himself has not said anything that would place him among fascists. He’s
a pragmatic authoritarian. More than that, his past as a secret police
officer has taught him virtues of anonymity, ideological flexibility and
never revealing to anyone his true objectives.
But Russia under Putin has seen a considerable drift toward fascism. Consider this:
(Church, family, the past military glory) is hailed as the uttermost
national value. Future is full of dangers. Progress is good as long as
it brings better weapon or more goods we can sell foreigners but
otherwise it’s subject to manipulation by Russia’s enemies.
and soil thinking. Every inch of land where Russian blood is spilled is
either indisputably Russian or could be it at some later time. Every
inch of Russian soil is worth to die for.
Eclecticism and syncretism. Tsars and Stalin and Putin are the Trinity saints of Holy Russia, no contradiction even considered.
Glorification of military might and coercion as a political tool. “Russia has only two true friends: its army and navy”.
and etatism as a strategy for governance. Anything that happens must be
authorized by the State. Anything State allows must happen within
organizations approved by state.
Russia as a besieged city on
the hill. Sadistic Teutons, mercantile Jews and envious Anglo-Saxons
scheming against magnificent, good-natured, magnanimous Russia through
Dissent is treason. The little there is of opposition
in Russia is there because the CIA, State Department and Soros
Foundation are propping up some unprincipled, venal, immoral people,
many of them Jews.
Fuhrer is our Savior. “End to Putin is the
end of Russia” (quoting Putin’s top adviser). Criticism of Putin is
banned on TV, radio and in the public debate. You still may indulge in
some Putin-bashing in the farthest nooks and corners of the Internet
(but “we know where you live and where you kid goes to school”).
of the police state. Most of top positions in the state are held by
people from (or with connections to) the secrete police or military
intelligence. The FSB is de-facto the mightiest business network in
Russia. Using windfalls from the oil bonanza, Putin restored the secret
service to its former Soviet glory. Number of officers involved in
spying, surveillance and containment of political opposition has
possibly surpassed the Soviet level, measured as per capita.
Siberia is ethnically dominated by Russians. Due to Stalin-era migrations, purges and wars, native population is substantially diluted by people from other parts of the Soviet Union. Little sense of local identity.
Siberia has a distinct colonial character to its economy. It specialises on raw materials extracted at remote places with harsh climate, with few roads, little diversification, and most of food, equipment and consumer goods delivered from the European part of the USSR.
Siberia is sandwiched between the Russian heartland to the west and the Far East on the way to China and the Pacific Rim. No useful coastline and ports apart from some decrepit shallow-water pears up in the Arctic. Whatever it saves of its riches by taking it from Moscow, it would have to spend on getting the wares out to the world market.
Little population + enormous territory + lopsided economy + disgruntled Russia as a neighbor = national defence is nearly impossible. Siberia would have to depend on Russia for its national security, and why would Russia want to provide it?
What does it take for a person who is born outside Russia, to get accepted as “one of us”, Russians?
Obviously, the highest authority on the matter of Russian-ness is President Putin. From his pronouncements at different occasions we can conclude the following:
Our government wants to “create conditions” for return of “our compatriots” in foreign countries. In other words, our State is inclusive, not restrictive on the issue of accepting new people as our compatriots.
At one of occasions, Putin called Ukrainians and Russians odin narod, or “same nation”. Interpreting his words, this means that even if you and your parents lived your entire life outside what is now Russia, your Russian cultural background means more than your ethnicity and the place of birth/residence.
Putin refused to define Russian-ness by ethnic roots. Quoting geneticists, he said that then we would need to include Poles, but exclude great many “native” Russians, because there’s “too much Turkic blood in them”.
Putin is very judicious in using words russkiye (“ethnic Russians”) and rossiyane (“Russian subjects”). The latter one is an ancient Napoleonic-era construct revived recently to accommodate the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian state in the post-imperial era. Both are bunched together in the English translation as “Russian”. This means that you as a Russian speaker in discussions with the most pigheaded immigration official who refuses to acknowledge that you are a russkiy, can firmly claim you identity as a rossiyanin on the basis of your ancestry and cultural background.
