God save Russia - (long article)

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God save Russia On the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration, beleaguered Russians are looking to their new president - and the church - for salvation, writes Geoff Kitney.

The escalators to Moscow's metro run fast and deep, and take those unfamiliar with it hurtling down into a head-spinning underworld. The shoving crush of the crowd, the thunder and screech of one-a-minute trains. The roaring, hat-lifting air rush of their speeding comings and goings from the world's longest underground station platforms. And the confusion and disorientation of warrens of passageways and tunnels, Cyrillic lettered signposting and incomprehensible station announcements.

For a foreigner travelling alone, it is an alien, disconcerting experience, but it is an experience worthy of perseverance - even if it's just for practical reasons of warmth, safety, economy and efficiency.

When it's -20C at street level and 20C below, when catching a taxi can be both deadly and costly and when the metro can deliver you close to pretty well any destination you choose, going the underground way is a very sensible method of getting around this cold, calamitous, contradiction of a capital.

But there is more to the Moscow metro than getting around. It is also a three-roubles-a-ride (about 7c) journey into the past and into the future.

Once you learn enough about the colour coding system of lines to guide you to where you are going and can relax enough to take in your surroundings, the metro begins to tell an extraordinary story of Russian life.

In the magnificent architecture of some of the oldest stations, constructed in the time of Vladimir Lenin: towering Gothic columns of white stone and blood red marble, heroic statues and carved cornices, subway stations which could be cathedrals and which so architecturally exceptional they have been World Heritage listed by the United Nations.

In the naive, patriotic art of wall friezes and ceiling mosaics, commissioned by Joseph Stalin to glorify the heroic achievements of the Soviet armies and the Soviet people against the Nazis at a time he was ordering the deaths of millions of his citizens to secure his bloody dictatorship.

In the stone carved, redundant symbols of the Soviet era - hammer and sickle and Red Star emblems - engraved too deeply to be removed except at expense that Moscow's bankrupt city authorities cannot afford. And at the main entrances of some stations, huge steel plate arches behind which huge steel and concrete doors waited to be rolled into place and seal deep underground survivors of the Western nuclear attack on Moscow that never came.

But what did not become refuges from one sort of cataclysm have become refuges from another.

For the desperately poor, whose ranks have exploded in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of communism and who survive on the almost worthless coins tossed to them from out of the rushing crowd, the metro is a warm sanctuary at the bottom end of the distorted and corrupted market economy that Russia has become.

The long tunnelways which connect one metro station to another are lined with the victims of the new Russia. Some offer small, tragic personal items for sale; some sell a few scraps of fruit or vegetables; some busk; some just hold out their hands. Old men and women, mothers with babies, cripples and drug addicts. There are even soldiers in uniform, Russian conscripts unpaid by the army for months, begging for a few roubles to buy food, or pleading for a cigarette.

Now, as the winter snows melt away and the city's street life is revived by the spring sunshine, the poor come to the surface as well, for fresh air and for hopefully better pickings from the slower moving crowds in the shopping streets and malls.

Beggars are not unique to the Moscow metro, of course. But what strikes me especially about Moscow is that this reality compared with the images I have of what the Soviet Union was, and of what Russia could be. Of Moscow, capital of the Soviet superpower, feared communist giant armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, a great totalitarian machine, malevolent and mysterious. And of Russia, free, vast, resource rich, educated, opening to the world, full of promise and possibility.

Moscow is surrealistic, an incomprehensible mix of history, myth, madness, beauty, passion and evil.

From his office in the presidential administration building in the Kremlin, the magnificent fortress in the heart of Moscow from which first the tsars and then the communists ruled Russia, president-elect Vladimir Putin must be daunted by both the heavy historic legacy he has inherited and the breathtaking challenge he faces in trying to make Moscow the normal capital of a normal state.

Every day as Putin goes to work through the Borovitskaya Gate into the Kremlin, past the Arsenal Museum which contains a staggeringly rich collection of pre-revolution artefacts of church and aristocracy Russian, past the beautifully and expensively restored Grand Kremlin Palace with its gilded interior and priceless artworks, past Cathedral Square with its glittering gold, onion-domed and icon-laden Orthodox Churches and finally past the stark glass and marble ugliness of the hammer and sickle festooned Palace of Congress built in the Kremlin grounds by the communists for party congresses, he cannot help but be aware that he is about to take a rare place in history.

