Russia: A Pig Wearing Lipstick
Having been born in Russia, I was recently inclined to spend a summer there. I am left embarrassed by how little development there has been, and how much of it was for the worse. I’ve read about the corruption, the necessity and expectancy of bribes, the new and old oligarchs, the blatant restrictions on free speech. But having gone back, and experienced just the surface of Russia’s rot, I feel a desperate gratitude to my father for getting us out.
As an optimist, I will begin with the positives. Upon visiting St. Petersburg, Moscow, Lipetsk, and Eisk, I noticed that both public and private sector workers are generally less rude, that cars now stop at crossings and let you pass instead of driving into you, there’s more shopping centres and activities for tourists, less dogs in the street, and most surprising, there’s a lot less garbage (although, the shores of the black sea are still hard to distinguish from a land fill).
These are of course surface impressions, but they do paint an important picture. The negatives will make up most of this article, but here are some fun ones. Although Russia is pretty heavy on the taxes, the most basic things like road maintenance, trash cans, and functioning bathrooms are sparse. If you have not been to Russia, imagine walking into a public building such as a train station or subway station. Inside are paintings, statues, gorgeous architecture, decorative chandeliers. You make your way to the bathroom, and having to pay to use it you get a horridly smelling hole contained in a tiny cubicle.
Grocery shopping is another problem. Over the course of my two-month stay, I was sold produce that was rotten or sour, on average twice a week. Since so many products are deliberately mislabeled, my relatives advised me to dig to the very back, as the storeowners tend to place the spoiled products on the front shelves. What upset me even more than sour milk was the realization that when I worked as a part-time waitress, I made more money than my cousin does working as a veterinarian, and my aunt as a nurse.
Currently, your success in Russia can be measured by how many bribes you can afford. A youth wishing to become a doctor can grab one of the scholarship spots, granting them free education, as long as they know somebody. Then during their years as a medical student, instead of studying, they can bribe their way through school. Sure once they butcher a few people they may get fired, but that doesn’t change the fact that they took the spot of a worthy student, postponing their opportunity or killing it entirely. This happens in most fields and often.
More sad realities: pensioners living in a medium-sized home spend close to half their pension on heating, if you become ill, Russia’s free healthcare system will gladly let you perish unless you can afford a bribe, if you don’t want your kid to fail school, you have to send them to class with a “gift” for the teacher.
We are not dealing with an impoverished Third World country. Russia is fully industrialized, capable, and full of potential. It has seen incredible economic growth during Putin’s reign, and generally since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2011 Russia had 4.3% GDP growth and set records for gross domestic product. Still, Russia’s economy has so far been shaky, considering that between 2007 and 2009 it set records for all time high and low GDP. It was also one of the worst hit countries during the 2008-2009 economic collapse. On average, Russia’s economy had 7% growth over ten years from 1998. These booms and busts are not surprising since Russia is mostly a commodity economy.
Lets consider the incredible amount of natural resources that drive its economy. Russia is the world’s largest producer of oil. I will repeat myself. Russia is the world’s leader in oil production; that’s 9.5 million barrels of oil per day, that’s 20% of the world’s oil production. Russia has the world’s largest natural gas reserves, is the runner up in coal reserves, and has the 8th largest crude oil reserves. Being the largest country on earth, it is not surprising that Russia possesses vast reserves of diamonds, phosphates, manganese, chromium, platinum, titanium, zinc, copper, nickel, tin, lead, tungsten, and gold. Its forests hold about one-fifth of the world’s timber, and its land one-sixth of the world’s iron ore.
Where is the money? Might it be stashed in the basement of one of Putin’s 7 palaces? Perhaps it’s divvied up between Russia’s richest, who we used to refer to as the oligarchs until Putin supposedly kicked them out; now Russians call them “Putin’s party of crooks and thieves.” One thing I can say certainly: the money is not where it aught to be.
This is how Russia works. Have you noticed the amount of extravagant large-scale government projects that take place in Russia? Highways, bridges, floating nuclear plants, numerous space endeavours. Some projects “succeed,” but many fail or never happen. Why? The sole reason why these projects are started is so money can be pocketed.
For example: one billion dollars from Russia’s budget (that means the tax payer’s money at the rate of 18%) was spent on a highway in Vladivostok. It rained, and the highway literally washed away. How could this be? Are the engineers in Russia incompetent? This is a simple case of corruption. By the time the one billion trickled down to the project, there was only one million left and the workers have to make do with what they get, while “Putin’s party of crooks and thieves” stuff their pockets.
Russians have accepted this level of corruption as a mere fact of life. The rich and ruling classes lead by example and the rest of the country follows suit. The end result is that you can’t own a coffee shop without the guarantee that your own employees will steal from you.
Regarding small business — something I’m very familiar with as my father owned a meat processing plant before we moved — any motivation for the average person to voyage into small business sparked by the fall of communism has been extinguished due to theft.
