Cracks in the Kremlin matrix // The Stalinist order, the Putinist order // Russia Inc - a culture of bureaucratic corruption

Cracks in the Kremlin matrix
Peter Pomerantsev enters the matrix of managed democracy that underpins postmodern dictatorship in Russia. A society of pure spectacle, with fake parties, fake opposition, fake scandals and fake action: this is the political technologists' project, in which (almost) everything becomes PR.

NB - the articles below provide insights into the nihilism of our times.  They're not relevant  only to Russia - in a broader sense the climate of meaninglessness they describe is an experience evoked across the world.. DS

Sometime near the start of this century, at the height of the Russian oil boom, the blossoming of the Putin era, the maturing of "managed democracy" and the birth of postmodern dictatorship, I found myself in a long, grey room on the top floor of Ostankino, the Russian television centre that is the size of five football fields and the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda. I had recently arrived from London to make it as a policy consultant and later TV producer in the rapidly expanding Russian television market. This was the weekly brainstorm at Channel 1, where Moscow's most dynamic minds would gather to create TV masterpieces of managed democracy, the show business facade of a free society while the reality was becoming more authoritarian by the hour. There were more than twenty of us in the room: tanned broadcasters in white silk shirts and politics professors with sweaty beards and heavy breath and ad execs in trainers. There were no women. Everyone was smoking. There was so much smoke it made the skin itch. I had been admitted by accident, smuggled in by a friendly publisher: due to my Russian surname no one had noticed I was British, and I kept my mouth shut so no one would notice my accent. 

At the end of the table sat Mikhail Leontiev, the country's most famous political TV presenter. He was small and spoke fast, with a smoky voice: "We all know there will be no real politics, everyone knows there's no real elections any more, but we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained!"

Leontiev is best known for the five minutes of hate he delivers after the news. In his TV show he plucks a theme (oligarchs, America, football, Afghanistan) and he rants for five minutes hinting, nudging, winking, insinuating though rarely ever saying anything directly, repeating words like "them" and "the enemy" endlessly until they are imprinted on the mind. In the 1990s he had been a liberal democrat but now that the wind has changed he is a nationalist autocrat. "So what should we play with? Shall we attack oligarchs?" continued Leontiev. "Who's the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like... like a movie!"

The new Kremlin was determined not to make the same mistake as the old Soviet Union. They would never let TV or politics become dull. They were putting the ratings into authoritarianism, the dynamics into dictatorship, creating a society of pure spectacle with fake parties and fake opposition and fake scandals and fake action. Sitting in that smoky room I had the sense that reality was somehow malleable, that I was with Prosperos who could project any existence they wanted onto the desert of the real that was post-Soviet Russia. And in a country so vast, living in seven time zones and almost as many zones of history, TV is the force that can unify and rule and bind it together.

.. Over the next decade the channels broadcasting from Ostankino would perfect the skill of combining propaganda and show-business. Putin's image was at the centre of the show: he was to be a man for all seasons, the action man hunting tigers bare-chested, the cool guy riding Harleys, the housewives' friend berating supermarkets for their high prices. In a favourite TV scene Putin sits facing his ministers, and they all sweat and writhe with fear and embarrassment as Putin blames them for letting him and the country down. TV helped Putin rise above mere politics, above blame and responsibility: a postmodern TV tsar. But Channel 1 would never allow itself to show mere Putin PR. Right after the news it showed edgy realist dramas about the lives of teens in a drug-infested school: buying trust one moment and then exploiting it for political gain. Another Ostankino channel, NTV, once considered the most liberal channel in Russia, showed a non-stop flood of real-life horror stories: murders, rapes, robberies – the exact opposite of the "classical" totalitarian approach to TV where you show a perfect, fake reality. In a much more sophisticated Russia, the state shows gruesome reality to make the viewer feel scared and desperate for the Kremlin's rule and more state control.

The producers and journalists who made these shows were all liberals in their private lives, would holiday in Tuscany and were completely European in their tastes. When I would ask how they could marry their professional and personal lives they would look at me like I were a fool and answer: "Over the last twenty years we've lived through a communism we never believed in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we've realized they are illusions, that everything is PR". "Everything is PR" became the favourite phrase of the new Russia.. 
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I was born in a place wholly deprived of urban space, even though it was the USSR's biggest city – Moscow. The area consisted of identical residential blocks (just as in the neighbouring estate) and, as a child, it failed to leave any significant imprint on my memory. I remember everything there was inside, but nothing outside. I can recall only the pond beside our block, because it was the sole place of interest in the district. Occasionally, we used to travel into the centre of town to admire the buildings there, as though we were visiting a museum. This was the city. Here you could take a walk but surely not live (I couldn't imagine anyone living in the Kropotkinskaya area). Whereas in our area, it was possible to live – but there was nothing of interest to encourage you to go out walking. All you had to do was get to the doorway and vanish inside. I couldn't take seriously any attempts to establish a flowerbed by the entrance to our block – I felt rather sorry for the flowers planted in that little hollow, lined with cement. You wanted to get past the plants, and the old lady seated by the entrance, as quickly as possible, just to get indoors. For me, as for many people who grew up in similar residential tower blocks, the most important thing was the interior.

