What makes Russia a declining power?

First, one thing needs to be made clear. Many people make “decline” sound like collapse. It is not. Decline is a gradual and continuous loss of strength that may be very protracted, often even unseen.

Often a decline is discernible only in retrospective. For example, I’m pushing sixty–but I don’t feel old in all! I lift weights and I dig Parov Stelar. It’s only looking back I see I’m not as good as I used to be.

Now, to Russia.

On the grand scale of things, everything looks alright. Never ever have my countrymen lived so good and comfortable life as right now. We have the best ruler ever who knows how to keep crazy Russians calm. We have shed off the stigma of eternally poor people. We are tearing up the stifling armor of imperial thinking and go about shaping ourselves into a nation-state. Our youth is urban, globalized, well-educated. Our elite knows how to speak in complete sentences. Infant mortality is at lowest point ever, life expectancy is creeping up. Life for the common people is more safe and peaceful than ever.

And yet, it’s going downward. How?

  • Russia is shrinking. The war Communists waged against private farmers starting in late 1920s, with great help from Hitler (the Red Army in 1941 was largely a peasant army) has wiped out the bottomless fountain of the old Russia’s demographic might. We are not as many as we were. Worse, we’re running out of people.
  • Our provinces are getting empty. Everyone is moving to Moscow, or close. The Far East lost 25% of population since the fall of Communism. Murmansk, the largest city we have beyond the Polar circle, has lost a third. Cultivated land shrank by a 1/3 (while agricultural production doubled). Much of the countryside is increasingly looking like that:
  • Millions, many of them high-skilled, world-class professionals have left the country to never come back. Which means brain drain in epic proportions, with no end in sight. Hundreds of thousands of Jews have emigrated. (If we look at what happened to the greatness of Spain and the magnificence of Habsburg Austria when their Jews headed for exit, and take it as a predictor of things to come, it’s not very uplifting.)
  • Putin has presided over the largest de-industrialization in the world in modern history. Manufacturing has shrunk, exports of extracted minerals and low-level processed goods have skyrocketed. As a result, even Russia’s defense industry massively depends on imported components, which is the main reason Russia is so angry at the Western sanctions.
  • Russian business doesn’t believe in Russia. Capital flight during the post-Soviet era has been in the magnitude of 1 trillion USD in total, while foreign investment fluctuated and was at about 50 billion USD per year, at best. (This is only what’s captured by official statistics). Russians who know the country best take their money out of Russia to spend or invest it in the West.
  • Russians are losing faith in entrepreneurship. The share of private business in the national GDP has fallen from 70% to 30%. The share of small and medium-sized enterprises in GDP does not exceed 18 percent (the all-red-tape EU has 40%). If you want a good career for your kids in Russia, tell them to seek jobs in the public sector. Police officers and tax inspectors in Russia never fail to make their parents proud.
  • Russia increasingly lacks labor force. Absurdly many are employed in spheres with zero or very low value added, such as the public sector, private security, retail, and banking sector. There is an urgent shortage of engineers, researchers, workers with technical skills, and professional managers.
  • We suck in productivity. On an hourly basis, each of us contributes $26 to Russia’s GDP. One Greek, for comparison, does $37. And Greece doesn’t have oil and gas (productivity in oil is at least triple the average).
  • We have no incentive to change. We love our ruler, we are proud of our country, and two thirds of us say we are happy or very happy. Why bother if things are going great?

How do Russians consider Putin’s rule?

President Putin may not measure up to the standards of Western liberal democracy. But in the grand scheme of Russian civilization, he’s the best ruler ever.

Putin is the best leader Russia has ever had.