As Russia's first leader of the 21st century, to be confirmed by the presidential inauguration tomorrow, Putin has the task of becoming Russia's first "normal" leader. That, more than anything, is what the Russian people want of him.

The second impression you have of the Russian people when you join them in their homes and their workplaces - the first is of their hospitality even when they have very little to give - is of an overwhelming sense of exhaustion with their leaders and their history.

The Russians of the early 21st century are the first generations to know via modern communications that there are better alternatives to the way Russians have always been forced to live. They know it is possible to have a reasonable standard of living and to have political freedom. They know that it is possible to have a society in which the rule of law applies and in which leaders are accountable. They know that normal societies exist and that the suffering inflicted on them over the centuries need not be the Russian normality. They know they are people of great potential, unrealised by the failure of leadership.

They are tired of the despots, lunatics, ideologues and drunks who have ruled them, building monuments and edifices to themselves and to their mad schemes, staining the Russian soil red with the blood of its people or impoverishing them while channelling Russia's wealth into their own hands and the hands of their cronies or into building vast armies and bankrupting the country to equip them with vast arsenals.

But many Russians also despair that normality for Russia is unattainable. Their chaotic history makes them fear that Russians are genetically disposed to chaos, that the Russian character is incapable of the aspiration and organisation necessary to establish the civil society required to create normality, that Russia will only work as a community with organisation imposed by authoritarian or totalitarian leadership.

Give us freedom, some say, and you give us anarchy, a licence to rob, rip-off and repress. Just look at what has happened since the collapse of communism and the arrival of the free market: the biggest and fastest growing industry in Russia is corruption, at every level of society. In Russia the free market means that anyone who has the chance to extort money from anyone else takes it.

In Russia it is hard to tell the difference between the local mafia and the local administration: the difference is that the mafia extorts anyone trying to do business. Local bureaucrats exhort the ordinary people trying to go about their business.

The Ministry of the Interior has just reported that there were 53,700 crimes by government officials last year, an increase of 36 per cent over the year before.

The police, supposedly protectors of the law, are as feared by law-abiding citizens as the mafia while the police and mafia co-exist comfortably. From the lowest level - the local parking inspector who will invariably turn a blind eye to illegally parked cars for an appropriate fee - up through the law enforcement system, corruption is endemic. Anyone, including the judiciary, can be bought.

In Moscow where the taxi system is the ultimate laissez-faire market, with any car on the street able to stop and pick up passengers for fees, the streets are clogged with battered, rusted, smoke-belching Zhigulis looking for fares. Few would pass the roadworthiness tests required by local law if it weren't for the bribes the owners pay. The vehicle inspection police have been replaced completely four times to try to wipe out corruption and make Moscow's streets safer, but to no avail.

Foreign visitors to Moscow are immediately aware of this corrupt lawlessness the moment they step into Russia at Sheremetyevo international airport and are confronted by a gauntlet of black and brown leather-coated taxi touters, clamouring to offer you taxi to the city at least 10 times the official rate. No-one offers the official rate because the airport taxi service is mafia controlled, and the prices are fixed by the mafia bosses.

This is the bottom-end reality of Russian corruption, the community-level version of the lawlessness which at its most spectacular level spawned the "oligarchs", the former apparatchiks of the Communist Party who "insider traded" their privileged positions to take control of Russia's wealthiest state-owned businesses when they were privatised and amass vast personal fortunes.

Through the plunder and extortion of the "oligarchs", the mafia and corrupt officials, Russian society has returned to communist pre-revolution disparities in income with a wealthy few living lavishly and the vast majority surviving desperately.

Ten years after the fall of communism, Russia has at least a dozen billionaires. It also has nearly 50 million people earning less than the official subsistence income level of 963 roubles (about $50) a month. Real incomes have fallen 25 per cent in four years.

The Russian economy has shrunk 30 per cent since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its population is in rapid decline, down two million since 1991. Alcohol-related diseases and accidents are a major factor in an alarming fall in Russian male life expectancy in the post-communist era as men turn to the bottle to cope.

Women are turning to the church. Religion has revived spectacularly in Russia with churches that were boarded up and banned during the communist era reopened, restored and full to overflowing.