Putin is a very firm opponent of radical nationalists who claim “Russia for Russians”, i.e. the russkiyes. Any ethnic tension threatens the stability of his power. This leaves plenty of room for technically non-ethnic Russian rossiyanes, like you. Not least because the radicals can’t agree between themselves who to count as a russkiy.
In practical terms, all this leaves the question of your affiliation with Russia in the hands of immigration officials. They certainly would be happy to discuss the matter with you: Putinist Russia loves to reconnect with lost souls among the Soviet diaspora. On the picture below, you see the French actor Gérard Depardieu who was given a Russian passport, not even being close to anything Russian in the past. On the other side, if there is a track record of you participating in such questionable activities as human rights activism, support of Ukraine, feminism, animal rights and nature protection activism (let alone sharing militant videos with quotes from Quran), your chances of being recognized as Russian are severely compromised.
The national idea of Russia is power. Over time, it took different forms, including veneration of Czars and an assortment of Communist memes. The harsh era of Stalinism helped forge a motto that fuses all of them into one powerful one-liner.
“Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t beg”.
This was born in the Gulag. New arrivals were taught is as a kind of a lucky spell for survival. It encapsulated the massive wisdom unearthed by hundreds of thousands of people thrown into the meat grinder of the Communist rule. Its deep meaning seems to have been well absorbed by all our shakers and movers ever since the Bolsheviks had destroyed the Russian empire.
If President Putin lasts long enough to write a memoir, this line might be a very good epigraph to the book. If not, a tombstone?
It’s about cutting through the ideological nonsense dispensed by the State. Even more important is a warning not to have any illusions and high expectations, as well as not to succumb to hubris, no matter how good is the hand you’re holding. A very helpful thing to do is also never to let your guards down. In the homeland of the best spies and the most professional secret police in the world, your wife, your best friend and even your kids might be informing on you. Better be fully prepared to absorb this, too.
The massive, sky-high wall of State power is full of holes and cracks. Find them and use them. Don’t let bad luck paralyze you. Sticking up your neck is dangerous, but it also projects an internal force and dignity that many people mistake for power. Fake it until you make it—some people somehow made it to the very top.
Begging projects weakness, which is worse than a mortal sin in Russia. In our neck of the woods, weakness attracts all kinds of vultures, demons and bad luck that otherwise are strangely indifferent to those who steal, rob and plunder. Therefore, even when you lose, always bite the dust in silence.
There is a 15-year old hit of the fake lesbian duo TATU titled Ne ver ne bóysya ne prosi (“Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t beg”). The lyrics are mostly a nonsensical expression of adolescent confusion, defiance, and the fascination of the words of criminal wisdom. You may also find interesting a book about recent adventures of a group of Western ecologists in Putin’s jail, titled Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg.
Detractors of President Putin sometimes refer to his showroom weapons, CGI-generated missile launches and blistering rhetorics as empty threats. This is misguiding. Threats from President Putin have layers of meaning beneath them.
In effect, “empty threats” as a term bunches together a lot of totally different power moves on the part of Putin, each appropriate only under a certain set of circumstances. If you mix them up, you totally misread what is happening and most likely make wrong conclusions.
To start with, President Putin is an alumnus of a highly professional special service and spy agency called KGB. This is a line of business where “threats”, if used unwisely, can easily ruin your career or get you killed. When Putin comes with threats, they are very well calculated. Therefore, they are never empty. There’s always something behind them that you can dismiss or accept, but should never ignore.
“He who offends us, won’t live three days”
This was one of Putin’s memes during his early presidency. At the time, most of what happened in the country was outside his control. Oligarchs ran their game over his head, the state functionaries paid little attention to his orders, and the local elites badmouthed the Kremlin at every occasion. This was a concise political declaration from the President: “A challenge to my power may be lethal for you, even if you are not a Chechen.”