The 90’s gave birth to a large subculture of thieves (this isn’t counting the steady and continuous theft by the KGB, pre- and post- Soviet Union). They would identify growing businesses, make threats and collect a percentage. Soon these thieves turned into mafia groups and evolved their practice into something they called “a roof.” This simply meant they protected businesses from the threats of other thieves, while collecting an even greater percentage. Now these guys have become investors themselves, lounging around, bribing the Olympics, buying up sports teams, and getting blessings from the Church.
What about all the new casinos, restaurants, and clubs? Only a small percentage of Russians can afford these luxuries, and most of them live in Moscow. The middle class (if you can call it that by Western standards) tend to live in one-bedroom apartments with three generations of their family. Others might be lucky to have secured a two-three bedroom bungalows in some village by inheritance, which they most often share with grandparents and their children’s spouses.
At the end of the day, Russia has not truly benefited from its resources; calling it crony capitalism would be generous. The Russian people now live distracted by superficial comforts. Some are able to afford a car or two, some even a cottage, but generally things are shit. There is a sophisticated system by which the few are slowly but surely, sucking the life out of Russia and all it could have been. Russia has become a piñata stuffed with cash, and the harder they hit it, the richer they get.
Theft, bribery, and corruption rule Russia with an iron fist. Imagine what Russia could be if her natural riches were invested back into her economy. I am not wishing for handouts for the Russian people, I do not want a second Sweden; I want opportunity for Russian citizens, opportunity that is supposed to go hand in hand with capitalism.
Instead, Russia continues to be poisoned by the interests of the few who run it, and generally remains a police state (or what they call a “Managed Democracy”), keeping up with the Soviet traditions of throwing people in jail for speaking their mind. There was the case of Alexander Bastrykin (former Chairman of The Investigative Committee) driving to a forest outside of Moscow with journalist Sergei Sokolov, and threatening his life. This being the least of it, as there have been numerous journalists and bloggers that have died in suspicious circumstances or sent to prison for speaking out against Russia’s corruption.
The recent widely publicized Pussy Riot trial has embarrassed and shamed Russia in the eyes of most Westerners, and I am glad to say, Russians as well. Traveling through the country at the peak of the trial I was able to witness the discrepancy between true public opinion and what was reported in the news.
The Russian media would have you believe that this is an issue of insult to the Church and that Russia’s large religious population is very hurt. This may come as a shock, but the majority of Russians are not very pious. Russian people are outrageously superstitious and superficially religious; it’s rare to find a Russia person who is completely grounded in their beliefs. My grandmother, who keeps changing religions to this day, used to be a very fiery young pioneer, spouting atheism whenever she could; now she wants “Pussy Riot’s” heads for insulting her God! To put it plainly, not many Russians under the age of sixty go to church, many avoiding it because they know of its deep corruption.
So let’s throw out this image of poor old women, shocked and appalled at Pussy Riot’s actions, because they are a true minority and have better things to do then to despair about prancing post-modernists disrespecting Orthodoxy.
This is a political issue; this is Tsar Putin punishing his critics. Why wasn’t Pussy Riot arrested right after their escapade? Isn’t it odd to call it an issue of sacrilege when they only bothered with them once their video was released? And there is no law to sentence them by as Church and State are separate entities in Russia (or are supposed to be). The most that could have legally been done is have the girls eternally banned from the premises. Instead they got two years for “hooliganism” so that others will think twice, just like those bloggers, opposition figures, and protesters that are still sitting in jail, with very little media coverage from anyone.
Meanwhile, a drunk woman who drives into a car, killing one person and crippling the other, after which getting out and gleefully posing for the cameras, gets a postponing of sentencing for fourteen years because she has a young daughter. The Pussy Riot girls are too mothers of young kids, but they took Putin’s name in vain so it’s only natural they be imprisoned immediately.
Whatever one may think of Pussy Riot’s behavior, throwing them in jail for dancing around and sinning negative songs about Putin is blatant slap to the face of free speech and liberty. It’s wrong; just like stoning a woman for not wearing a hijab is wrong, just like torturing suspects is wrong, just like sending people to the gulag for thought crime is wrong.
The most disappointing thing about Pussy Riot is that this even worked in Putin’s favour. Prior to their dance number, the west was beginning to pay attention to prominent issues like Russia’s fraudulent elections, unlawful prosecutions and peaceful citizens, restrictions on free speech…now all everyone cares about is who Pussy Riot insulted, what their artistic display really meant, their past shenanigans and what Madonna thinks.
To say the least, things are better if compared to the Soviet days and most who claim that Russia is a great place to live resort to this comparison. But it’s kind of like saying “There’s this great restaurant, you must go! Last week they served me dung, but this week they served compost! Things are getting a lot better!”
Sure Russia is better then it once was; it’s doing better than North Korea and Zimbabwe, too, but I am not here to compare, I am here to specifically judge Russia within its current circumstances. One can argue about the amount of corruption, Putin’s influence and intentions, the level bribery, just how much the KGB, mafia, oligarchs, and politicians steal. But one fact remains; considering the richly endowed nature of Russia’s lands, it’s an embarrassment to see how little of it has been utilized to bring economic wealth to the entire country.
– Julia Tourianski