Dostoevsky’s works are often quoted by Stalinists and anti-Communists alike to score points against each other.
Dostoevsky didn’t know much about radical Marxism, at the time just an obscure strand of a wide plethora of Socialist ideas. Instead, it was Anarchism and the accompanying concept of individual terror that captivated many minds among the urban youth. The edge of Dostoevsky’s social critique was directed against its Russian followers, who he generally associated with Liberals and other admirers of the contemporary Europe.
The novel Demons is dedicated particularly against what Dostoevsky viewed as the blight of progressivism. The piece was written by Dostoevsky some 50 years before Stalin came to power. The story is about a group of revolutionaries who plot to kill one of them, suspected of intended treason.
The novel has been profusely quoted by Stalinists and anti-Communists alike to score points against each other.
Stalinists of the imperial bend agree with Dostoyevsky’s view that progressism typically germinates in people from some kind of a deep psychological issue, a fundamental personality flaw, and reveals an ongoing moral rot in those affected
Nationalists hold against Stalin his allegiance to Communism, a Western idea imported by haters and detractors of the traditional Russia. Dostoyevsky didn’t spare bad words in Demons to express his repulsion at admirers of all things European.
Liberals love Dostoyevsky’s signature expression “the administrative bliss” (elation that bureaucrats experience when exersising their power on commoners). They use it to stress the potential of unlimited power abuse inherent to Stalin’s totalitarianism, and the vestiges of it in Putinist Russia.
Dostoevsky pioneered the Russian expression demokratícheskaya svóloch (“democratic scum”) that many Stalin admirers and Putin loyalists like to apply to our liberals and their foreign soulmates. Stalin himself never used it—but it adequately describes his opinion of the proponents of Western-style democracies.
Picture: “Demons”, Sarra Shor’s attempt to visualize Dostoevsky’s idea of Russian liberals, anarchists, and admirers of the West. Stalin didn’t like the book. The entire edition with her illustrations was destroyed in 1935.
For the first two decades, the Soviet state had a coat of arms with a glaring error on it.
The Soviet Union was founded in 1922. For the first few years, the Soviet Union used the coat of arms depicted below. A challenge for for you: try to spot an obvious error in the design. The answer will be given at the end of the post.
Answer: the handle of the sickle is attached upside down. This is how Russian sickles looked like at the time:
But when the coat of arms above was adopted, everyone got busy replicating the “new” sickle:
At long last, someone found the courage to tell the Kremlin that the sickle in the country of workers and peasants should look like the real thing. Yet, it took 14 long years for the rulers to agree. The coat of arms with the regular sickle was made official first in 1937.
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.
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.
Poland was Russia’s prime strategic rival to the West long before Germany and the US
Ever since we in Russia decided that “Moscow is the third Rome, with no room for the fourth”, Poland had effectively been the only Slav country with the capacity and ambition to challenge us for the role of unifying power for all Slavic peoples of Europe
Poland was the prime conduit of Western cultural imports to Russia up to Peter the Great and his opening of Russian trade routes in the Baltic Sea. Russian has as many loan words from Polish (and German/Jewish through Polish) as from Turkic languages
In terms of geography, if you plan a land invasion to Russia, your way is through Poland. If you are Russian and want to conquer Europe, you must take Poland first. The Carpathian mountains to the south and Baltic Sea to the north leave you no room for maneuver,
The favorite Polish ideas of constitutions, noisy parliaments, aristocratic liberties and powerless monarchs have always deeply offended our Russian sense of popular justice, spiritual destiny and Großrussisches Reich (“Великая Русская держава”)
They are Catholics, we are Orthodox, and we find repulsive their habit of clothing face-shaved priests in sissy white and letting people sit during the services
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.
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.