A 20-minute metro ride from central Moscow in the Kolomenskoye historical preserve is the Church of the Kazan Mother of God, a beautiful, multi-tiered stark white building capped with five bright-blue and gold domes, topped with glistening gold crosses. The preserve was the country retreat of the tsars and the first church here was built by Great Prince Vasiliy III to honour the birth of his son, Ivan, later to become known as Ivan the Terrible, in 1532.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, in the warm, candle-smoke and incense-sweet, thickened air inside the blue-domed church, a packed congregation of mainly women prayed with an intensity verging on desperation. Their desperation showed after the service when a foreign face among them became a magnet for some who pushed out begging hands, seeking a few roubles.

Natalya Boronina, a young mother who has become a regular churchgoer, says her Christian faith sustains her through the hard times in her country. "For many Russians the only way it is possible to cope with their problems is to believe that there is something better to come. It is easier to accept our hard lives now if we believe that this is a test by God of our worthiness for heaven," she says.

But her schoolteacher husband Vladimir takes a more secular view of what is happening in Russia. "These are very hard times for the Russian people. Much of what we hoped for after the end of the Soviet Union has not happened. There is a lot of disillusionment and depression," he says.

"But I believe too much was promised and too much expected too quickly. We wanted change that will take a generation to take just a few years. It is natural that we were in a hurry. What we and our friends want is human dignity and happiness and the chance to make choices and decisions for ourselves. These things the Russian people have never had before.

"Despite the mistakes we have made, I believe we are moving in that direction. Now Putin must continue the process, learning from the mistakes, correcting them and going forward. That is what he can do for us and that is what he must do for us."

But where to start?

There is an exhibition touring Russia by the artist Ilya Glazunov under the title "God Save Russia". One of the works captures the chaos that is Russia now and the mess that Vladimir Putin has to deal with.

"The Market is Our Democracy" is a collage of images of Russia - masked gunmen, sinister bankers, scantily dressed whores, severed heads, crazed drug addicts and weeping children all framed in US dollar bills. The work captures the way many Russians feel about what their society has become.

It is this feeling which explains why Putin made his much discussed election campaign promise to create "a dictatorship of the law" in Russia. The promise came out of extensive electoral surveying conducted by pollsters for Putin's advisers in the Kremlin which found that the overwhelming concern of ordinary people was the breakdown of law and order in the community and the new tyranny it has created in Russia.

While Russian liberals and Western democrats fretted over the authoritarian undertones in Putin's promise and linked it to his undemocratic background in the KGB and the Russian internal security services, to ordinary Russians cowering in their apartments from the lawless society swirling beyond their front doors, it was a dictatorship with great appeal.

If Putin can just make the law work more effectively to force a higher level of compliance with the tax collection system, this would be a major step forward for Russia. Some experts say the tax office collects less than a third of the taxes that should be paid.

With more revenue collected, the Russian Government could, for instance, pay its employees a bit more than the pittance they get now - 700 roubles ($35) a month for schoolteachers and doctors, less for police officers and all well below the minimum subsistance wage. Many Russians fear that impoverished teachers and crumbling schools threaten to undermine one of the few positive legacies of the Soviet era - a very well-educated population, a resource which is one of the major potential attractions for the foreign investors Russia's economy desperately needs.

More revenue would allow the Government to pay its employees more and make bribery and extortion less necessary for survival. This, together with an overhaul of the communist-era administrative nightmare which allows only the most patient and persistent investors to bother trying to develop projects in Russia, may allow private money to start flowing into the economy.

More revenue would also pay for the maintenance of the crumbling national infrastructure. Foreign experts warn, for example, that without huge investment, Russia's decrepit national electricity grid will begin to collapse within two years, bringing further misery to the population and undermining the economy.

More revenue may see Russia pay off more of the vast debt it owes the rest of the world, like the $US400 million ($690 million at current rates) still owed to Australia for wool bought for making military uniforms before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Among the new industries just starting to sprout from the rubble of the old, bankrupt state-owned industries of the Soviet era are textile makers who would dearly like to use Australian wool.

Australian would dearly like to resume sales to Russia, once a major market and a now a potential buyer of some of the huge wool stockpile still weighing on the industry. But these companies have little capital and no finance to buy with, and Australia will not extend export credit finance to them while such a huge debt remains outstanding.

But better revenue collection in Russia must also be accompanied by more sensible spending.