The Russian military might, apart from the nuclear capability, is only a shade of what it was during the Soviet era. Even the newly-acquired oil wealth invested in Putin’s re-organization of the army, could not rectify much. Recently, it caused much hilarity in Russia when someone calculated that the combined tonnage of the oligarchs’ yachts has surpassed the one of Russia’s ocean-going Navy. This mixes poorly with the self-assured stance President Putin is taking as the world champion of anti-liberal resistance. Hence, the need for a few power moves.
Doomsday weapon. The chances that we really have the weapon are impossible to assess. But the certain fact that we possess a nuclear capability to cause the US unacceptable damage gives this ghost weapon much more credibility than if it came from, say, Zimbabwe.
Future weapon. Announcements that in a few years’ time, Russia will deploy a certain system, unmatched by anyone else.
Showroom weapon. Kind of weapons that exist as a proof of concept. Also, the ones that we technologically can manufacture, but which will bankrupt us if we launch their serial production.
Soft-spoken messages of strength rarely make an impact in Russian politics. Stalin, who was famously soft-voiced, slow and slurred in his speech, in order to be recognized as a great orator and man of outstanding wisdom, had first to destroy both the “left” and “right” opposition in the Party. The most impactful communicators in our history, like Lenin, Khrushchev and Yeltsin, talked with their fists and palms as much as their mouths. Putin’s stature and voice are nor made for a show of physical might, so he needs to compensate for it by tough talk.
Ukraine is a good example of what once was considered by the West as empty threats and goofy talk on the part of Vladimir Putin. He repeatedly shot warning shots to the US and Germans that he is willing to go pretty far in order to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western fold. The West ignored it every time—until it was too late.
If you are a man of power and don’t throw tantrums from time to time—preferably with torrents of obscenities—this is seen by many as a sign of weakness. The life of a Russian luminary is full of constant stress. Not venting from time to time the ton of frustrations you’re carrying around day after day on those weaker than you is unnatural and suspicious. People start asking themselves: maybe deep down inside, you’re weaker than them.
Below, a photo of the famous Tzar Cannon in the Kremlin. It’s a 5.3 m long barrel with 0.89m caliber . When I worked as a guide at the 1980 Olympics, I described it not much unlike President Putin presents nowadays new items of in Russia’s weapon arsenals: “a piece of art”, “a gem of metalworking”, “nothing comparable anywhere in the world”. However, the cannon was never used in battle—and experts say, for a good reason: the first shot would have exploded the barrel and killed the crew. Was this an “empty threat”? Definitely not. This was an excellent tool in the hands of skilled diplomats, politicians and propagandists.
The concept of Real Socialism requires an ability on the part of the State to take care of single mothers. Trials and tribulations of revolutionary wars lead to huge attrition of men. The Communist cause needs new generations of strong, healthy warriors, and Soviet women had to step in, in a well-organized fashion.
During WW2, an entire generation of young men was killed or starved to death. In the wake of the Second World War,the USSR became a nation of single mothers.
Feminization of society
Even when new generations of men reached maturity, the profound trauma WW2 had caused would persist for decades to come. Men found themselves too spoiled for choice— and this was greatly amplified by the economic and political emasculation that Real Socialism dealt to Soviet males.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many men, pampered by single mothers, simply found it too troublesome to fit the role of family providers. The abortion rate soared, alcoholism went rampant, divorces became the new norm. Toward the end of the Soviet rule, weak, irresponsible men—contrasted with strong-willed but unhappy women—became the staple of Soviet storytelling in books and movies. (E.g. take a look at this Soviet movie classics: Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, or Business Romance)
On the other side, the concept of Real Socialism required a solid semi-permanent militarization of society in order to make it able to take a shock from massive losses of men during revolutionary wars. This involved a universal safety net for women. The Soviet rule needed to take care of mothers and their children so that the nation would get new numerous and healthy generations of men for the next wave of revolutionary wars.
Cradle to grave
Jobs for all
Food rations for all in employment and/or food stations at workplaces
Shelter provided by the employer, even if this often meant a corner in a barrack or a room in a shared apartment
Universal education and healthcare
Maternity protection and daycare for kids
Organization of off-school activities for children while single mothers were at work or taking care of their daily chores
The level of all this was rather basic, often primitive. But for many formerly peasant women who experienced the devastation and poverty of several wars, famines, lawlessness and robberies by the Soviet state, this was a marked improvement in living conditions.
