Some bits and pieces about and from my book Putins folk (Putin’s people), published in 2014 in Swedish, Finnish and Esperanto. Translation from Esperanto by Trevor Steele. My second book, Krim tillhör oss (Crimea is ours), is being published in the same languages on March 18, 2015. And who am I?
Excerpts from reviews
…a continuously fascinating book, a report that increases our understanding of Russia and the Russians. / … / It is a magnificent journalistic achievement to succeed with the task Kniivilä undertakes – to describe a complex reality without passing judgment. That task is left to the reader. I thank him for that.
Ann Heberlein, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden
It is a brilliant report. Usually one learns more by listening to those who do not share one’s world view than the other way around. / … / There is one extremely serious deficiency in Kalle Kniiviläs book: it is his first. This well-written and conscientious reportage makes you realize what services he could have done for the Swedish debate on Russia, had he published a little more often.
Martin Aagård, Aftonbladet, Sweden
There exists, both in the West and in Russia, a tradition of exoticizing Russia, to the effect that the country would be particularly difficult to understand. You can find it in Churchill’s winged words ”A riddle wrapped in a mystery,” and in Tyutchev’s ”Who would grasp Russia with the mind”. In ”Putin’s people” Russia and the Russians become understandable, many of us would act the same way as they do if we were in the same situation. / … / Putin’s people is the best Swedish book on Russia for many years.
David Isaksson, Helsingborgs Dagblad, Sweden
In his new book ”Putin’s people – the silent majority of Russia” the Swedish journalist Kalle Kniivilä keeps two thoughts in his mind at the same time. Yes, it is true that the television in Russia shows the Russians what Putin wants them to see, and that the elections are characterized by cheating, but it is nevertheless a fact that Putin currently has solid support from a majority of Russians. It is this silent majority he lets speak in his reportage from Russia. /…./ Probably / … / the most important book about Russia published in a Scandinavian language this year. Kniivilä manages a difficult balancing act to show what Putin and his regime mean for ordinary Russians without becoming a Putin apologist, and gives us a solid tool to understanding contemporary Russia throughout its enormous width.
Martin Paulsen, Morgenbladet, Norway
Kniivilä’s book is one of the absolute champions of its kind. It is written very well and it gives answers to anybody who is capable and non-biased enough to accept the fact that the world can be seen in more than one way, and that a differing world view doesn’t make one morally or intellectually deficient.
Timo Vihavainen, Kanava, Finland
Excerpts from Putin’s people
A man of the people
“Most people I know are for Putin, of course. If some are against him, I don’t know about it. But we’re not really talking about that, we have other things to chat about.”
The words come from the pensioner Yevgeniya Bashurkina, whom I met in the small city of Shumerlya, 600 km east of Moscow. She is not alone – she is one of the silent majority in Russia.
At the end of December in 2013 the Russian state opinion poll institute VTsIOM announced that the people of Russia had chosen Vladimir Putin as the politician of the year. For the tenth year in a row. And after the Russian march into Crimea at the end of February, 2004, support for Putin has only increased.
His supporters see in him a strong leader. He is the man who re-established the greatness of Russia after the humiliations of the 1990’s. Putin has been the most popular politician in Russia in every poll since the first president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, handed over power to him after a tearful farewell speech on the last day of December in 1999.
After the chaotic and poverty-stricken years of the 1990’s most Russians have started living much better during Putin’s time. He guided the country through one of the most rapid growths of economic affluence in more than a century. Today all Russians pay a flat rate tax of 13% of their income. The whole tax system was simplified and the tax on profits by enterprises has been lowered. Stringent control and taxing of the valuable export of oil and gas filled the state coffers, and the enormous state debts of the 1990’s are a thing of the past. Instead, money from oil revenues is collected in reserve funds, similar to what is done in Norway, even if the Norwegian oil funds are much bigger.
In his first television speech as the provisional president of Russia on 31st December 1999 Vladimir Putin promised that he would defend the achievements of democracy and freedom of expression in Russia. That promise he has not kept. Still, it is not difficult to understand his popularity. Now there is food on the table, money in the pocket, and all sorts of goods in the more and more luxurious shops. The world has been opened up, the improved economy has made overseas trips an everyday experience for young Russians.
But the silent majority of Russians seem totally convinced that they themselves cannot influence what is happening in the country. Even the word democracy seems to have lost its significance for many of those I met in Russia in the autumn of 2013. There was “democracy” in the 1990’s, and there is no wish to go back to that; then life was poor and nasty. Now at least there is some order and discipline in the country.
In the West Putin is not popular. He strangled Russian democracy in its cradle, he recreated and strengthened the hierarchical Soviet bureaucracy, he made the security service a state within the state, he destroyed independent mass media and did not hesitate to use the legal system to imprison the most unsubmissive of the mega-entrepreneurs. In the new Russia of Putin whoever speaks too loudly of human rights and fair elections is an agent of a foreign power. ”Gay propaganda” is forbidden, and “instigation to separatism” on the web can lead to five years in prison. Websites with information on unauthorised demonstrations can be shut down without the decision of a court.
The new repressive laws came in after the great wave of demonstrations in 2012, when Vladimir Putin’s throne seemed for a short moment to be wobbling. The growing economically affluent middle class in the biggest Russian cities, most of all in Moscow, was no longer satisfied with constantly growing salaries and expensive holiday trips to Turkey. They were tired of manipulated elections that caused the lack of a genuine opposition in the Russian parliament – and they were tired of Putin who arranged a change in the constitution so he himself could hang on to power till 2024. A quarter century of Putin was more than they wanted to put up with.
The demonstrations made the chameleon Putin clearly choose sides. He understood he could no longer be simply the president of the whole people. The educated, internationally-minded middle class in Moscow was lost to him, partly because of his own successes.