  • He’s the first since Stalin who knows how to run the country. And in comparison with Stalin, he does the job with immensely less blood and suffering, and to much better result. At last, we have a competent leader who doesn’t kill and torment people at industrial scale.
  • He´s not a sadist, or power maniac, or a simple thief, or conqueror. With the power he has amassed, he could be Ivan the Terrible, or Caligula, or Lenin, – and he chooses not to. What a welcome, wonderful change.
  • He has little time for liberal niceties like rule of law, or civil rights, or human dignity. But he is very legalistic. “To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law.” He wants to win elections, not abolish them, tweak and change the law, not ignore it. That´s very fresh, very new, very empowering.
  • He has a sense of fairness, and he values loyalty. His enemies die or disappear, often in a horrible way, but not before they had declared themselves to be his enemies. He doesn’t betray. As long as he thinks you honestly hold your end of bargain, he does´t lie or cheat. Totally out of character for someone who spent formative years in the twilight world of Soviet secret services.
  • He´s not tormented by inner demons that he lets act out onto other people, like many in his entourage do. He’s pragmatic, calculating, rational. “Why kill when you can make a deal? Why steal when you can buy? Why make a scene when you can sit down and have a talk?” He´s a rock of reason in the neurotic sea of post-Soviet politics.
  • He realizes his power mandate comes from people, not from brute force, or God, or ideological sophistry. He´s obsessed by polls figures and popular acclaim. He says what people like to hear, and he knows how to cater to his power base. He shares. He and his friends stole billions from the oil-fueled bonanza, but down here, we got many fat morsels, too. We´ve never been that well off. That´s so new. We´re amazed. Simply amazed.

Russia is a declining power. For many different reasons, this decline seems impossible to reverse. But Putin might be the best to make it a rather smooth, long, uneventful decline.

What was it like to have a holiday in a resort in the Soviet Union?

Vacationing in the USSR was an inexpensive, but in many ways challenging adventure.

I have mostly sunny memories from my holidays in 1970s and 1980s. I was young, I was mostly lucky, and I didn’t know better.

Holidaymakers in the Soviet Union had to grapple with three sad facts:

  • The country was enormous. For most people, the closest of the warm resorts was very far away.
  • Resorts were few and located at the Baltic coast (sandy beach, cloudy days, cold surf, seaside towns looking like Europe), or Black Sea (sand or pebble, sun assured, crowded beaches, lousy food and accommodation, warmer bathing temperatures)
  • The entire infrastructure of travel and leisure was shaped not by the eternal laws of demand and supply, but some suits in Moscow. These suits had their own ideas how Soviet people should spend their off-time. These seemed to hold a Communist conviction that people at work are good, and people who relax are not as good.

Every holiday was for us in so many ways a pinnacle of the year, emotionally, logistically and financially.

For most, it meant a challenge of spending many hours, or rather days, in transit. Imagine taking a train from the middle of nowhere in Siberia to a sunny beach in Crimea. This is how the majority of holidaymakers traveled at the time:

This image may help you better understand why Russia has produced the best cosmonauts and tank personnel. We excel in making the best packed in a barrel-sized space with a bunch of strangers without shower for days and even weeks: think the Trans-Siberian transit by train.

Some could opt for first class (only three other strangers to share your body odors and life stories with, not the entire carriage), or a plane.
To my recollection, a single 2nd class train ticket Moscow-Crimea was about 10% of an office clerk salary, train compartment about 15%, and plane 25%. Scalpers’ margin was about 50–100%, but as with the right connections could provide you tickets at the nominal cost.

For many, the travel was the ultimate escape bubble. A strange mix of anonymity and proximity on the Sardine Express turned even the darkest of introverts into gregarious party birds. People shared life stories, lunch packs and drinks with their new bunk buddies. You would meet most incredible people and learn life-changing stories in a way that were unimaginable before the Internet came around.

But the worst challenge was not the hardship of moving across the largest country on earth. It was getting the tickets. Standing in line for hours, a known substitute for the Capitalist yoke of demand and supply, often didn’t help. During the red season the most popular destinations were already booked long in advance by people with the right kind of jobs or connections. In the USSR parlance, a dismissive answer from a ticket clerk “There’s never been any tickets there” didn’t mean physical absence of transit to the destination. It just meant no booking had been available for retail distribution.

This is how I remember getting my holiday tickets:

The choice of the destination was defined not so much by your preferences, rather by the place where you worked. Resorts were owned by the government, its enterprises, or the trade unions. If you were lucky–or rather had the right job or friends–you could get a subsidized, or even free tour to one of the places.

This is a decent abstraction of what our resorts were expected to look like:

A cursory look at this picture may tell you some curious things. The body distance and the excitement of the couples on the photo suggest they are not married. Which is correct, those places were not family friendly. Only the most exclusive places could accommodate couples. (You got a separate room, but the marital requirement was on par with the modern Saudis: you were expected to document your relationship). And no kids! You had to find a place to stow away your kids. With some luck, in a similar place, but almost never close to your own resort.