Below, a painting “Mommy’s helpers“, by Vladimir Khodyrev, from 1955. WW2 annihilated millions of Soviet men. Adult males are often absent from family scenes in the art of this period.
Here, the older sister is bossing around her little brother, who is tasked with washing the floor. The tired mother is relieved someone can take some burden off her shoulders at home. The post-war years marked the start of three decades of voiceless, passive, alcoholized men who proliferated during the last period of Soviet rule. (This is also reflected in porn tastes of Russian men. The specialty of modern-day Russia-produced porn are scenes where a young, passive male is aggressively courted by a decisive older female.)
Mikhail Ivanovich is a moniker attributed to Vladimir Putin since his days as a fixer for St. Petersburg’s liberal mayor Sobchak.
It is a generic male name and patronym across the entire country, intentionally anonymous, not much unlike John Doe. Nowadays, it allegedly denotes the grand system of Putin’s private asset management. Expression éto dlyá Mikhaíla Ivánovicha (“this is for Mikhail Ivanovich”) harks back to the centuries-old Russian tradition of kormlenye (“tributary taxation”).
Czars used to appoint their trusted people to manage the top levels of the state administration. These managers would appoint their own people to the level below. It all cascaded to the lowest local level.
All these people were tasked with assuring a smooth running of state matters, most important of all being taxation for the crown. But they had also implicit permission to collect taxes personally to themselves, in parallel. This would be the manager’s remuneration.
The manager in question could use his own discretion to decide whom, and how to tax. A part of these proceeds would then be sent as a tribute to his immediate boss. How much? Again, up to the sender. The more you share with your boss, the more loyal you are. At the next job appraisal, your boss would know exactly how valuable are you for him.
The tributary funds cascaded all the way upwards, to the top managers in the state. Czars themselves were exempt from this system. The entire country was their property anyway. All they required from the management was to fill the state budget to the sovereign’s satisfaction.
The Communist revolution of 1917 dealt a devastating blow to the foundation of tributary taxation. The centrally planned economy didn’t leave much wealth to be appropriated at the lower rungs on the government ladder. In addition, Stalinism established a HR management policy where vetting of most trusted functionaries happened high above the heads of regional and local bosses.
However, the system survived. Toward the end of Soviet rule, the former patron-client arrangements became ubiquitous in the distribution of food and consumer products, as well as in the police and among state attorneys.
When you read in the press about “stealing” as the source of Putin’s wealth (or anyone else’s on the very top of the Russian state), it’s a very crude, oversimplified translation of the kormlénye concept.
Not many of them directly steal anything. They don’t even touch the money. The tributary taxation requires that the taxed bureaucrats themselves devise the safest system for fund transfers upwards. Clumsy transfers that expose recipients, or otherwise make it possible to later indict their bosses on corruption charges, are almost as bad as disloyalty and may be an ultimate career stopper.
Below, a scene from a hugely popular Soviet comedy “The Diamond Arm” where the moniker most probably originated from. To the right, Michail Ivanovich, an undercover police operative to the right who works on busting a gang of smugglers.
The deciding feature of Putinist rule, tributary taxation is a funnel of wealth generation for the top tier of state bureaucracy. It’s a powerful tool for upholding political cohesion and fighting regionalism in Russia.
Tributary taxation consists of constant cash streams cascading upwards through the hierarchy of state employees, in parallel with regular taxation. The state that allows tributary taxation gives to its servants implicit permission to live off the “administrative rent” as a part of their remuneration.
Ivan who holds a small business gives the police operative Petr $100 a month is a brown envelope. Petr gives his police boss Alex $20 of these. Alex gives the regional internal ministry executive Maxim $10 of these. Maxim sends his boss in Moscow Oleg $5 of these. Oleg sends $3 of these to Mikhail Ivanovich, or someone else who can give him a helping hand if he suddenly gets some work-related problems.