And Putin turned his back on Moscow. He would not only become the president of the silent majority, he would also turn the majority against the loud-mouthed nuisances in Moscow. The absurd court spectacle against the Pussy Riot group in the summer of 2012 was the starting signal. While the liberal opposition tried to argue that a few dance moves on altar steps is not a crime that merits several years of incarceration, the regime allied itself with conservative forces in the Russian Orthodox Church. The opposition was given the role of heretics, atheists and Satanists who dance on the altar steps of Holy Russia to the allure of the Western enemy.
The anti-Western rhetoric was strengthened. Opponents, activists of the democracy movement and critical journalists are working for foreign powers, were the accusations. The popular new law against gay propaganda was skilfully used to make the opposition look like a bunch of perverted paedophiles, enemies of traditional Russian family values. In official propaganda Russia now appears as the last bastion of Christian European civilisation in battle with the powers of darkness. In his annual speech before both chambers of parliament in December 2013 Putin spoke of “neutered tolerance” and other barbaric values which western powers want to force Russia to accept. Later he quoted the Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev and said that conservatism does not want to halt the movement for progress. The goal of conservatism is to stop society’s slipping “backwards and downwards, to chaotic darkness, back to a primitive state,” Putin said.
So on his home territory the one-time communist and KGB agent Vladimir Putin has become a conservative philosopher. But that does not stop him from calling himself a liberal in the Western media and saying that he himself has no prejudices at all – indeed, he has friends who are gay. To improve Russia’s image in the West before the winter Olympics in Sochi he also arranged an amnesty for the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, the crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, and some other demonstrators who had long been held in custody for interrogation. The amnesty took effect from the end of December 2013, and simultaneously Putin surprised by releasing as well the oligarch Mikhail Khordokovski, who was imprisoned in 2003 to frighten other mega-entrepreneurs into submission.
The releases were however only a temporary interruption in the repressive development in Russia after the great wave of demonstrations in 2012. Immediately after the Olympics in Sochi Putin swapped aggressive rhetoric for aggressive actions, with Russian troops on Ukrainian territory. In domestic politics it became clearer that every sort of opposition would now be treated as treason. Some even compare the many new repressive laws with the rubber-stamp Soviet paragraph on “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” – and there are indeed similarities. However it is unfair to equate the Soviet Union with Putin’s Russia.
The Soviet Union was a closed, totalitarian society almost hermetically isolated from the external world, a country where all contacts with foreigners were dangerous, all media were censored, and owning banned books could lead to imprisonment. The Soviet Union was also an inefficient hierarchic command-economy system where private enterprise was forbidden, where shop shelves were often empty, where owning foreign currency could lead to several years in prison, and where buying and selling foreign currency was punishable by death.
Despite the overbearing role of the state in economic life, and despite the widespread corruption, the Russia of today essentially has a functioning market economy. The shelves in the shops are loaded with products. Russians can travel to other countries as much as their budgets permit, and a Visa card of a Russian bank works anywhere in the world. Political repression is selective and does not extend to the great majority.
Support for Putin had somewhat fallen from the peak of 88% just after the war in Georgia and before the acute economic crisis of autumn in 2008. In December of 2013 65% of those polled said they preferred supporting Putin to not supporting him, according to the independent polling institute Levada. But after the Russian invasion of Crimea – and an exceptionally strong flood of patriotic propaganda in the state media – the support in March 2014 grew to 72%, the highest level in several years.
For the inevitable economic consequences of the adventure in Ukraine Putin will certainly put part of the blame on the Western enemy, and no opposition politicians can threaten his dominant position. A credible alternative to Putin is utterly lacking. That is how he himself arranged the matter.
And exactly as in the West, in Russia too most people are not very interested in politics as long as they think that society is functional and that life is getting better, or at least not worse. Thanks to that silent majority Putin can sit calmly on his throne. This book is an attempt to let ordinary Russians tell why.
Daim and Nina
In Sweden the difference between centre and periphery is marginal compared with that of most other countries. In Sweden it is possible to live in the remote countryside and still have access to most of the comforts of modern society. But in Russia – here a trip from the centre to the periphery is often similar to a voyage backwards in time.
The centre of Moscow is extremely modern. The luxury cars are of the latest models, everything is spick and span. The shopping centre Atrium, right next to the enormous Soviet box known as the Kursk Railway Station, could be found just as well in New York. But the Soviet period is never far away. Just outside is the historic metro station Kurskaya, inaugurated in 1950. During the discrete de-Stalinisation of the 1960’s the statue of Stalin disappeared. Scraped away too were the sentences which honoured Stalin with letters in relief on a visible spot under the dome.
But in the summer of 2009 the station was completely rebuilt, and when the impressive structure with its enormous marble columns was re-inaugurated it was found that the mass murderer Stalin had got back the place of honour. To be honest, the statue was not visible, but the words of the old Soviet national anthem “We were raised by Stalin” were back in their old place. The press secretary of the metro, Pavel Sukharnikov, explained that the honouring of Stalin was restored to re-establish “historical justice”. A priority that says a lot, especially because the sentence removed to give space for Stalin was: Through tempests the sun of freedom shone on u…
The metro itself looks the same as ever. A severe woman in uniform is sitting in a small glass cubicle right at the bottom of the escalator and runs the show. “The official on du not answer enquiries,” a sign on her booth tells us. The trains in this, one of the world’s biggest underground systems, come and go in intervals of two minutes. In all there are more than 300 kilometres of tunnel with 188 stations, many of them monumental structures from the time of Stalin. It is not very surprising that the metro has inspired a whole series of books, films, and computer games based on the idea of a future in which the last human beings after a nuclear attack have survived in the Moscow metro, where they have founded mini-states. In the book Metro 2033 by Dmitri Glukhovski, the stations on the 19 kilometre ring line have set up a flourishing commercial alliance which controls the exchange of products between the crossing lines.
I travel along the circular line backwards in time in the direction of the suburbs. I change to the grey line, go one more station, and take the escalator up to Savyolovski Station. I am not alone; it is crowded in the pedestrian tunnel even though it is Sunday morning.