And yet, the places were not particularly conducive to carnal pleasures. The holiday makers had to share room with strangers. Up to four persons usually shared a room. If you or your roommates scored a date with a view to the third base, an arrangement was needed to rotate the room for appropriate privacy.

At the same time, you got five decent meals a day, all inclusive (no alcohol), and often a kind of spa offerings. Think massage, mud baths, salt inhalation, therapeutic body exercises and other wonders of 19th-century convalescent and preventive treatment, with no extra charge. It all may sound like very high-class, if it weren’t for its typical echoing dungeon setting:

  • If you didn’t have access to established resorts, you still had an option of “wild vacationing”. This Soviet expression didn’t imply drug use or promiscuity. This meant renting private accommodation. Someone could arrange it for you in advance, but many simply rented a room on arrival. It was more expensive, and quite substandard. Yet, it provided one of the most sought-after things so sorely lacking in our Soviet lives: privacy.
  • Going “wild”, you also had to think harder about provisioning. Restaurants and diners were few, expensive and greatly varied in quality. Buying groceries and cooking at home was a budget option, if you were prepared to make the most of the scarce supply in the Soviet-era retail. To my recollection, sausages was the best I could find of processed meat. In order to buy milk, I had to get up early and stand in a line for half an hour or more.
  • And then there was seaside camping. Contrary to what you may think, in the Soviet Union, this was the utter manifestation of affluent libertarianism. First, this required a car, which marked that you belonged to a small minority. Second, your banger needed to be decently tuned and maintained for the long haul. In the USSR, car maintenance was a real challenge, very expensive. Any breakdown along the thousand-mile route to the sunny beach in the private-car-averse Soviet was an outright emergency. And third, hitting the road with friends and heading to a place where we could find a solitary cove and luxuriate in the surf miles away from maddening crowds made us feel not only young and free – it made us feel almost American.

Here’s a short video about what “wild vacationing” in the USSR looked like. Soundtrack is in Russian, but from 0:20 and onward you can see a lot of happy Soviet faces.

Why didn’t the poor people of the world who could afford the trip, move to the Soviet Union?

Soviet rulers vacillated between considering immigrants from other countries a resource and a security risk.

Because the USSR didn’t want them to.

The Soviet Union wanted people to make revolt in their home country, raise the red flag and join the Soviet Union as an entire happy nation, free from exploitation classes and liberal scum.

Some people were too impatient to wait for the rest of their compatriots to free themselves. They traveled to the Soviet border and soon discovered it was guarded better than Fort Knox. Look at the DMZ between North and South Korea to get an idea: that´s us who taught the Norks how to guard borders.

This is what the Soviet border looked like:

To the left, a barbed fence. In the middle, a plowed strip of mud where anyone who crossed it would leave visible footsteps, so that the incursion could be detected and hunted down by patrols who inspected it with assured frequency.

The foreign poor people who somehow managed to find an opening in the fence and didn´t get shot by border guards, would promptly be located inside the USSR thanks to all-encompassing ID checks in every nook and corner. Again, look at the North Korea. They learned from the best.

Thereafter, the people´s court of justice would swiftly get the trespasser a prolonged sentence as a foreign spy. Who else but a cunning spy would have skills and resources to travel half the world and outfox the Soviet border guards? The Soviet Union was known to live in the iron circle of capitalist powers that dreamt of annihilating us; who could blame us for the preference to be rather safe that sorry.

Much more predictable was the legal route through Soviet embassies and consulates around the world. Sure, they had strong preference for people who were not poor, but chances for success were generally good. A German-Jewish idealist Elinor Lipper was one of the lucky applicants, and wrote a book about what happened afterwards.

The number of foreigners who wanted to move to the USSR dropped after WW2. Still, there were some exciting stories. Among them the tale of Lee Harvey Oswald. He found love in our country and got a kid, but later preferred the career of an American president assassin over the safety of life as a floor operator at an assembly plant in Minsk.

What is behind President Trumps intention to improve the relations with Russia?

Politics is about finding allies for causes that matter most. Then you consider if these allies solve more of your problems than they create.

Trump obviously thinks Putin is a fair guy and no enemy of the US. He (or his advisors) has looked into it and registered following:

  • Without Putin’s support Assad in Syria would have been gone by now. And with him, the bothering presence of Iran and Hezbollah.
  • Without Putin´s support the mullahs of Iran would lose their strongest international supporter and arms provider. That would weaken their hand and general Iranian influence in the Middle East, as well as hamper their missile development
  • With Putin’s support to North Korea, it would be easier to convince the Chinese to do something about the North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The next step in this thinking is: what if we lift sanctions? Will Putin give up Assad, Kim and the mullahs, so that we can be friends with him again? If he does, let´s go for it!