This was a very simple space. The architect or, more probably, the engineer who had designed it was constrained by available funds – there could be no spiral staircases or bay windows. We lived in box rooms, just like everyone else. It seemed quite natural to me that my best friend's flat, where I spent almost as much time as at home, was identical to ours. Literally so – for even the coat rack in the hall was the same, as were the chandeliers. The bookshelves were also similarly installed, and the books in them no different from our own.

Life was confined to our apartment, of course, but I was also aware of the presence of people living upstairs and next door. Flats with paper-thin walls are places where people are constantly reminding each other of their presence. Like anyone who grew up in an apartment of this type, I knew the voices of the people next door and those upstairs. The neighbours next door used to quarrel loudly at times, and one of the children was learning to play a musical instrument – though the attempt seemed limited to performing scales. Occasionally something heavy could be heard tumbling to the floor in the flat upstairs – a piece of furniture? A beam? But on a working day, in the morning, there was almost total silence; and you could hear far further than the nearest neighbouring box room. It would seem to me, sometimes, that I could hear someone reading aloud to a child...

The future of Russia features prominently in European discourse these days. Most analysts focus on the rise of corruption, political ineffectiveness and street protests; others point to the flight of capital and gloomy economic prospects. While there are grounds for such speculation, I want to draw some attention to the inner workings of the contemporary Russian state. Moreover, I want to discuss the means by which the state may secure its survival for a comparatively long period of time.

My analysis consists of two main arguments. Firstly, the current system in Russia is based not on corruption in the traditional sense, but on a complete merger of public service and private business interests; members of the political elite are focused not on the welfare of the nation but on their respective personal fortunes. Russia has in a sense been transformed into a "Russia, Inc." in which the commercial interests of the political class dominate the needs of the population. Secondly, under such circumstances there is no hope whatsoever that the situation might be changed from above, since the "vertical of power" is strongly united by its business goals and will consolidate whenever it feels itself threatened. Consequently, I do not envisage any possibility of a conflict inside Russia's ruling political elite in the foreseeable future.

Putin's regime draws great strength from the immense wealth it commands. Russia's federal revenues for 2012 exceeded 405 billion dollars, allowing the elite to allocate 20 billion to preparations for an APEC summit in Vladivostok; meanwhile, federal revenues in 1999 totalled less than 22 billion dollars. Similarly, Gazprom's revenue has multiplied from 11 billion to 158 billion in the same period. This influx of cash affords Putin numerous opportunities: he is able to address the problems of the low-income population, to launch huge infrastructure projects and, most importantly, to look the other way as bureaucrats misuse vast sums of public money. This latter phenomenon serves to consolidate a system in which the personal enrichment of politicians is not merely sporadic but systemic; it is part of the very foundation of the regime, as well as its best guarantee against the "revolt of the elites".

A culture of bureaucratic corruption
To draw analogies between corruption in the Western sense and corruption as practiced in modern Russia is to greatly underestimate the latter. Bureaucrats in modern Russia have a variety of legal avenues of siphoning off state funds – most commonly, a politician's associates and relatives will organize various businesses which, through formal procedures, are granted public contracts; these contracts are then realized at greatly inflated prices. For example, while the A20 autobahn in northern Germany, finalized in 2005, cost less than 5.4 million euros per kilometer, the plan to construct a 520-km long, six-lane highway around Moscow's outskirts is valued at 469 billion rubles, or 22.5 million euro per kilometer; such disparities fail to provoke surprise among Russians.

The so-called "siloviki" are engaged in a different enterprise: they open criminal investigations against the owners of successful businesses, charge them with tax irregularities and then force them to sell off their assets at cut-rate prices. Only nine per cent of such lawsuits are brought to trial, as opposed to around 94 per cent of first-degree murder cases. The vast majority of these lawsuits, then, are settled by other means – presumably in exchange for some form of bribe. read more:

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