Here, at the station for local trains, there is an enormous bazaar of electronic equipment, a hundred shops with computers and accessories. But not everything is what it seems at first. A closer look reveals that some of the telephones in the display windows are simply copies of better known brands. The false telephones have long since disappeared from the shop in the centre, and the dark café with dusty lace curtains seems to date from a decade ago.
I buy a return ticket to Beskudnikovo at the modern automat with its touch screen, and walk onto the platform. Here modern Moscow comes to an end. The dark green local train looks almost just as it did in the Soviet period.
Beskudnikovo is not formally a suburb because it is situated inside the ring road around Moscow. It is one of the big Soviet residential districts that began construction in the 1970’s, approximately ten kilometres north of the city centre, between two metro lines. Because you have to get to it by local train rather than by the metro, the flats here are not as popular as those close to the metro stations, but it is not a bad residential area. In the presidential elections of 2012 almost every second inhabitant of this place voted for Putin – a little less than the average result in Moscow, but clearly below the result over the whole country.
Nevertheless I find I am on the periphery. Here the retention doors made of stainless steel on the passenger platform are missing. Here nothing at all is polished. The asphalted platform is uneven, the steps of the cement stairway are of unequal height, and at the exit from the station’s surrounds I am stopped by a whole lake of muddy water. I follow the flow of local people who, stepping skilfully, navigate their way across a couple of half-rotten wooden planks placed at each end of the lake so you can reach the other bank with dry shoes. In the middle of the provisional bridge you have to wait your turn, because there is one single stone onto which you have to hop, and there is traffic in both directions.
Many of the buildings are identical, grey Soviet 14-storey blocks of flats made of quadrangular panels of cement produced in a factory. The addresses do not follow any system I know of, but finally I find the right yard and notice that despite everything I am not in the 1990’s. Indeed, there are well looked after flowers among the trees. Nobody had time to look after such things in the years of crisis. And near the doors to the street a couple of cars are parked. Not luxury cars, but also not rusty Soviet rundowns such as you could expect in the 90’s. They are quite good middle-class cars with foreign brands that have been used for a few years, and here and there a cheaper Russian car.
The shops here belong to other, cheaper chains than those in the centre. The supermarket Kopeyka has taken over the role of the Soviet foodshop in the flat cement box of the type you could find in every Soviet suburb in the 1970’s. Next to it is the FixPrice shop which promises that all of its wares cost 38 roubles, less than one euro. On a small asphalted area near the shop-box a market with small stands is functioning: fruits, vegetables, gardening tools and seeds for the little garden patch. The signs tell the story: there is a three-day market on the occasion of the Day of the City being celebrated this weekend.
At one of the stands there is a blonde woman a little over middle-aged. She is selling bath towels and bed linen from Smolensk. At least, that is written on the sign. Has she really travelled to this miniature market from Smolensk on the border with Belarus? 400 kilometres, and the same distance back? For three days – can that really be profitable?
“We have no work in Smolensk, so we have to think up something. No, no company sent me, I travelled here at my own risk. Sometimes you succeed in making a bit of money. This time has not been very successful, the first two days it rained and almost nobody came to buy.”
According to official statistics unemployment in Smolensk is below the average in Russia. The problem is that the wages are very low. It is hard to find work that you can live decently on. And not everybody thinks it is worthwhile to be registered as unemployed to receive the dole, because in a bad case it is only 850 roubles a month – less than 20 euros.
However, my task here is not to meet the woman from Smolensk, but a pensioned couple who voted for Putin, Nina and Daim. I press the button and the wobbly Soviet lift raises me to the 14th floor. From the balcony a view opens up to the east and the railway line, where a long cargo train consisting of blue and orange tank wagons is standing in waiting for further transport. On the other side of the railway line the tall white blocks of flats of the newer city section Altufyevo is glistening; it got its own metro station in 1994, the most northerly metro station in Moscow.
I have rung at the main door to be allowed to enter, and when I reach the correct floor Daim Gubaidulin is already standing on the stairway waiting for me. A smiling, thin man aged 65. His wife Nina is standing in the little hallway of the flat and straight away gives me slippers, as is the Russian custom. The modest-sized three-room flat is very orderly. With walls and furniture in darkish colours. Through the window in the little living room you can see the television tower in Ostankino, halfway to the city centre. On a little desk at the wall there is a computer with a modern, flat screen. Daim has opened the article about Mikhail Gorbachov in the Russian-language Wikipedia.
“We usually drink coffee more or less at this time, I hope that will do,” says Nina. And she ignites the gas under the coffee pot which has a large diameter below but smaller above, and it has a long handle on the Soviet model. We will get coffee prepared in the Russian way, something between Turkish coffee with sludge in the bottom of the cup, and an old-fashioned Nordic coffee from the period before filter papers were invented.
When we are sitting around the small kitchen table I mention Gorbachov.
“That fellow, yes. He could talk, that he could do. But later it turned out that that was the only thing he could do,” says Daim.
Daim was born and grew up in Moscow, but he is a Tartar, so his name does not sound totally Russian. He and Nina met the first time in the first school class in 1956. Then they both lived in Maryino near Savyolovski Station. In higher classes they went to different schools, but later, in the ninth class, they met again.
“We got married in 1971, the last year in the tertiary institution. That’s fate,” says Nina, and laughs.
“But we met a lot in the year before that,” says Daim, and smiles.
It is obvious the two of them get on well together. It is homely to sit in the small kitchen and talk as though we were old friends, although we have never met before.
I brought with me a fresh tart with apricots bought in the little sweets shop at Savyolovski Station. We eat more than half of it while Daim and Nina tell about their lives. Just like many others they feel bitterness towards politicians who are responsible for the fact that the country they grew up in no longer exists. The chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union forced both of them to abandon their jobs as engineers. They never again got work that was in keeping with their tertiary exam results. But when Putin took over at least some order was restored to things, Daim says.