The end of communism and the first flowering of democracy in Russia has not spared it from the centuries-old Russian tradition of extravagance by its political leaders while the ordinary people suffer. An early aspirant to succeed Yeltsin as president, the Moscow Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who had hoped to corner the Christian vote, commissioned a $US1 billion ($1.7 billion) Russian Orthodox cathedral on the banks of the Moskva River just downstream from the Kremlin. The project helped bankrupt the city and now stands as a world champion example of pork-barrelling.

Yeltsin ordered the spending of $US500 million on the restoration of the 19th-century Grand Kremlin Palace, the main ceremonial hall for the Russian Government. Now, a truly magnificently restored architectural gem on top of Borovitsky Hill overlooks a nation falling apart at the seams.

There is a less conspicuous but far more dangerous example of leadership delusions leading to stupid misallocation of resources, this time in the military budget. Yeltsin, who eagerly jettisoned communist ideology and rejoiced at the break-up of the Soviet Union but wanted Russia to continue to be a superpower, ordered that top priority go to developing the next generation of Russian nuclear missiles.

But the money for missiles meant there was no money for anything else in the shrinking defence budget. Not only could the generals not pay their soldiers, they could not get funds to maintain and upgrade the satellite and ground intelligence and communications systems necessary for the effective and safe operation of the nuclear defence system.

There are now dangerous defects in the command and control system of the nuclear force because of this misallocation of resources.

Meanwhile Russia's conventional forces, which will be much more important than its nuclear weapons as the greatest threat to Russia in the 21st century becomes its internal breakup rather than external attack, continue to crumble. Western military analysts - who closely observed the military campaign in Chechnya - say what they have seen are poorly trained, poorly motivated troops using aging and ineffective military equipment. Much of the weaponry and ammunition the Russian soldiers have used is up to 40 years old.

And the limited effectiveness of that has been even more limited because Russia's satellite military surveillance system has become so degraded it has been unable to provide useful information on what the Chechen rebels are doing. In the absence of reliable information, Russian commanders took the only course available - flatten everything which could be a hiding place for the enemy, hence the total destruction of Grozny.

But collecting more tax and using the revenue raised more wisely is but the tip of the iceberg of problems Putin must put his mind to. At almost every level of society there is dysfunction and decay. Property ownership is a chaotic mess and another major reason foreign investors are deeply wary.

Russia's huge agricultural sector is still held in communist-era public ownership by collective farms, a high proportion of them bankrupt or close to it. With no money for fertilisers and pesticides or even for seed, farm production is in deep decline: cattle and sheep numbers have fallen 50 per cent. Last year's grain harvest was the worst in 40 years. Russia has had to seek Western food aid to feed its population. Urgent reform of land ownership is a desperate priority for Russia.

But private ownership of agricultural land is fiercely opposed by most Russians. Having seen the plunder of the nation's other major industries when they were privatised, Russians fear the land will end up in the hands of criminals and foreigners.

The old economy in Russia is a disaster. The new economy is a distant dream for most Russians.

If the Western world is now going through a new version of the industrial revolution - the e-commerce revolution - it is bypassing Russia. Of a population of 150 million, only five million have access to the Internet. For the vast majority, computers are unaffordable. Many with computers are unable to make reliable telephone contact to the Net. The biggest single group privileged enough to have both computers and good Net access are Vladimir Putin's former work colleagues in Russia's foreign and domestic spy agencies.

So, what chance that the former spy who is about to become Russia's second post-communist era leader can make "normal" the mess of a society he has inherited?

At best, even if he is a deeply committed democrat and an economic reformer - which it is best to assume he isn't until he has proven otherwise - Putin can only hope to be the Russian leader who recognised the problems and began the process of normalising Russia. It is a task so vast it will take several presidencies to deal with, occupying Russia, and the world, well into the new century.

The best the Russian people can hope for from Vladimir Putin is that he has the ideas, the courage and the political strength to get his country on the road to normality.


I know it is a long article. It is easy to read though. Ethnographic and demographic reportage in the media has Russian population declining at a staggering rate. It's not a normal place.

Many years ago I hosted a Russian Diplomat for a few days. He arrived with a jingling blue Aeroflot travelling bag that unzipped to reveal a dozen bottles of vodka. Those days are a blur. Never did hear from him afterwards when he returned to his gulag. His name had been Igor, but maybe it wasn't.

Regards from Down Under

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), May 05, 2000

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