Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 9

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

Late summer and early autumn often bring tragic surprises for Russia. In August 1991 the State Committee for the State of Emergency staged a coup which spelled the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. In September 1993 Yeltsin issued a decree dissolving the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, resulting in tragic bloodshed and the use of tanks to disband the country’s first democratically elected legislative body. August 1998 witnessed a major financial crisis.

The year 2000 has, sadly, been no exception. A wave of tragic disasters has swept the country, causing grief and moral torture and generating a host of problems. An explosion in an underground passageway in downtown Moscow which claimed dozens of victims. The tragedy of a passenger riverboat which collided with a freighter (and which went almost unnoticed in the shadow of far greater tragedies). Fire in the Ostankino television tower–resulting in more victims, and, sensationally, the loss of television reception in Moscow for a week. And the culmination of the deadly harvest: The tragedy of the Kursk submarine–the pride of our navy, which we had thought was resurgent.

For Putin these tragedies and disasters were a bucket of cold, even frigid, water. He had enjoyed unqualified victory in the first round of the presidential elections. He had powerful support in the Duma from Unity, which had attracted–like bees round a honey-pot–all the politicians, politicos and civil servants who wanted to be closer to power, because power in Russia means more than just power: It means money too. He had tasted success in the plot against the governors, who were ejected from the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament), and had the president’s regional envoys placed over them to boot. And, most important, it looked as though economic growth had become a reality in the year 2000.

And then the disasters struck, one after another…

This was no coincidence. Before embarking on an analysis of the reasons for them, I should stress that–however painful it is to make such a prediction–our country can expect the chain of tragedies which began so terribly after the summer break to continue.

But let us look at the reasons.

The first and main reason is that the country has not yet emerged from a protracted period of decline–indeed, catastrophic decline in the true sense of the word (we lost about 50 percent of GNP and over 70 percent of investment). This decline was doubly worrying in that it was accompanied by the steady erosion of our capital assets. This entailed (and entails–it is an ongoing process) the steady obsolescence of equipment, especially in capital-intensive sectors. If we add to this the fact that in the late Brezhnev period and the years of perestroika (that is, from the late 1970s) there was little investment in renewing the infrastructure and equipment, and capital assets were steadily aging, then it transpires that the real tragedy in the country is not the recent run of disasters, but the catastrophic aging of the whole material basis for the country’s technology. The equipment and infrastructure of Russia’s highly intricate late-industrial complexes, our towns and transport systems are held together by sticky tape and the enthusiasm (yes, good old Soviet enthusiasm) of millions of workers and engineers who are prepared to do not just hard work, but truly dangerous work for a pittance (the average wage is no more than US$100, and even that is not always paid on time).

The second reason goes deeper. It is linked to the formation of a criminal-oligarchic transitional system in which semi-feudal economic relations (patronage, non-economic extortion, personal contacts and personal dependence) play a huge role; where the development of the market mainly takes the primitive, anarchic forms of 200 years ago; and where the very foundations of modern developed market economies–namely fixed rules, stable institutions and stringent quality and safety standards–are the weakest links of all. Significantly, compliance with all of these is in the bones of most citizens of developed countries–from the humblest employee to the top manager, from a clerk to the president. In Russia everything is upside-down. Chaos and confusion, the corruption and unscrupulousness of the authorities (the president has always flouted his own edicts), the criminal nature of business–all of this has created a powerful breeding ground for mass noncompliance with safety procedures, at state level, in business and in everyday life. One would have though that under these circumstances the emergency services should be the first to be revamped. Indeed, a special ministry for emergency situations has been set up (it is as though the state has officially acknowledged that emergencies are an integral part of our economic and political life). Moreover, this ministry is one of the wealthiest and best organized; it even has its own troops. And yet! The main thing that this ministry does is to organize operations to save people and material riches in times of disaster. For this it receives huge resources and spends them liberally on new equipment and so on–indeed, you cannot cut corners where people’s lives and the prestige of the state are concerned. So what’s wrong with that, you may ask. The answer is that an unholy situation is developing whereby the ministry and–more important–the businesses working for it, stand to gain from an increase in the number of disasters and emergencies: The more there are, the larger the rescue companies’ brief, investment, staff, purchases of equipment and so on…

Meanwhile, the main thing towards which efforts should ideally be directed–preventing disasters–turns out to be the hardest task of all. This is particularly difficult, not only because it carries the risk of a reduction in budget allocations, but also because here it is not a fight to save lives, but a fight to the death with our semi-feudal businesses which profit from the daily violation of all possible safety standards. Is it a coincidence that the president’s closest associate is none other than the minister for emergencies, Mr. Shoigu, who became the leader of the pro-presidential Unity movement, evidently with Putin’s blessing?

Of the series of disasters which have systematically rocked the country, two stand out: The loss of the Kursk and the fire in the television tower. The latter was particularly significant, though it did not claim many lives. (But it is inappropriate to count when deaths are involved…)

It was significant because of the great, almost hysterical haste with which the authorities rushed to restore television reception, even though there was no panic among the public on that front. So what was going on here?