In 1974 the family moved into the three-room flat in Beskudnikovo, where they are still living. Then they were five persons in the three rooms. Nina’s parents received the flat from the factory where the father worked for many years. By themselves they would have no chance of getting their own flat, says Daim.
“We were ‘young specialists’, as people said then, we had been working for only two years. Our son was then just one year old. We lived in a one-room flat with an area of 24 square metres, so at first this place looked very big, like an airport, although we were five people.”
In the 1980’s Daim’s mother got ill, and after a lot of trouble they succeeded in swapping her flat in another part of Moscow for a flat on the 10th floor of the block where Daim and Nina were in Beskudnikovo, so that it was easier to look after her. When Daim’s mother died in 1988 Nina’s parents moved into that flat. Only then did Daim and Nina have the whole three-room flat to themselves and their two children. That was also the last year when life was as usual, Nina tells me.
“Then we had been working for more than ten years as engineers. We started to earn a bit more money. Yes, it was a period of stagnation, as they say, but everything was stable. In the shops you could buy all you needed. Of course the goods for sale were not like those today, but there were no serious problems of lack of goods. Compared with other cities, we in Moscow were doing well.
Daim wants to add a little anecdote from the Soviet period: “Do you know what is long and green and smells of sausage … Hah, you’ve already heard, the train from Moscow. Yes, everything was on sale in Moscow, and in St. Petersburg. Or Leningrad, as it was called then.”
In smaller cities the shop shelves were empty as early as the beginning of the 1980’s, and many things could be bought only with coupons. At the end of the 80’s coupons were introduced in Leningrad, and finally the limits to buying were extended to Moscow. But that was not really serious, says Nina.
“The coupons applied to some special goods, if you wanted to buy something special. Basic goods were always available. But when perestoika started everything changed. Although that raised big hopes at the start, when Gorbachov took over, he was young and energetic, and he spoke … But afterwards the country fell to pieces.”
“That was the worst thing of all,” Daim adds.
“When we were young, all of those people that are now called immigrants, all the Tajiks, Uzbeks, all of them were people from my own country. It’s really a shame that they now live much worse than we do. They’ve got no work. So they leave their homes, their families, and come here, they do that to get work and earn money.”
In Moscow there are now hundreds of thousands of guest workers from former Soviet republics in Central Asia. The economies of their homelands collapsed, and for many the only way of supporting their families is to come to Russia and take any work at all, legally or illegally. Nina can easily recognise their situation. She herself was forced to leave her engineering job after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
“I stayed there for a few years, but they didn’t pay my salary, or they paid just a part of it, perhaps one month’s salary every third month. And the children were already grown up, they had to start their studies. Finally I accepted work as a cleaner. There I worked for two years, later I found a position in the municipal old age care, there the pay was a bit better. There I worked till I retired.”
Daim was a specialist in metallic alloys and had a well-paid position in a research institute. But at the start of the 1990’s there was no money at all for the sciences. Many researchers left the country, others tried to adapt to the new system as entrepreneurs or took any job at all if they found one. Daim wanted to make use of his engineering knowledge, so he accepted a position in a factory even though it was not especially well paid.
“I left the institute in 1992, and then I thought the matter through thoroughly. I knew that at least at the start I would not earn very much in the new job, but it was in a factory dealing with hard metals. Industry cannot make do without hard metals that are needed for various cutting instruments, I thought – so this factory will survive. But I got that wrong, because obviously our country had no need for industry. So that factory was closed down too. Sandvik bought it then closed down the factory; why should they need competition? If we need hard-metal instruments we can buy them in Sweden.”
When the factory closed Daim was bored with all the problems there, so he changed to another job in as small sausage factory. Because everyone has to eat, he thought. There he set up and looked after the machinery for a few years until that work too disappeared.
“Those finance people concluded that the factory was not needed. Then I was unemployed for a while. I got registered as a work seeker, but the support they paid was so small that it wasn’t even enough for bus tickets to the labour exchange, so I walked there. Later I worked for a few years as a supervisor of measuring apparatus in the purchase centre nearby, but when I turned 63 they didn’t want to have me any longer, and I became a pensioner.”
Daim fell silent for a moment to think things through, and remembered the time before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the best period in his working life.
“I never again met anywhere at all as many well educated, pleasant, orderly people as in the research institute. Businessmen are of a different type. But that’s how it is: none of us had work fitting our education after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But now at least there are not constant abrupt changes of direction.”
“Yes, after the crisis of 1998, and after Putin took over power, then things started to get more stable. But only a little,” says Nina.
When the rule of the Communist Party finished and the whole Soviet Union fell, that also meant that the rules of the whole society disappeared. What had been valid for decades was no longer valid; what would take the place of the old rules? The state no longer decided what was to be produced, how much it should cost, and to whom it should be sold. Legislation was lagging behind, and negotiations with a commercial character decided what was for the moment permitted or not. When the great Soviet project collapsed many felt that only money and possessions represented something constant, and soon everything had its price. In the Soviet Union all private enterprise was forbidden. Now the definition of the dividing line between legal enterprise and organised crime became a question of interpretation, where most often the person with more money was the winner.
Even in politics all of the rules disappeared. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many people in power were afraid that Russia too would collapse. That fear has not disappeared, and is constantly exploited in the propaganda about external enemies.
If we look back from the present it is easy to conclude that it would have been natural after the collapse of the Soviet Union for its leaders to immediately arrange new elections and try to do a rapid overhaul of the Soviet Russian political system. But the masters of Soviet Russia, with Boris Yeltsin at the top, were afraid of instability. So they declared not new elections, but a provisional halt to elections at all levels. Instead of working out new rules for society by a democratic procedure, they wanted to hang on to the current state of affairs at any price. The Russian “parliament”, the Supreme Soviet, which had been elected according to Soviet laws and regulations, stayed untouched. The Supreme Soviet gave Boris Yeltsin extraordinary power. By the end of 1992 he was in practice simultaneously the president and the prime minister, he was given the right to appoint and sack as he saw fit not only ministers but also regional governors. He also had the right to issue decrees independently that had the force of law.
