Ominous Musings and Grand Designs in Moscow: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s impending reinstatement as president, expected though it was, has provoked a surprisingly negative reaction in the vestiges of the country’s free press.

“It is a measure of Russia’s lack of civil society and the subservience of its political class that, even though no one wants Putin back, no one doubts for a second that he will win next year’s presidential election,” wrote Alexei Bayer in an op-ed for The Moscow Times. "Members of the country’s bureaucratic class, having prospered in the cesspool of corruption created and deepened during Putin’s rule, are more than glad to have their license to steal renewed for another six or more years.”

Still, he sees a weak spot in the ruling elite. "They are even more concerned that Russia will become a pariah state, and that corrupt Russian officials and businessmen will be barred from visiting the West. If they start fearing for their foreign bank accounts and assets, they will become a powerful constituency in favor of getting rid of Putin and instituting meaningful reforms.”

Bayer’s counsel to the West: “Hit Russia where it hurts most — restrict travel privileges and freeze assets of the wealthy political elite who have proven links to economic and other crimes.”

In a syndicated column published in the same paper, Nina Khrushcheva, great granddaughter of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and a professor at the New School in New York, offered a frightening long-term prognosis: “History … teaches us that, despite their inertia, Russians are capable of turning on their government, as they did in 1917 and 1991.” Resurrecting the prospect of a disastrous, possibly futile popular uprising against the Kremlin, she quoted the nineteenth-century poet Alexander Pushkin: “God save us from a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless.”

Some rumblings are already evident: The newspaper Kommersant reported on plans to hold a nationalist demonstration (to be called a “Russian March”) in central Moscow on Nov. 4. “The organizers promise to bring out onto the streets approximately twenty thousand people under the slogan ‘Down with the party of thieves and crooks’” – the party in question being, of course, Putin’s United Russia. To win permission from the mayor’s office to hold the rally, the organizers have innocuously billed the deminstration as a “mass cultural event.” The Russian March’s leader, the former head of the banned Slavic Union Dmitri Demushkin, declared his willingness to accept “reasonable compromises” (at least with regard to the march’s venue) should municipal authorities balk at turning over the capital’s downtown to youths seething with anger at Putin’s political body. Balk they may, and with good reason: the Russian March of 2005 ended with some four hundred arrests.

Meanwhile, the newspaper Vedomosti offered evidence that the moniker "thieves and crooks" might not be far off the mark. In an editorial, the newspaper noted the prime minister’s newly voiced laxity with regard to apparent violations of the law by his cronies. “Vladimir Putin, answering a question about depredations in [the oil company] Transneft totaling four billion dollars, suggested that its management didn’t steal the money, but just misspent it” – a surprising expression of judicial leniency from a leader who came to power promising a “dictatorship of the law.” Putin himself hypothesized thus: “Let’s suppose that a governor is obligated to spend money on building housing, but instead he spent it on improving health services . . . Theoretically he has misspent the money, but this is not a crime – he hasn’t stolen anything. The same thing might have happened with Transneft.”

Vedomosti begged to differ, and quoted the criminal code: “a government functionary, having spent state money in a way differing from what the budget prescribes, may land in prison for up to two years, be barred from holding certain offices, and/or be fined 100,000 to 300,000 rubles.” Transneft, though 78 percent state-owned, is still technically a commercial enterprise, and thus not subject to laws regulating state funds, but Putin’s putative governor would be. What Vedomosti found most worrisome: “The army of bureaucrats may interpret Putin’s condescending attitude toward the unlawful expenditure of budgetary funds as a signal.” A bureaucrat may figure that, “I spent money not on school repairs but on a golden bed. No problem, I didn’t steal it.”

Putin himself has begun laying out his foreign and economic policy plans for his next term in office. In an article published in Izvestia, he proposed “a unified economic zone including Russia, Belorussia, and Kazakhstan," which would represent “a historic landmark for all states in the post-Soviet region.” If expanded to include other countries, it could become a “Eurasian union” integrated with the European Union to form a free-trade zone stretching from “the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.” Moreover, Putin announced, “the Eurasian Union will be built on universal principles of integration as an inalienable part of a greater Europe united by the values of freedom, democracy, and free trade.”

To those who suspect that the proposed Eurasian Union, which would surely be Russia-dominated, might turn into something like the modern-day equivalent of the Soviet Union, Putin stressed that “we are not talking about reviving the USSR in one form or another,” but, rather, “a tight integration based on values, politics, and economics.”

Perhaps. One just hopes that our time also ordains no cataclysmic events of the sort once described by a certain Russian poet.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Oct/10/2011 14:28 GMT