But the general consensus in the US right now deems this strategy totally unrealistic. This is widely shared by Russians, who at best are willing to give some lip service to Trump´s efforts in Syria and the Korean Peninsula, but nothing more.

Why is Germany called “Fatherland” and Russia “Motherland”?

“Russia” comes from “Rus”, the name of Nordic sea-faring robbers and traders who settled along fluvial trade routes between the hunting grounds across the Middle-Russian Plains and slave markets in Byzantine and Persia. These ferocious men married Slav girls, had babies with them, but never bothered to spend quality time with their families or teach them Nordic customs and language.

No wonder many kids grew up as Slavic speakers who knew little about the endless excitement of Nordic slave-trading careers. Some thought of their native place as the place of their mothers, while others as the place of their Rus fathers.

On a more serious note, there is total confusion about the impersonated gender identity of my country.

  • “Motherland” is feminine alright. Because “Russia” is feminine in Russian, as the old Rus (”Русь”) was. But wait!
  • “Otechestvo”/”Fatherland” needs to be masculine. But then, what relation does this man figure have to the female Motherland? Are they in marital relation, a sibling relation, or something else?
  • Let’s make “Otechestvo”/”Fatherland” a neutral gender! (We have three genders in Russian). Not much logic, but the problem seems to be solved. Isn’t it?

Spend more time with your kids! Or they end up as confused as us Russians.

How does Putin view France?

Russians are generally a very Francophile bunch. President Putin seems to have no particular likes or dislikes beyond that. Nothing like the loves or hates he appears to have about Germany, the US, Greece or Ukraine.

He had a blast working together with President Jacques Chirac against the Iraq invasion. He had a terrific personal chemistry with Nicolas Sarkozy who helped Russia to score a huge win after the 2008 war in Georgia.

Then came the cancellation of Mistrals and the whole kit and caboodle after the annexation of Crimea.

Putin has invested a lot in his agents of influence on the French right (Fillon, Mariani & Co) as well as in the fringes (Le Pen, Mélenchon), and among influential industrialists. He is mightily irritated why things don´t work out for Russia the way it did before.

Macron’s been often very direct in confronting President Putin for his high meddling in French politics. But Putin is a very pragmatic man. He understands he must pay a price for obstructing Macron’s rise to power, which explains his uncharacteristically humble look when he’s around the Frenchman. If he sees that Macron indeed becomes the top player in Europe and is willing to strike deals and follow up on them.

How did the destruction of Moscow in 1812 affect Russia?

Not much, since St. Petersburg had been the high seat of Russian culture and administration for almost 100 years prior to the devastation, and not Moscow.

A lot of people died, and more people lost their belongings in the fire and desolation. But that was not anything new and extraordinary in the grand scheme of Russian history.

Three factors may stand out among the consequences:

  • Moscow got a face-lift during the reconstruction and became less of a sprawling Slav village is was before the Napoleonic wars. “The fire has made its face much prettier”, is a much quoted line from one of our poetic classics, “Woe from Wit”.
  • For decades to come, Russian nationalists got a terrific argument against the corrupting influence of Europeans who had shown its ugly Slav-hating face: “They burned out beautiful city”. French started to fade away as the everyday language of choice among the Russian aristocracy. Ethnic Russian nationalism took its first baby steps when people who were kids during the Napoleonic wars started to fill literary salons and discuss the latest of book publications.
  • Nation-building got a sudden wind in its sails, in the form of old Slavonic manuscripts that their holder claimed to have copied before originals were consumed in the flames of 1812. A lot of ancient texts attesting to the beauty and sophistication of Old Russian culture went in circulation and started to be added to national curriculum. Here’s one example: The Tale of Igor’s Campaign.

What is Russia’s core foreign interests in eastern Asia?

We support North Korea.

We know this is not the best kind of allies, and we have to watch our back when another one in the line of mighty Kims is around. But we don´t want the Norks to collapse. Russia doesn’t need another US ally right next door to our largest city in the Far East.