Apart from the fear of instability and separatism there was another reason why Yeltsin and his cronies wanted to delay all elections: there was the risk that they could lose. Boris Yeltsin himself was extremely popular after his opposition to the failed putsch of 1991, and he could easily have been re-elected as president. But there was no established party system, and the only thing that held together the different groups of Russian men of power around Yeltsin was the battle against the constantly weakening Soviet central government. When finally the Soviet system fell to pieces the group had little in common – except the power that they had and others did not. So why should they give away power and risk everything in elections whose result nobody could foresee?
But you cannot stop all the clocks. In December 1992 the end came to the extraordinary rights of Boris Yeltsin to make decisions, and the old quarrelsome Soviet Russian parliament wanted to make its own voice heard. In the meantime support for Yeltsin had shrunk. Many conservative parliamentarians had long been complaining of the shock-therapy economic policies of the government and about privatisation which, according to the vain hopes of the young radical reformers in Yeltsin’s team, would soon have the country’s economy functioning well. Yeltsin did not give in, the parliament tried to sack him, and the conflict was finally solved in the way that had started to become more the rule than the exception in Russia: power gave rights.
In October 1993 Yeltsin sent a detachment of tanks that shot up the rebellious parliament building. At least a hundred people were killed in the conflict, many of them ordinary, curious Muscovites who could not understand that a war was going on in the centre of the capital.
Those who had led the parliamentary rebellion were imprisoned, and following instructions from Yeltsin a new constitution was written which greatly limited the rights of the parliament. When the repairs to the White House on the River Moscow were finished, it was not the new parliament, the state Duma, that was invited to function in the luxurious building. The imposing structure on the river became instead the new residence of the government. The Duma had to be content with a more anonymous building of the cancelled Soviet planning authority Gosplan, between the Kremlin and the Bolshoi Theatre. The foundation of the new order had been set up: the parliament was to act as ordered.
Vladimir Putin in his time of power has developed the concept, filling the parliament with obedient parties of yes-men who are an opposition only in name. But Boris Yeltsin had already chosen the direction and started to manipulate the rules of the game so he could hang on to power. It is possible he did that with the best intentions – but the result stands.
When parliament was mostly robbed of power and outside the loop, Yeltsin’s government could in principle get approval for any decision at all. But in the meantime another problem had arisen. The regional leaders did exactly the same as Yeltsin. There was talk of a war of laws: the central government and the regional ones were throwing law paragraphs at each other and quarrelling on who had the right to decide what. And above all: who had the right to tax revenues. The old administrative system was no longer functional when its spine, the Communist Party, was missing. There was no new system, the state had no money to distribute, and the only way for Yeltsin to steer the country and realise any of his decisions was to compromise with regional leaders and oligarchs – or to play them off against each other. The Russian state became an impenetrable jungle of groups, intrigues, agreements, and conspiracies that coalesced in such a way that nobody could understand what was happening.
Aleksandr, whom I met at Preobrazhenskaya Ploshchad, was of the opinion that Putin was in fact continuing in the direction indicated by Yeltsin – and he is right, perhaps more than he himself understands. It was indeed Yeltsin and his cronies who decided to ignore ideas on trying to create functioning democratic institutions and instead arranged things so that the holders of power could not be dethroned. Putin only oiled the machine with money and started to use it at its full potential. He no longer has to come to agreements with regional leaders or oligarchs, all of them march in step to receive their bit of the oil money and not to lose their place in the re-created hierarchy.
“Since Putin took over power we have had in any case some stability,” Nina says at the kitchen table.
The mantra of stability is repeated by almost all the people I meet in Russia. One explanation is that “stability” is a central concept in state propaganda that aims at constantly reminding the Russians how bad everything was before Putin took over. But it is also true that the Putin era did in fact bring about some sort of return to normality after the chaos of the 1990’s.
“In those years an enormous inequality came about in society. That privatisation made some people enormously rich and totally blind to others in our society. But now it’s possible to create some order,” says Nina.
“That started in Yeltsin’s time. That was when Gaidar was the minister for finance, he brought about the destruction. But we too took part and voted for Yeltsin in those days. As they were saying, ‘Vote so you won’t lose!’” Daim remembers.
That was Yeltsin’s slogan when he was again a candidate in the presidential election of 1996. When the election campaign started his support in the polls was in the single figures, and most people thought the Communist boss Gennadi Zyuganov would win the election hands down. In a World Economic Forum in Davos he was received as the future president of Russia. But that prospect frightened the Russian oligarchs, who were afraid their possessions would be nationalised once more. They put aside their internal squabbles and worked to have Yeltsin re-elected. With the help of mountains of money, tailored news broadcasts in all TV channels, American experts on election campaigns, and ads showing the empty shop shelves of the Soviet era, the alliance of oligarchs together with all the journalists, who also did not want to go back to the time of the Communists, succeeded in turning opinions around. Yeltsin was re-elected in the second ballot with 54% of the votes against 40% for Zyuganov.
Yeltsin received help from so-called administrative means – the power and the finances of the state were used to convince the voters that they had to support the reigning president, and there is evidence of wide scale fraud in favour of Yeltsin in some parts of the country, even though it is not clear how much that influenced the overall result. In that regard too Vladimir Putin went further in the direction shown by Boris Yeltsin.
During the election campaign Yeltsin suffered a severe heart attack, and after the election he was hospitalised for a major heart operation. He was never to recover fully. Over his last three years he was a weak president, more and more manipulated by the people around him. A major reason for Putin’s popularity after the handing over of power at the start of the new millennium was that the country had a leader who was capable of standing steadily and speaking clearly, a leader you did not have to be ashamed of.