It’s totally up to all these people if they want to pay, how often, to who, and how much. The point is to prove to the person higher up in the chain that they are better off keeping them in office, and not to opt for someone else at the next job appraisal. They can also send money simultaneously through some other chains of tributary taxation if their living depends on their support.
This scheme explains why the Western profit margins seem laughable to Russian entrepreneurs. The margin south of 5% simply cannot support the tributary taxation. As they say in Moscow, “No one gets off their behind here for less than 30%”.
Is it corruption?
Only partly. It’s not a straightforward bribe. It’s not contingent on any particular favor. Such favors often require additional payments. It’s more of a stakeholder dividend: Mi casa es tu casa.
Tributary taxation is a powerful tool for controlling bureaucracy from top to bottom. Ineffectual or disloyal officers lose access to this rent. It also forestalls local separatism and independent civil society, as the distribution of wealth and resources is pinned around the machine of state administration.
Why does it persist?
In Russia, this has a very particular origin. It’s the distinctive colonial character of the Russian economy.
Ever since the time of the Varangians, the main source of wealth for men in power was not taxation of their subjects’ incomes, but rather access to high-value, low-volume natural resources—as well as skimming off the North-South transit trade. Up to the 18th century, the Russian state lived off the trade in slaves, furs, honey, and some other colonial products. Just like now it thrives on exporting oil, gas, fish, timber.
In such an economy, the local population is only a pool of recruitment for troops that protect the perimeter and acquire new prospective territories. Locals provide as well the manpower for extracting colonial resources. As to the subsistence economy of the aborigines themselves, it’s too low-margin to be of interest to the rulers.
What is needed to get rid of the tributary taxation?
During Catherine the Great’s rule, Imperial Russia conquered vast fertile Cumanian prairies in Ukraine, southern Russia and along the Volga river. Large-scale commercial grain farming started there. During the XIX century, along with industrialization, it created a type of economy where more and more state income was generated by the subjects’ work, and not simply from sales of extracted natural resources.
This new pattern created the same political effect as in Europe and America. The middle class emerged. The mercantile estate began gaining influence. The requirement “no taxation without representation” started taking hold in Russia. Elements of local self-rule were introduced under Czar Alexander II, and Czar Nicholas II allowed the first Russian parliament in 1905.
Normally, such development leads to democratic rotation of elites and accountability of those in power. Tributary taxation dies off, as taxpayers claim political control over the bureaucracy. However, the middle class in Russia was destroyed after the revolution of 1917.
How did it survive the Communist rule?
Normally, tributary taxation needs private property. A surplus of wealth is needed to cascade a steady stream of cash through the private pockets of bureaucrats. Impoverished Soviet citizens could afford only one-on, one-off bribes, at best.
It took several decades for the standards of living to go up enough to recover some of it. The commodity-trading communities in Transcaucasia (fruits, drugs, and flowers) and Central Asia (cotton and drugs) pioneered it, and then it transplanted itself to many other segments of the state bureaucracy, primarily distribution of food and consumer products.
Why did it return?
The triumph of oligarchical Capitalism under Yeltsin, and especially Putin, led to a renaissance of tributary taxation. The spectacular rise of global commodity prices, combined with relative poverty of most Russians re-created the old pattern.
With a flat 13% income tax, Putin’s bureaucracy declared itself independent—and therefore unaccountable—before the mass of taxpayers. It depends on the volume and price of colonial commodities, primarily gas and oil, for its wealth and survival. Hence, the focus on defense, police and pipelines, railways and custom services as the pillars of the extraction economy.
The independence of state employees from taxpayers leads to a perpetuation of unaccountability of our rulers before the nation. As long as it stays so, the tributary taxation will persist as the preferred tool of state administration. It’s non-ideological, it’s simple, it’s cohesive, and it fits nicely into the existing system of oligarchical clans. This is the explanation of Putin’s relaxed view of the whole problem of corruption in the country: he sees it as a powerful tool of political control.
Will it disappear?
Not for some time.
