Russians Protest Injustice, Not Poverty

When Vladimir Putin first took power at the end of the 1990s and consolidated it in the new century, one crucial weapon that lay to hand was the brazen way in which oligarchs swepped up the shareholdings distributed to factory workers in return for chicken feed and then, not without the threat of violence and of course wide scale embezzlement of public funds, created business empires that bankrolled conspicuous consumption which perhaps only the Dutch born thinker Mandeville (The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits) could in 1705 properly justify: that excessive consumption by the wealthy oiled the wheels of the economy by providing a living for others.

By attacking and dispossessing the oligarchs Putin could appear as Robin Hood finally crushing the evil Sheriff of Nottingham: stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Among other things, this helped sustain him in office through more than one election. Unfortunately the poor in this instance largely constituted the bank accounts of the siloviki (deep state) in various places offshore, like Cyprus or Panama. So the Russian people were ultimately cheated in their unsatiated grievance.

A paradox which the centrist establishment newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta first pointed to last year – on 25 September 2019, for instance – is that despite the grinding and remorseless reduction in the standard of living suffered by the woman in the street for the best part of a decade, what bothers Russians most is the equally severe diminution of justice. This is true even today with the serious growth of unemployment. The notional social contract between government and governed is breaking down, but not for the usual reasons. This revelation followed widespreading polling of public opinion.

The root objection is that, wherever one looks, the signs are not of an ordered, law governed society, the Rechtsstaat idealised by the Enlightenment that old Russia never properly experienced under Catherine the Hypocrite, but old style arbitrary rule that Western readers of 19thC Russian stories will find only too familiar. Thus the mass protests in Khabarovsk are not about more wages but, much more fundamentally, about basic respect for ordinary people.

This is by its very nature not something the current régime can easily assuage without handing back the power it has been assiduously grabbing since 1999. Indeed, it is remorselessly subversive of the Putin order and as difficult to stamp out as the anarchism of black humour. What this amounts to is that even if the Kremlin can find the money, bread and circuses may well not be enough to quell rising popular discontent, of which we are seeing only the first glimmerings today.


19.07.2020 20:04:00

Россиян волнует не проблема бедности, а политическая несправедливость

Граждане терпеливо переносят падение доходов и четырехкратный рост безработицы