the same way as in Torzhok:By the municipal Duma.You wouldn’t say that is not a democratic country,would you.


  4. “Voronenkov …was also a member of the Russian parliament indicates the close ties between government and criminals, ties which are so close that the two essentially operate as one”

    Voronenkov was an opposition Deputy (from the Communist party). A criminal case was opened against him long ago, but he could not be arrested as a Duma Deputy.

    Award for achievements in the field of education Voronenkov killers deserved – when such a cheating bastard as Voronenkov is killed, this is a good example for the younger generation.



    This is old article 2 years old- but makes very clear point about what is going on behind the western discourse on Russia and Russians.

    Western racism and the stereotyping of Russians

    “…In a world of political correctness one form of ethnic stereotyping in the West remains not merely tolerated but even fashionable. This is the ethnic stereotyping of Russians.
    Russians are nowadays regularly represented in the West in certain characteristic ways. 
    Russian men are brutish, sullen, slovenly, often drunk, and always cruel. They speak in thick heavy accents. They dress badly, are dishonest, violent and greedy. They treat women oafishly. Their taste is comically terrible. If they are rich they are corrupt; “Russia” and “corruption” being two words which Westerners have conflated with each other. Typical Russian men are thieves, hitmen or crooks, an honest Russian businessman (an “oligarch”) being a contradiction in terms.
    During the Cold War the Western stereotype image of Russian women was that they were fat, masculine and ugly. It came with a measure of condescension.  Russian women typically were represented as peasants, street cleaners or tractor drivers.
    Today the Western stereotypical image of Russian women is that they are beautiful. However this is not something to be celebrated. On the contrary it is something to be feared or at least to be on one’s guard against. 
    Where Russian women during the Cold War were thought of as plain and dull but ultimately honest, today they are represented as materialistic, money-focused, tacky, manipulative, promiscuous, under-dressed and amoral.  They are femmes fatales out to gull unsuspecting innocent Westerners of their secrets, their morals, and (of course) their money. Typically they are spies, prostitutes or gangsters’ molls.
    Russians, both male and female, are according to these stereotypes axiomatically dishonest. The ease with which the Western public accepted the entirely unproven claims of Russian cheating during the recent Olympic doping scandal without giving the Russians the slightest benefit of the doubt is a good example of this.”

    // in my view dehumanising people and a country is part of a strategy to enable the attacks and destruction of these people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Except for the development projects, in which Russia is in tune with the Eurasian project, Russia sounds a lot like the US—at least in terms of political corruption, although I think the US is probably far ahead of Russia on that score.

    Indeed, whenever I read about the new silk roads—which is almost daily—I feel glad that some states on this planet are in development mode, while the US and its vassal states are in stasis as a result of their apparent lack of leadership-ready talent. I look at the Canadian opposition parties, which are so impoverished with respect to their election platforms that they have to link up and create a scandal which they hope will carry the press to the even of the election. Sad, as Trumpf would say.


  7. Russia has become #2 in the world in housing construction; lots of money is invested in local infrastructure, high speed internet is the envy of the West , but the only thing we hear day in and day out from everyone in the West is accusations accepted without proof about wrongdoings of the Russian government.
    PEW (not Kremlin) puts confidence among Russian people in their President at 80%. I somehow doubt that all these people are wrong in rejecting the portrait of their country painted by Western media.


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