“At that time there was on the ballot paper a square with the indication ‘against all of them’. You could vote against all, that was a good square,” says Nina.
“But when Putin appeared, then it wasn’t necessary to vote against everybody. Of course we voted for Putin. You see, that Yeltsin … we had him up to here,” says Daim, and raises his hand up to his neck. “No, what was that, he landed in Scotland but couldn’t get out of the plane, that hopeless drunkard. The first president of Russia, they said, you should be proud of him …”
“But now the last time we actually didn’t vote for Putin,” Nina says suddenly. “We knew of course that he’d win anyway, so we wanted to show that not everybody votes for him. Instead we voted for Fair Russia.”
That everything could suddenly fall to pieces again is a thought that many Russians carry secretly in their heads at least since 2008, when the world economic crisis made the price of crude oil crash from $145 to $35 a barrel. At that time the crisis was of short duration and the money collected during the good years by the risk-shy finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, despite protests from the rest of the government, was enough to keep the economy functioning. But despite the fine words about modernisation and diversification in recent years Russian remains completely dependent on the export of oil and gas, and so on the world’s economic situation.
“However, there is a difference between then and now,” says Daim. “The people who held power then were concerned only with their own pockets. You can’t say they’re totally ignoring their own pockets now, but at least you can see some movement in the right direction, towards strengthening the state. In those days there was nothing like that, only a total catastrophe everywhere.”
In Putin’s time the state has started using more funds to defend itself. That was the first thing Daim mentioned when I asked what, concretely, had got better.
“But they should invest even more in the defence industry. Without industry the army is of little value.”
“Defence is important, because many people want to do bad things to Russia,” he says. “But primarily the threats are economic, not military,” he adds.
“Maybe everybody will change over to shale oil, and the prices will collapse. The big Western companies can do that just to cause damage to Russia. They’re not worried about the state of the ecology in other countries.”
It took a while, but finally we have come to the point where all political discussions sooner or later arrive at: conspiracy theories and a fundamental conviction that that essentially malicious forces in the West are behind many of Russia’s problems.
“If in spite of local protests there’s a search for shale oil in Poland, in whose interests could that be?” asks Daim. And despite his healthy scepticism about the powerful people whose main aim it to get rich, he suddenly sounds like a newsreader in Russian state television.
“If we think logically, Poland sees Russia as its enemy. And Poland is an ally of Britain. Britain and the US are together, and what is their attitude to Russia? In any case they are certainly not friends. Obviously there will not be a military attack, but the US can use production of shale oil against Russia. If they succeed in pushing down the price of oil, you never know what can happen. They succeeded in overthrowing the Soviet Union, maybe something will happen to Russia too? They don’t want a great Russia like this one. Japan wants to have the Far East, China wants to have middle Siberia, and what’s left over they can chop into little bits.”
For some reason Britain, of all countries, always has a role in Russian reasoning of that type, even though that country has for a long time no longer been a superpower. One possible explanation is that in the time of the Tsars and the conflicts in Central Asia Britain was perceived as one of the several eternal enemies of Russia. Another explanation is that Britain has given asylum to several of the most acrid critics of Putin, among them the oligarch Boris Berezovski, who hanged himself in the bathroom in 2013, and the former FSB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was murdered in November 2006 in London by radioactive polonium in a cup of tea.
Britain is also where perhaps the man most hated by the Kremlin is living: the risk capitalist William Browder, whose account auditor Sergei Magnitski was tortured to death in a Russian prison in November 2009 after he had revealed a wide network of corruption and links high up with the men in power. After a long campaign Browder succeeded in persuading the US to bar entry to several Russian officials suspected of being implicated in the death of Magnitski, and similar barriers to entry were discussed in many EU countries. As well, the US made possible the confiscation of assets belonging to any of the suspected officials.
Despite the official anti-Western rhetoric a large section of the Russian power elite has close links with the West. In the West they find a safe harbour for the money with which the system fills their pockets; there they buy property and there they have their children educated. Hence the Russian elite does not want to have a complete conflict with the West, and so the European Union, for example, can have some influence on the conduct of the Russian elite – as long as the discussions take place discretely, behind closed doors. But for the same reason Browder’s campaign was so hated by the elite, who are used to immunity against all legal threats as long as they keep good relations with their superiors.
But in the small Moscow suburb Beskudnikovo Daim had come to the conclusion that the malicious West would still really prefer to tear Russia to pieces once more.
“Russia hasn’t yet armed itself well, but now at least the men of power are trying to strengthen the army and the defence industry. A little bit, at least. So then nobody can do anything against us by military means, but that is possible economically if they push down the price of oil. And how is that done? Yes, by shale oil!”
Nina does not seem to be so convinced of the great conspiracy against Russia. At first she sits silently while he is getting fired up by his own reasoning. Afterwards she reminds him that their daughter is fond of going as a tourist to the West.
“She likes Sweden very much, she usually goes there for holidays, through Finland by ferry. Yes, it’s good that we can travel to other countries, isn’t it? In winter they fly to Italy to ski, in summer they go to Sweden. Life’s getting more interesting.”
But Daim does not want to be drawn away from his reasoning. “That’s why they don’t like Russians in the West, because all the bandits and other bastards go to all the luxury spots and spend a fortune. They’re so rich they can go anywhere. Well yes, that’s how it was in the 1990’s, now it’s different, others can travel, but people remember what happened then. I believe the majority in the West have an unfavourable picture of Russians.”
“Not in eastern Finland, anyhow,” I object, “there everyone is happy about the Russians who go across the border to shop. There more and more shops are hiring Russian-language staff and putting up signs in Russian. I do not mention the somewhat marginal campaign against Russian buyers of summer houses in eastern Finland and the T-shirts with the text This country is not for sale. But the summer cottages do show up.
