It is always a tricky task to define complex and sophisticated social phenomena. Defining the political, economic and social order of modern Russia is even more of a challenge because of its transitional nature and the uncertainty of what has been transformed to what.
In particular, it wasn’t “bookish” — truly Marxian — socialism that had to be dealt with in the early 1990s and be replaced by a modern variety of market economy. Instead, the point of departure was a rough case of state economy disguised as public property. Private initiative was fully outlawed as totalitarian “communist” power of tougher or milder variety reigned supreme.
Correspondingly it was not a mature industrial or postindustrial society with its efficient oligopoly structures and with a well-developed middle class that emerged as a result of that historic transformation. It was something quite different indeed.
Let us try to define the result of the transformation Russia has undergone after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. This author is inclined to use the following bulky but precise wording: Modern Russia represents a case of “underdeveloped state-oligarchic capitalism with a disharmonious (truncated) economic structure, with an ochlocratic variety of authoritarian rule instead of real democracy, with pronounced imperial ambitions and with a false kind of missionary aspirations.”
First, it is worthwhile to explain what the author has in mind characterizing Russia’s contemporary economic order.
Many of my fellow citizens share the conviction that the Soviet Union (SU) was a mighty well-developed industrial power comparable to the United States and to the leading European countries, and that, in the 1990s, the “shitty democrats” let this admirable economy go down and lose its enviable position in the world.
It is nothing but a delusion. The SU surely had a giant and mighty military-industrial complex and some truly advanced high-tech elements in its industrial structure. Yet, practically all other sectors making up a modern economy, especially those directly servicing domestic consumer demand, were either in a rudimentary, underdeveloped state or downright neglected.
Nowadays, both the export-oriented resource sector and the sphere of mostly import-based consumer supply, together with banks servicing them, are transformed into a private domain of oligarchs. Many of them are standing close to the ruling group in the Kremlin and more often than not are enjoying preferential treatment — both in good times and especially in bad ones, like the period Russia is obviously going through right now.
In contrast, what remains rudimentary, underdeveloped or openly neglected is small business and other “outsiders” that try to find their niche in the economy without the so-called “administrative resource” — on their own and not enjoying any federal and/or local authorities’ backing.
This is not classic “capitalism,” nor modern “mixed economy” typical for the mature market conditions. Neither is this a world of oligopoly structures with their live-and-let-live principle, representing an efficient symbiosis between big, mid-size and small businesses and guaranteeing enough space for destructive/creative competition. One is tempted to call what Russia now has for an economic system “subcapitalism.”
To boot, Moscow’s modern foreign policy course results in pumping ever more financial funds from public services and the social sphere as a whole into the military-industrial complex — a very regrettable turn of events, especially taking into consideration that Russia has mostly itself to blame for the regretful current geopolitical tension in Europe.
During the last two decades, a new perilous trend toward deforming the country’s labor force has set in. Making out a big portion of employees into an army of part-time workers, it has further distorted the pattern of economic and social development. This unfortunate army is nowadays called “precariat.” The traditional permanent forms of employment with stable wages and salaries, and a more or less transparent system of social security have given way to shadow-market-style labor relations with badly documented part-time jobs, nontransparent methods of remuneration and trifling social benefits.
According to various estimates, between 15 and 40 percent of all hired workers in Russia belong to such precariat, thus forming the lower strata of society, with millions of young people, a still big rural population and a whole army of economic migrants among them.
Speaking of the “ochlocratic variety of authoritarian rule,” we have to bear in mind that “ochlos” is a deteriorative term applied in scholarly works to describe “common people” or “wide masses.” Russia’s current powers that be are prone to orient themselves and to political rely on such inactive “human herd” (or, to put even stronger, on “human biomass”). They widely resort to gross attempts to please its self-esteem, what can be regarded as nothing else but the lowest brand of “populism.”
In modern Russia, the sum total of law, of judicial practices and of state propaganda is clearly ochlos-oriented. Governing all major sides of political life, from such vital issue as the formation of political parties to electoral rules and new legislative initiatives, this devilish but well-designed mechanism has facilitated a rollback from something more or less resembling democracy, been created during the 1990s, to a blunt authoritarian rule. Praised under the name of “sovereign democracy,” this presidential autocracy with its steady “high approval ratings” has been perpetuated in our country for the last one and a half decades. One is tempted to add that Adolf Hitler had also enjoyed such flattering ratings in his time.
Such is the political base of the vicious symbiosis between financial elite (oligarchs) and political establishment (corrupted officialdom). Only recent gross political blunders have put this whole system in jeopardy.
What reigns supreme in political life is “manual control” by Russia’s president of all policymaking processes — from arranging showy sporting events to refueling the military-industrial complex at the expense of the same wide masses to igniting and facilitating separatism in certain areas of the former Soviet Union.
Of the so-called imperial ambitions of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, volumes have been written about this sensitive subject. Thus, in the light of the current events, there hardly is any need to additionally substantiate this obvious assertion.
For well over a decade, Russia still is full of constant murmur (inspired from the very top) about the necessity to promote militant patriotism and thus consolidate “the wide masses” around a worthy and promising “national idea.”It looks like, at the moment, such idea is seen in”gathering Russia’s lands.”
Behind such geopolitical ambitions and questionable “missionary aspirations” lingers the “historic revival of the traditional spiritual ties” as proclaimed by the leading figures of the Russian Orthodox Church. Many believe that — for all practical purposes — the high clergy in Russia is now acting in a manner of an ideological state institution.
Recently a talented cartoonist Andrey Bilzho, well-known for his inexhaustible wit, answered the question “What is wrong with Russia?” in the following manner: The country suffers from megalomania while its officialdom displays — in addition to this mania — a strong persecution complex.
A psychiatrist by education, Bilzho seems to have arrived at a quite realistic diagnosis. Yet, there is a great temptation to expand the notion about the persecution complex on the country’s whole ochlocratic populace. A nice background for far-reaching missionary ambitions indeed.
For comparison, let us look at Canada. This is a country that resembles Russia in many ways — with its second-biggest territory and abundant natural resources, with truncated industrial structure and primary products prevailing in its exports, with low density of population (except in rather few megapolices), with Judea-Christian cultural traditions, and so on.
But Canada is a rich country with high per-capita economic indicators. It is a mature democracy (while Elizabeth II officially remains its much-beloved queen), a good neighbor and reliable integration partner for the U.S. and Mexico, a source of generous assistance to poor countries, a positive peace-loving member of the world community.
Yet, when this author utters his favorite notion that Canada could serve as a certain model for Russia’s further economic and social development, compatriots brush this “crazy and unworthy idea” aside with disdainful laughter.
Andrey Borodaevskiy (firstname.lastname@example.org), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.
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