The Problems With Putinism

Its adverse effects on Russia’s would-be middle class.

My friend Nikita was looking drawn and tired the last time I saw him in Moscow. He’s a historian, but he doesn’t have much time for archives these days. Instead, most of his energy is devoted to fighting the Moscow city authorities who want the inhabitants of his state-owned apartment building to move out, presumably to sell the building to developers. He’s willing to leave the apartment he’s lived in for decades, but the law requires the authorities to find him a new apartment in the same part of central Moscow. None were forthcoming.

Some of the tenants were giving up, even drifting out of town. Nikita believes in enforcing the rule of law, however, so he had organized the remaining tenants to fight for their rights. The result: a rash of broken windows and a few break-ins. This, I repeat, is a state-owned building.

On the same day that Nikita told me about his apartment troubles, I heard another story from another friend in Moscow, Alla. Her previously healthy son had recently suffered a heart attack, following a terrible ordeal: His girlfriend, a bank manager, had been kidnapped. He had spent months negotiating her release—the police hardly helped—and the strain became too much for him. He died in his 30s, with no previous history of heart disease. Unlike Nikita, Alla no longer believes in the utility of law at all.

But Nikita and Alla weren’t unique, either. During this week I spent in Moscow, I heard a dozen more horror stories: My friends, their children, and their acquaintances all seemed to have suffered recently from freak accidents, tangles with Kafka-esque bureaucracy, major swindles. One had watched as trees were surreptitiously axed in a nearby public park. As for me, my wallet was stolen from my hotel room in the middle of the night, clearly an inside job.

Most of the stories had nothing to do with politics. But they illustrate something about contemporary Russia that we too rarely discuss: Putinism isn’t just a foreign-policy problem. The Russian president’s penchant for breaking weapons treaties, threatening small neighbors, disposing of his enemies, and spouting Cold War rhetoric creates dilemmas for the West. The lawlessness that pervades his country creates much worse dilemmas for ordinary Russians.

Not all Russians, of course: If you look at the statistics—GDP, stock market, annual growth rates—Russia’s economy appears to be improving rapidly. Presumably the oil magnates who are snapping up big houses in Geneva and London are benefiting from the huge rise in oil and gas prices, and the accompanying boom. Maybe the retirees whose pensions are now paid on time—in the 1990s, they would go for weeks without seeing a ruble—benefit, too. But there is a group that clearly isn’t doing well from Russia’s economic growth, and most of my friends—doctors, journalists, teachers, historians, some entrepreneurs—are part of it. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this group the would-be middle-class.

The mere fact of living in a post-Communist country doesn’t explain their tribulations, however. I reckon my friends in Warsaw must be the rough socioeconomic equivalents of my friends in Moscow, but my Warsaw friends are flourishing despite the chaotic coalition government that currently runs their country, and despite the corruption that sometimes prevails in their city government. They might not be zillionaires, but their children study abroad, their apartments have new Ikea bookshelves, and they don’t regularly tell horror stories about their daily lives. They aren’t a would-be middle-class, they’re a real middle class, and eventually they’ll vote like one, too.

It’s a good reminder of something we often forget: Not every prime minister has to be a genius, not every economic target has to be met in order for life to improve in a developing or transitional country. But a few institutions are required, at minimum: a  percentage of honest bureaucrats, a minimal investment in public health and safety, a genuine separation between criminal mafias and at least most state authorities. And, of course, a working legal system.

The absence of these institutions explains, in part, the popularity of President Putin: Many Russians just want someone, anyone, to appear to be in charge. But Putinism in turn reinforces the status quo. Criminality and lawlessness may be a big problem for the would-be middle-class in Russia, but it suits those in power to leave things just the way they are.