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.