We need South Koreans for their money and business clout. They have developed a very strong and advanced economy by supporting Chaebols, which looks very much the “financial and industrial corporations” our rulers have had so much faith in since the era of President Yeltsin. Possibly, down the road, they may become investors in the colonization of our Siberia and the Far East, a useful counterweight to the Chinese and Japanese.

As for Japan, we’re still in the limbo of post-WW2 disagreements. They want back the South Kuril islands we occupied in 1945.

However, much of what they think and do about the global politics, is centered on China. Whatever they can do to offset the growing influence of China, is considered good for Japan. The Japanese consider us a power in decline, with primitive economy, short-sighted policies and underdeveloped Far East. They think we are in need of friends wherever we can find them.

With epic patience, eternal smiles and bows, and almost no noticeable relapse to bad memories or hurt pride, they keep telling Russia: “We are going to make the best of friends in the world, you and us, but first please give us back our islands”.

Putin is aware that the Japanese would be a useful counterweight to the sucking power of Chinese influence that Russia increasingly succumbs to. He knows that the Japanese will gladly forget Crimea, Syria and whatever else the G-7 is currently throwing at Russia, once he cedes the islands. But giving away to foreigners the smallest bit of god-forsaken wind-blown rocks in the Pacific goes contrary to any idea what a Mighty Russian Leader would do even in a direst of situations. Therefore every time the political discourse in Russia dictates the need for an extra dose of nationalist posturing, one of the first things that happens is some our top politician goes to South Kurils for some very high-profile flag-waving.

As one Soviet-era diplomat once famously told his Japanese colleagues, “We didn’t grow big by giving away our land”.

As long this situation persist, the relationship will remain like today: like between two close neighbors who greet each other in the elevator and do what they need to change the burnt bulbs in the hallway, but not much beyond that.

If Russia disintegrates, which new states would most likely form?

In the short term (= as long as Putin is at power) any disintegration of Russia is extremely unlikely. Here´s why.

  • The Soviet project has eradicated the great plethora of local cultures we had across the Czarist Empire. Dialects have disappeared, and wherever you go you find the sense of local identity rather weak. Nothing comparable to the strength of local connection and pride in the US, or Germany, or even France.
  • The entire fabric of society is extremely Moscow-centered. Money, goods, trains, careers – everything moves toward, or with mandatory stop, in the capital city. Federalism is a murky concept for us Russians, at best. Actioning for federalism, as the thing is stated in our Constitution, most probably gets you a prompt prison sentence for “extremism”.
  • Most regions can´t even function without federal subsidies. Separatism makes no economic sense whatsoever for much of Russia. Those who are self-reliant, like oil-rich Western Siberia or Yakutia with her barely tapped deposits of everything from diamonds to gold, are separated from foreign countries by thousands of miles through loyalist Russian territories.
  • Our national psyche is used to view the loss of territory, and internal strife that may lead to it, as the closest there is to real-life Apocalypses. You may promise your local constituency gold-plated homes, Rolls-Royces for work commutes and yearly vacations in the Caribbean, but if it comes with cost of leaving the Russian Federation, you are a political (and very soon a human) corpse.

With all that said, a general remark. Russian Federation is the largest splinter of Russian Czarist, and later Communist, empires. Like all 19-century empires, we had to go through the painful process of de-colonization, and recently lost vast territories along our rims.

This process is not completely over. We retained some ethnic territories with a strong sense of national identity that in the long term may choose to become independent states.

The prime candidate for leaving Russia is of course Chechnya. It enjoys now a sort of quasi-independence, supported by subsidies from Moscow for its loyalty. But the trauma of brutal wars in the 1990s is deep. Fall of Putin, whenever it comes, will most likely result in a swift and bloody secession from Russia. If successful, the process may drag along some other Muslim territories in North Caucasus.

The next in the line for exit may become Tatarstan, also Muslim. They are large enough, they have oil, people and industry that may carry them along as an independent nation. Their problem is that Russia is all around them, and if we decide to make life nasty for Tatars, we´re really in a position to do so.

But the Tatars possess something that no other minority in Russia have, apart from some Mongol descendants in southern Siberia: the history of their own statehood. And what´s even more significant, the history of conquest and subjugation of Russia. No one else, ever, have managed that. Never underestimate national pride.

Chechnya and Tatarstan: these two are two flashpoints you need to watch closely the day some big turbulence arrives in Russia, like Putin´s fall or economic collapse of our petroleum-based economy.

But I don´t see any dark clouds as of yet.