“We know a woman who bought a summer cottage in Finland. They are always going there. But she’s a real linguistic genius, she’s an interpreter,” says Nina.
Buying a cottage in Finland was not something they could dream about in the Soviet era. At the best Soviet citizens had a chance to participate in a group trip to Finland after an interview by party people, and under the control of a trusted group leader who made sure the group members did not miss out on the obligatory visit to the Lenin Museum in Tampere, nor try to establish unsuitable contacts with local people. Whoever did not obey the rules and orders could expect, on return, a ban on further foreign travel, and other consequences.
Now is a different era.
Nina pours yet another cup of coffee. The coffee is tasty. Life is indeed better than it was in the 1990’s, but inequality is greater now than in the Soviet time, Nina and Daim agree on that. And perhaps Putin is already boring them, but at least they know what they have. And there is nobody else, is there?
Renat and Galina
Five years have passed since I met Galina and Renat the first time. Then they had one child, two-year-old Andrei. They were living in a small flat they borrowed from a relative, and were very happy about the new computer they were buying in instalments.
Now Andrei has turned seven and has a little sister, Ania, who is two. The family is living in a spaciou three-room flat of their own on the fifth floor of a Soviet apartment block built in the 1980’s. They can thank Putin’s family policy for that.
“We got a state subsidy of 600,000 roubles to buy the flat, that covered almost half of the costs. It’s a subsidy under the aid program called Young Family. We hoped to get it earlier, but there were many in the queue. In December 2012 we got the money. At that time we were already living here; we agreed with the previous owner that we had the right to rent the flat until we received the subsidy,” Renat explains.
He is a bit tubby and very happy, just as he was the last time I met him. Even then the family planned to buy a flat. And just as then, Galina had made pancakes.
“I remembered that, so I wanted to do the same thing this time,” she says. “But time was a bit short, they’re not quite as good today. You’ll have to come again,” she says.
Renat has made tea. “But it’s not real tea,” he points out while pouring. “It’s black currant leaves with a bit of mint. We like it, we scarcely drink anything else.”
Andrei and Ania eat their pancakes; later they sit in the high armchair in front of the computer to watch an animated film.
“Yes, right, it’s the same computer. But the instalment payment we completed long ago,” says Galina.
The subsidy that young families can get to buy a flat can cover at most 40% of the price. The married couple that asks for the subsidy can be no older than 35 years, and the flat can have a maximum living area of 42 square metres. But for each child the area allowed is increased. The three-room, 68 square metre flat of Renat and Galina cost approximately €34, 000, and the state subsidy was €13,000.
“That’s really great. And it’s not the only subsidy we’re allowed. In addition there’s the child endowment, it’s more than 400,000 roubles. We haven’t yet taken it out, we’ll save it up. We can use it for my pension, or for the education of our children after their schooldays, or to buy a bigger flat,” Galina explains.
Child endowment is paid after the second child. If Renat and Galina had a third child they would be entitled to a further subsidy of 408,000 roubles, equal to about €8,500. And the child endowment and the subsidy for the first-owner flat for young families are parts of Putin’s family policy aimed at halting the fall in population. The birth rate in Russia collapsed after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and simultaneously the average life expectancy fell. The catastrophic economic situation and the uncertainty about the future discouraged many from planning to have children. At the same time many began to have health problems or simple drank themselves to death. In the worst years the average life expectancy for men in Russia was under 58 years, while the official pension age was still 60.
In Sweden the average life expectancy has risen more or less unbroken since the1860’s. It reached 60 years for both men and women by the end of the 1920’s, and is now at 84 for women and 80 for men.
After the middle of the 1990’s, when the Russian economy again started to function somewhat, the average life expectancy rose a little, only to crash again after the sovereign default of 1998, which made many unemployed and made savings lose a big part of their value – or disappear altogether if by chance the money was in a bank that went broke. No state guarantee for private savings existed in Russia at that time.
Between 1992 and 2003 the population of Russia in total fell by 3.5 million because of the shrunken number of births and early mortality. As well, during the first decade of the 21st century the population fell further although the strengthened economy caused a drop in emigration and a rise in immigration from the former Soviet republics, especially from Central Asia. But from 2005 on the average life expectancy is rising again, even if it is still only 62 years for men and 74 for women. After 2010 the population too somewhat increased, even though it is still smaller than in the last years of the Soviet era. In any case much has changed in a positive direction in Russia, and that is principally the merit of Vladimir Putin, in Renat’s opinion.
“Of course I support Putin. Certainly somebody else could guide the country just as well as he does, but then it would take time for reorientation.”
Galina has the same opinion.
“Smash the system and then construct something new, that always demands time, we have seen that.”
“Precisely. The history of Russia has shown that it’s easy to break things. But now we have something that functions in stability. Even during the world economic crisis of a few years ago everybody got a salary. We got a flat and everything we need,” says Renat.
“It’s not strange at all that Putin receives the majority of the votes – so many people like him,” says Galina. She herself works in the school system and was a systems administrator for the computer system during the last presidential election. “Nobody tampered with the figures, they’re genuine,” she says.
“There are some who speak of a mess in the elections, but I can’t understand how that could happen. We enter the figures in the computer system, and after that it is quite impossible to manipulate them, I can guarantee that,” she says.
When frauds were discovered in the elections in Russia, it was always a case of manipulation of the result before it was registered in the computer system. But despite the screw-ups it is clear that Vladimir Putin did in fact receive more than half of the votes posted in the last presidential election of 2012.
In Shurmerlya, according to official figures, 58% of the electors voted for Putin, in the countryside around Shumerlya as many as 68%. And the result could be repeated in the next election in 2018 if Putin is a candidate. At least Renat intends to vote for him again.
“As far as I’m concerned he could have a fourth period in office.”
Galina says that in principle she could vote for some other candidate in 2018.