I believe the main reason for such high-level attention to the fire in the TV tower is the role that television plays in the manipulation of the public consciousness. Moscow and Moscow oblast–regions of particular importance to Russia’s political establishment–were not cut off for long, but this nevertheless represented a real threat to the establishment’s influence. The journalist Fred Viar, who drew my attention to this phenomenon, also pointed out to me that when there is no television reception, the role of the press grows, and the opposition owns several major newspapers. In addition to this, under such circumstances the public have the opportunity to think for themselves and talk to friends and relations, free of the hypnotic power of the anchormen on the main channels.

Nevertheless, the main event in this chain of tragedies was, of course, the death of the sailors on the Kursk. It was this week of horror which aroused most suffering and sympathy. It was this catastrophe which provoked a storm of emotions, statements and accusations in Russia’s political circles. It was after this tragedy that Putin’s personal popularity rating fell lower than ever before (only one-third of respondents said they would vote for Putin if an election were held after the disaster).

The reasons for this are many. Of course, a tragedy of this scale is extraordinary in itself. Nevertheless, the context is extremely important here.

First, in Russia (as in most other sea powers) the navy has always been the object of special affection, pride and respect, a symbol of order, discipline and organization. Moreover, every one knew that the Kursk nuclear submarine was a model ship. It is no coincidence, incidentally, that Putin’s attempts to portray himself as the protector of the navy were linked specifically with the Kursk.

Second, when Putin came to power Russians’ hopes were raised that the prestige and capabilities of the army and navy would be restored. The general mood shifted from one of constant blanket criticism of the army and navy to one of patriotic sentiment and hope in the army as a model for the reestablishment of order and organization in the country.

Third, the disaster itself dragged on, and was accompanied by a host of additional problems: The uncertainty surrounding the actions of the president, whom everybody had thought to be a decisive leader; the failure of Russia’s rescue attempts (as it soon became clear, this again was a result of breakdown and crisis in the infrastructure, in this case the naval infrastructure); and the Norwegians’ success. On top of this came the hysterical cries of all sorts of politicians denouncing each other, and intense speculation in the media about the reasons for the disaster. And these are by no means all the circumstances surrounding the demise of the submarine.

Interestingly, with a nuclear submarine going down just off the coast of Russia, the implications for Russia’s ecology, which caused most concern in the West, troubled Russians least of all. Moral and political issues and questions of national prestige were and are paramount.

Against this background, the patriotic consciousness (and subconscious) of the Russian people–particularly (though not exclusively) old soldiers and sailors–had to find some way out of this terrible situation. And a way out was found. The press were more circumspect about it, but in private people began discussing quite openly the idea that a NATO (for which read: “American”) vessel had attacked and sunk the defenseless Kursk, whose weaponry had been removed in order not to put its own men at risk during the exercises. This version of events was extremely useful: On the one hand it provided a good explanation for the loss of the navy’s top vessel (both technically and in terms of the quality of the crew), an explanation which did not cast aspersions on the honor and heroism of the sailors; on the other hand it did not do any damage to the prestige of the navy or squander the potential of the growing patriotic mood–on the contrary, it boosted it. Moreover, this version of events was suitable for meeting the challenge of the growing wave of great-power ambitions that in recent years have become an important factor in the sociopolitical and even spiritual life of Russia. Especially as the U.S. authorities themselves reinforced these sentiments by refusing point-blank to cooperate with Russia in verifying this version of events.

The second half of the year has not begun at all auspiciously, then, for Russia, despite the beginnings of economic growth. The reverberations from the series of disasters which have shaken the country will be felt for some time to come in the hearts of ordinary people and on the political stage. Indeed, politically speaking, the shocks described above have prompted the emergence of two tendencies which until recently seemed impossible.

The first is the covert rapprochement between Zyuganov and Putin. While this cannot be said of the entire Communist Party, its leader has clearly begun moving towards a policy of critical support for the president, and it looks as though the main inspiration (but not, I trust, the reason) behind Zyuganov’s behavior was the campaign of wholesale criticism of the president in the Russian media and in the West. In these circumstances the great-power advocate Zyuganov could do no other than support the great-power advocate Putin. Basically a logical connection is made in Russia which may appear paradoxical from the outside, but which is self-evident to Russians: Anybody attacked by the Americans and the “democratic” intellectuals is “one of us”; if “they” are censuring him then he must doing good deeds for Russia.

The second tendency, though less conspicuous, is no less interesting: The intellectual leaders and image makers of the center-right pro-government forces (Gleb Pavlovsky, for one) have increasingly begun talking of a crisis in the post-Yeltsin political elite in Moscow, and of the need to get rid of it, to prevent it from hampering the president’s constructive efforts.

These are significant tendencies, are they not? Particularly in view of the increase in great-power sentiments (which, I cannot stress enough, is an absolutely crucial point). This, therefore, is no idle question: What might the dominant political line in Russia be, when economic growth is accompanied by disasters (perhaps the “enemies of the people” and their foreign stooges are to blame for everything?), and coincides with an increase in statist tendencies, where Left and Right “patriotic” forces are closing ranks and there is a “crisis” in the democratic political elite?

I do not want to offer a hasty answer to this question, but it must be asked, because it is the people who will have to pay for the mistakes of the authorities–and pay for them, as these last few months have demonstrated, in blood.

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.