RUSSIA: The view from the West



MOSCOW — There are times when the image of Russia in the Western press calls to mind the consciousness of a schizophrenic. On the one hand, we are told that everything is fine; on the other, that everything is catastrophic.

Periods of euphoria alternate with others of depression. On one day, Russia is a country cheerfully overcoming its totalitarian past; on the next, it is an example of failure, corruption and impoverishment. Russians appear first as enterprising people, then as swindlers who cannot possibly be trusted.

Since the 1990s the image of Russia as a country full of beggars and gangsters has become standard for Hollywood scriptwriters. The reference point, of course, has been real facts taken from newspaper reports, but the inspiration has come from cyber-punk films about a terrifying future.

The Hollywood Russia of recent times resembles the Los Angeles of Blade Runner more than the complex and undoubtedly sick society it is in reality.

The image of Russia as a land of disasters is, of course, inaccurate, simply because any simplified image is misleading. This image is nevertheless convenient, and various sides of politics are able to exploit it.

Right-wingers in the West have traditionally disliked Russians. In their view, the problems all flow from the communist heritage and from the particular nature of Russian culture, thought to impede modernisation and democratisation.

Leftists, by contrast, blame capitalism, and their arguments are more logical if only because the same problems found in Russia also afflict Africa, India and Latin America, which have never experienced either communism or Russian culture.

The situation is a strange one; the more Russia tries to pursue the "Western path", the more it comes to resemble tropical Africa. More than a few bitter jokes on this theme are now circulating in Moscow. The average Russian wage is obviously calculated to provide for people in a subtropical climate. So far, however, there are no signs of bananas growing on the outskirts of the Russian capital.

In any case, the same evils also make their presence felt in the West, though in different form. The crash of Enron aroused something like malicious delight in Russian society. Such things have happened repeatedly here, but US experts have always declared this kind of corporate trickery to be the result of Russian backwardness and bad communist habits, while pointing to their own magnificent companies as examples to be followed.

In any case, the sombre pictures of Russia are more and more being countered in the West by articles that depict the country in a rosy light. For the most part, the authors of these articles are well-intentioned liberals trying to set the record straight. Their arguments generally amount to the following:

1. The image of Russia as a poor and miserable society full of pimps and heading downwards is a cliche, and one that spreads prejudice against Russians. Neo-Marxists and feminists are exploiting the misconceptions.

2. One should also note the newly gained political and economic freedoms, and respect the choice of the Russians who lived under dictatorship before and who now have the chance to "make their own truths".

3. The people of Russia need more capitalism rather than less.

4. The European Union (EU) should be expanded to include Russia, and this is an important part of the solution to Russia's problems.

Unfortunately, these arguments are just as abstract and schematic as the horror stories about Russia that we keep hearing elsewhere. In essence, they are more items on the list of ready-made cliches put about by people who have no interest in what is really happening.

Present-day Russia is above all an extremely heterogeneous society. Because of this, the supporters of any point of view find it easy to select a few chance examples to back up their particular version. The real question, however, is the relationship between these phenomena.

Yes, Russia has a dynamic middle class that lives in thoroughly Western fashion. In this respect we really are no worse off than Bolivia, Turkey or Senegal. This middle class is concentrated in Moscow and St Petersburg, which can now be ranked among the most interesting cities of Europe (though many people also find Istanbul or Dakar fascinating).

The trouble is that this new middle class makes up barely 12-15% of the population, and is not growing. Travel 40 or so kilometres from the Moscow ring road, and you enter a completely different world in which people survive mainly on potatoes from their own garden plots, sometimes going for months without money in their hands. Here, poverty is combined with total deprivation of rights.

Try talking to these people about the achievements of Russian democracy, and they will reply that under the Communists they at least had some rights, while now the authorities look on them simply as refuse.

The decent, respectable world of a few large cities is kept in order through a good deal of police violence that makes democracy a farce. Moscow and St Petersburg are not "dangerous" places, as the Western public understands the term. New York is far more dangerous.

The problem is different — the Russian well-to-do are maintained through the use of police clubs. The forces involved are not just those of the city and federal authorities, but include the vast number of private security guards who protect the safety of the rich. Buildings are walled off from one another like fortresses. To enter their territory you need to pass through a checkpoint staffed by agreeable people in unfamiliar uniforms, and then go through several doors with key-code locks, all under the gaze of video cameras.

When I saw such things in South Africa years ago, I was horrified; how could people live in places like this? Now Moscow lives in exactly the same fashion. You quickly get used to it, and no longer notice.

Now look at the same Moscow through the eyes of a provincial resident, or of a guest worker from Ukraine or Moldavia (and it is their cheap labour that keeps everything going here). A few days ago an acquaintance of mine from Novosibirsk was stopped by police right in the centre of Moscow. Not even her documents showing her to be an aide of the governor of Novosibirsk province were of any help to her!

