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The closing of the Russian mind Putin's elites will do anything to stay in power

Get ready for the deluge (John Moore/Getty Images)


December 3, 2021   5 mins

The Russian state is, bit by bit, squeezing out political and intellectual challenge. Alexei Navalny will, in February, complete the first year of a two-and-a-half-year sentence in the Pokrov corrective colony on charges of slander and breach of parole. His jailing removed the most active centre of protest, and the creator of the most inventive and pointed demonstrations of elite corruption in the Putin regime.

A running commentary on the criminal nature of the administration has been silenced: what is now happening is less dramatic, less easily grasped, without a dominant figure pointing to its venality.

The pressure comes in two forms. One is wholly willed by the regime, aimed at discrediting dissidence of all kinds. The other, less apparent, is a by-product of the economic and social policies of a government which has set its face against economic reform of any depth, on the grounds that it risks destabilising the form of governance which has developed under the Putin presidency.

The latter of these is the subject of an excoriating report, published at the end of last month, under the title of The Coming Deluge (a reference to the remark — “After us, the deluge” —  said to have been made, several decades before the revolution, by Louis XV of France in 1857 to his favourite, Madame de Pompadour — or by her to him). The highly regarded commentator Andrei Kolesnikov, who with Denis Volkov wrote the report based on interviews made over the past six months with a number of leading business figures and economists, argues that “the prevailing attitude among members of the ruling class appears to be that there is enough oil and gas to keep the state coffers full, buy voters’ loyalty, and control civil society and the media for as long as the country’s current leaders are in power (until 2036, when President Vladimir Putin may at last have to step down). What comes after that does not concern them: ‘After us, the deluge.'”

The governing class, secure in their control of the rents derived from oil and gas, “are mired in inaction by feelings of complacency and a widespread reluctance to engage in any long-term strategic planning or change
 Unless something drastically changes, stagnation in the broadest sense of the word — from economic depression to social apathy — is the only possible medium and long-term scenario for Russia.”

One result, largely ignored by the administration, is what one respondent to the Kolesnikov report termed a pervasive “inequality of rights”, arising from “vastly different access to healthcare, education, state services and other infrastructure”.

The longer term outcome, however, is one which is presently degrading Russia’s once formidable intellectual capital, and which helps solves the elite’s problem of discontented young protestors — by persuading them that change was impossible.

Sergei Guriev, once head of the New Economic School who chose to leave Russia after “a frightening and humiliating interrogation” in 2013 because of his support for Navalny, told Kolesnikov and Volkov: “Russia’s main problem is the deterioration of human capital. Russia inherited an important competitive advantage from the Soviet period, but this advantage — its education system and respect for human capital — is constantly being demolished; educated people are leaving; colleges and schools are falling behind their peers. It’s possible that, in ten or fifteen years, Russia will not have obvious sources of economic growth or be catching up to its neighbours.”

The more direct assault on the Russian mind, increasingly evident over the past decade, has been focussed on leading figures in the remaining institutions of liberal education and culture. Over the past year, some 20 leaders of universities have been replaced, in nearly all cases by academics who are also members of Putin’s United Russia party — which won the parliamentary elections in September and thus two thirds of the seats in the Duma, a result attended by protests from most parts of the country of fraud, ballot stuffing and intimidation.

The three most prestigious academic centres, created after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, are the Higher Economic School, the New Economic School and the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. Guriev fled from his post in 2013; and in July this year, Jaroslav Kuzminov, who had struggled to keep his School out of the Kremlin’s disfavour,  resigned as head of the Higher Economic School after the arrest of several of his students, who had produced a magazine critical of the government.

Also this year, a unique joint programme between St Petersburg University and the US’s Bard College, conceived in 1994, whose fruit was the founding of Russia’s first liberal arts programme at Smolny College, was abruptly terminated. The Russian Prosecutor General’s office declared Bard an “undesirable organisation” under a recent law aimed at banning foreign institutions and influences, calling it “a threat to the foundations of Russia’s constitutional order”.