“But only if a candidate appears who really is better than he is. Those candidates we had in past elections, they were just a nightmare. That Prokhorov who wanted to introduce a twelve-hour working day and not pay pensions, you can’t vote for a person like that.”
The immensely rich entrepreneur Mikhail Prokhorov, the only approximately independent candidate in the presidential election of 2012, got 4% of the votes in Shumerlya. In Moscow he got over 20%. Neither a twelve-hour working day nor a cancellation of pensions were a part of his electoral platform, even though he had earlier proposed that those who wanted to could work twelve hours a day. But he could not explain that in the national media which were filled before the elections with Putin’s propaganda about the importance of stability and the risk of falling back into the chaos of the 1990’s if anybody else were to take over.
Renat tells me how he remembers the time after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I was only ten, but I remember well. My mother worked in a factory making car bodies, but she didn’t get her salary. My father was a builder, but he couldn’t find any work at all, nothing was being built then. We planted potatoes and lived on them.”
Galina’s parents also worked in the chassis factory.
“My father was a chauffeur, that was a good job. Chauffeurs are always needed, and even if he didn’t get his salary he did get food. My mother worked as a seamstress, she got no salary but she stayed in the factory, and later they started to pay the salary by coupons instead of money. The coupons were called zakharchiki because the director was named Zakharov. With the coupons you could get food which the factory got by exchange. That was my father’s work, they filled up a truck with chairs or something else, and he would drive somewhere and find someone who was ready to swap the chairs for macaroni.
The type of work Galina’s father had at the start of the 1990’s may sound strange, but he was certainly not the only one with such a job. When the Soviet planned economy ceased to function the bosses of the state-owned factories did not know what to do. They had no experience of the market economy. How could they receive crude materials to be processed if the state planning office was no longer sending instructions to all of the suppliers? What should they do with the finished products? And how were they to pay the staff’s salaries if they scarcely had any income but were nevertheless drowning in debts for delivery of raw materials which in the Soviet period cost next to nothing?
For some years a large part of the Russian population was almost outside the money economy. If salaries were not paid, you did not pay the rent. To have food you grew potatoes on your little plot. You exchanged services. Those who could see no other solution sold their possessions. Pensions were being paid, but they had no value at all, and the crazy inflation ate into everybody’s savings. In the winter of 1992, when the prices of foodstuffs were no longer fixed, a common sight on Moscow streets was pensioners trying to sell their most expensive teacups.
The factories did what the people did. They did not pay their bills because there was no money. If in spite of the problems you succeeded in making something the goods were unsaleable because nobody had any money. Instead you swapped with other enterprises to have something needed for production. But exchange is an inefficient and very laborious way of making an economy function. The enterprises that did not succeed in finding a niche for themselves in the new market economy were beset with bigger problems, and when the situation in the bigger cities finally started to stabilise somewhat, the workers in the chassis factory in Shumerlya no longer accepted the non-payment of salaries. Galina tells the story:
“For about two years the factory carried on about those food coupons. Finally the people started going away from here to Moscow and other places to find work. It happened that parents left their children with neighbours and drove off to earn money, that was quite terrible. I was then working in a school and went about with a school social worker to check if there was anything at home for the children to eat. We took pains to contact the absent parents and tell them they should return and look after the children, or else they would lose their parental rights. And many returned. In about 2000 the situation started to improve. Now that problem doesn’t exist at all, rather it’s the opposite, the children are being spoiled.”
Renat wants to tell how things were in the 1990’s when his father could not find building work.
“For example this flat; the people who lived here before, they also worked in the chassis factory. I think she was the chief saleswoman, I don’t remember what he did, but he was in the factory too. And in the 90’s they gave up here, they went off north, to Novi Urengoi, where Gazprom has major installations, to get work. Now they’ve bought a flat there, so they sold this one. And this block of flat is the last one the chassis factory built for its employees, it was finished in 1983. After that there was a long period when nothing at all was built. But see how things look now! New houses are being built wherever you look, old dilapidated houses are being pulled down, and the people who lived here are getting new flats.”
But life is not perfectly ideal, even under the rule of Putin.
“It’s clear that in Russia we’re such that however much we have, we want more. And there’s one torment in Russia that nobody can do anything about, not even Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. It’s the firms that look after houses. We don’t have hot water though we pay all our bills. Those firms took the money, and whatever happens to it later nobody knows. So the gas company is discontent, and we don’t get hot water.”
Galina agrees that it is difficult to be without hot water during the part of the year when there is no heating. But it is good that there is the new swimming hall, and there hot water can be had too.
Note by the Author
I grew up in the most easterly part of Finland, and as a child I sometimes wondered what was on the other side of the border, where the world seemed to come to an end. At one place the road from Helsinki passed so close that tall watchtowers could be seen, and that was all. If you turned your radio to middle wave you heard mostly Russian. On the shortwaves you could clearly hear the Finnish broadcasts from the BBC in London.
When the program finished it was time for the Russian language broadcast, but thirty seconds later the Soviet jamming was switched on and everything was drowned in a cacophony – not that I would in any case have understood anything.
During the class trip of our sixth school year to Leningrad in 1978 we saw that behind the border there was a different reality. Two years later I started to study Russian, I even took part in a language camp to meet for the first time somebody from the other side of the border. But the Soviet student sdid not receive permission to exit their country.
I continued my study of the Russian language and the social structure of eastern Europe at the University of Lund in Sweden, and after an autumn semester at the University of Leningrad in 1989 I could not only speak Russian fluently, but as well I had some practical experience of how Soviet society functioned.
The collapse of the Soviet Union I experienced at close hand as the Moscow correspondent of the leftwing Finnish journal Kansan Uutiset in 1991and 1992. Since then the development of technology has made it more and more easy to follow events even from a distance, and in recent years as a journalist of the south Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan I have had the chance to undertake several journalistic trips in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Excerpt from the book Putins folk (Putin’s people) by Kalle Kniivilä, translated by Trevor Steele.