The police were about to throw her into a cell for a few days, simply in order to find out the reasons for her trip to the capital. She didn't intend to work here illegally? Or, God forbid, engage in prostitution? She was saved by the intervention of people she knew in the State Duma. Not everyone walking about the streets, however, has friends in the State Duma.

As might be imagined, such measures do nothing to prevent prostitution — to satisfy yourself of this, it is enough to go to the very centre of the Russian capital, to Tverskaya Street, where the women line up like grenadiers on parade. Most do not have registration as Moscow residents, and some are not Russian citizens either. But the police leave them alone, since however great the police arbitrariness might be, the corruption is greater. This is the law of the market.

Against such a background, any talk of democratic progress evokes bitter laughter. No, we are not by any means living in a totalitarian society. The panic which ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin's rise to power in 1999 aroused in the liberal intelligentsia turned out to be groundless.

In Russia there is at least one publication which has a national circulation, and which opposes the course being pursued by the political elites. One such news source is a lot; many Western countries do not even have this much. (I am not talking about trashy little publications issued by one or another minister or party, but about opposition to the course along which all the politicians, regardless of their party affiliations, are leading society.)

Russia also has elections, in which the bulk of the population have long since stopped participating, since they know perfectly well that the results are openly and brazenly falsified. There are also Western correspondents, who are free to travel where they please and look at whatever they like, but who with rare exceptions avoid such topics as the rigging of elections, administrative arbitrariness, and police racism.

On the whole, Russia can be said to be a perfectly normal modern-day capitalist country — one of the poor variety. There is no reason to complain about our fate. We are no worse than most countries, and in many respects even better. After all, we still make marvellous rockets, and in the field of ballet we lead the world. Both the rockets and the ballet, it is true, are inheritances from the totalitarian Soviet past.

In this regard, it is thoroughly amusing to hear discussions about whether Russia needs "more" or "less" capitalism. We have capitalism, the full-strength product. The fact that Russian capitalism differs from the Swedish variant is perfectly natural. If it were not different, our country would not be populated by Russians but by Swedes, would be called something else, and would occupy a different place on the map.

Normal peripheral capitalism, whether in Russia, Turkey, Albania or Mali, is distinguished by the fact that it cannot provide a decent standard of living to most of the people who live under it. After all, such a country has to export cheap raw materials in order to maintain the high living standards in "civilised Europe". This is obviously our mission, and we take it very seriously and conscientiously.

As for the EU, it would not be at all out of place for our liberal Western well-wishers to ask if we would like to travel there. We need to be given access to the Euro zone; otherwise, we will be unable in a few years' time to travel from Moscow to the still-Russian enclave of East Prussia.

Nevertheless, Russian travellers still feel a certain consolation when, alongside them in the lengthy, humiliating queue at London's Heathrow Airport, they find Australians, New Zealanders, and white South Africans. With the latter, the members of the Russian middle class instantly find a common language.

Effective state structures take shape in a comfortable, well-functioning society. A country which is socially heterogeneous, which is riven by contradictions, and which has an economy full of disproportions, cannot give rise to an honest officialdom and workable democratic institutions.

Trying to copy Western facades simply makes the problem more acute. Concealed behind these facades are the things no-one wants either to see or to alter.

The expansion of the EU to include the countries of eastern Europe is an act of adventurism in and of itself. This system is not going to work, since there is not even elementary economic equality between the countries involved. The political equality that will be declared will either be a fiction, or will turn the institutions of the EU into a field for endless battles.

If the EU survives this, the time will have come to talk of joining up Russia. This will be a union of a totally different kind, having little in common with the present one.

To talk of a special destiny for Russia makes no more sense than talking about Sweden as a historic exception. Though in the present-day world context it is precisely Sweden and Finland, with their still-extant remnants of social democracy, that make up a unique case.

Russians now travel to Finland to feast their eyes on "actually existing socialism". It must be said that this product looks more enticing than the Americanised capitalism that is now "made in Russia" under licence from the International Monetary Fund.

To be part of the world is neither a special achievement, nor a particular shame. It is simply normal. The trouble is that this entire world is not functioning properly. Perhaps the failures are more evident from Moscow or Istanbul than from Paris or Stockholm, but even this is debatable; the protest movement is unfolding in the West, and from there spreading to Russia.

In the bookshops of Moscow and St Petersburg, there is now a growing demand for the works of radical writers such as Noam Chomsky and Subcommandante Marcos. In Russia anti-capitalist ideas, like any progressive Western trend, starts by infecting the intelligentsia and the middle class. That is, the very layers that neo-liberalism counts on to be its core supporters.

It is because of this last development that I, personally, look on the future of our country with optimism.

From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
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