It’s not about Putin. To get rid of it, Russia needs a strong, politically active middle class that can enforce accountability on our rulers, and by extension, on our bureaucracy. Right now, civil society exists only in tiny pockets in large cities, and at best can realistically count on support from 15–20% of the population. The country needs at least one more generation in peace and stability before our nation becomes strong enough to take control of its own state.
The graph below shows the share of small and middle-sized companies in Russia’s national economy. Left to right: China, USA, Germany, Russia. Blue means “share of employment”, red share of GDP”. The insignificance of SMEs in Russia comes from the dominance of large enterprises clustered around the extraction sector as well as state-centered enterprises in the infrastructure and military sector.
Russia has produced a unique blend of Statism and oligarchical rule deeply rooted in national history
In Russia, tradition requires co-location, or at least proximity, of economic and political power. The notions of “justice” and “state interest” have always prevailed above the rule of law and protection of property rights. Therefore, rich Russians don’t stay rich for very long if they do not get access to political decision-making. Conversely, people who have political power, easily convert it into economic assets that assure their financial muscle in confrontations with political opponents.
There is also a strong tradition of statist modernization. Our elites are conditioned to think that economic success in the country can be assured only through conglomerations of industrial and financial groups, supported by the state, as it happened after WWII in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Add to that an institutionalized corruption through tributary taxation(kormlénye) in the police, tax authorities and many other segments of state administration, and you have all components of oligarchical rule ready to appear. No wonder that already in the middle of 1990s, a group of bankers offered Yeltsin a deal that secured his re-election for rigged privatization of state assets: the “shares for loans” scheme.
President as guarantor
Yeltsin’s entourage picked Vladimir Putin as his successor in order to guarantee the oligarchical assets against possible re-nationalization, which was a popular political slogan in the late 1990s. Some oligarchs who tried to politically challenge Putin, like Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, and Gusinky, subsequently fell by the wayside. Most, however, retained and multiplied their riches. In the 2000s, the ranks of Russian billionaires also included several personal friends of Putin.
A Mongol influence on Russia in the era of the Golden Horde was close to non-existent. A Turkic impact, both from the east and south was profound.
The Mongol rule was Mongol only during the first decades of their dominance over the eastern Russian principalities. The rest of the time it was the period of Turkic rule.
Russian territories enjoyed a great degree of autonomy because they were not very interesting for the Empire of Jochi economically. A combined annual tax used to be between 1–2 ton of silver, or grain enough to feed a force a 10–20 thousand men for a year. Much more important for “Mongols” were Russian troops for military expeditions to Europe and against their own Turkic neighbors.
Russian principalities, on their part, had a powerful ally in their wars against Germans, Lithuanians, and Poles. The centralized tax collection, introduced by Mongols, meant an end to internecine wars between Russians themselves. Russian merchants had permission to trade along the Volga river and its tributaries.
From the end of the 14th century, Muscovy took increasing control of the northern part of the Baltic-Caspian trade route and managed to turn the tables on their former masters in the Kazan. They remained, however, in the vassal relationship to the Crimean Khanate, and managed to achieve full independence first in 1700, thanks to Czar Peter the Great (Treaty of Constantinople). The total duration of the “Tatar yoke”, as Karl Marx called it, lasted, therefore, more than 450 years.
The Turkic influence was profound. It included:
The highly centralized absolutist government, pinned around the tributary taxation. Poll tax in Russia is a Mongol innovation. Census became neglected toward the end of their rule: rulers in Moscow didn’t lacked the government bureaucracy that could take care of that.
Turkic weapon systems and battleground tactics
The wide use of mercenaries as expeditionary troops and tax collectors (Cossacks)
Food. The plethora of Russian recipes for meat wrapped in dough, from pelmenito pirogi comes from our Turkic neighbors (meat was an exclusive feast in the old Russia).
Interiors and clothes. The trademark padded jacket of Russian troops is a descendant from the fabric armor of Turkic warriors. Turks also brought to us the elaborate and colorful floral designs from Iran. Tapochki (light heelless footwear) as something you need inside your home and shapka (warm headgear) you almost always need outside, including sauna.