The most recent assault, and the most obviously ruthless, zeroes in on the Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences — universally known as the “Shaninka”, or Shanin’s place. Teodor Shanin born in 1930 to a Jewish family, in Wilno, now Vilnius, survived the a spell in Siberia, reached Israel in time to fight in the Arab-Israeli war, worked and studied in Israel until 1964, joined the academic staff of the University of Birmingham in 1965 and in 1995, returned to Russia and founded, with others, the “Shaninka”, which he directed from its foundation in 1995 until his death in 2020. Energetic and non-conformist, his School became the first place of study of sociology, including a clear-eyed  view of Putin’s Russia, a tradition carried on by his successors, including the present rector, Sergei Zuev.

In October, Zuev, who has a serious heart condition, was taken from hospital for a 30-hour interrogation; returned to house arrest, then taken back to prison once more. He was charged with embezzling 21m roubles ($300,000), linked to a broader case against a former deputy Education Minister, Marina Rakova, also now imprisoned. In an analysis of the case, Nikolai Petrov, himself an alumnus of the Higher School of Economics, argued that the Zuev, Rakova and other arrests are part of intense manoeuvring within the Kremlin elite, in which individuals are used as pawns — the more so, if they are thought to be “disloyal” because of liberal sympathies. Petrov writes that “the brutality meted out has now become the norm
 the current wave of arrests are unrestrained, and enfolding in full view of the nation and the world”.

Andrei Zorin, a close friend of Zuev’s and chair of Russian at Oxford University, has organised letters, now being signed by hundreds of scholars, protesting the inhumanity of Zuev’s treatment and warning that his health is now precarious. Both Zorin and Petrov believe Zuev, and the Shaninka, are targeted because of their liberalism in an increasingly authoritarian state — but also judge that many of the complex moves within and between the power groups involved are aimed as much at securing finance streams, especially from the Education Ministry, as in combatting anti-regime figures.

The Zuev case is similar to that of Kirill Sebrennikov, the most highly regarded ballet director in Russia — confined to house arrest since mid-2017, on charges of embezzlement of over 60m roubles, after producing “Nureyev” at the Bolshoi Theatre (he has since been released but cannot leave Russia while the charges remain pending). Wildly acclaimed, it is built around the dancer’s defection from the Soviet Union in 1961 — but with the dancing broken up by readings, including from a letter to Nureyev after his defection lamenting that Russia “does not value its heroes”.

This case, as others, is opaque, with no information released, supporters certain of innocence and an impression of the law being used to punish and warn. The Moscow-based journalist Joshua Yaffa writes that “many observers see his case as a sign of a deeper and troubling turn in Russian political life, a symbol — and a warning — of a state that has grown more inflexible, rapacious, and unpredictable, liable to turn even on those it once fĂȘted”.

The deliberate closing of the Russian mind, and the deliberate choice to eschew reform while rents from fossil fuels sustain a kleptocratic elite, raises the possibility of Russians, in a decade or so of continued decline,  joining the ranks of migrants, escaping poverty and oppression, These migrants should be more welcome than the oligarchs and their retinues who use London as a money laundry, a means of burnishing their public profile and a legal space with strict laws on libel and slander from which several have benefitted. But it will leave Russia increasingly stripped of reformist and brilliant talent, more inclined to see the West as malevolent and thus requiring increased aggression in return.


John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.


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vladimirgin
vladimirgin
2 years ago

Though I agree with author in general, I don’t agree that the “Zuev/Shaninka affair” can be used as a prove for it. I will explain why.

In non-democratic states, a lot of things are not transparent. Many events inside the elite remains a “bulldog fight under a rug” as it was in Stalin’s time. This is one of them. What we can see from outside can be quite different with what it is in reality. In many cases political persecution mask itself as economical strugle. As some very well informed people suggest now, the “Zuev/Shaninka affair” is an interesting example of reversed case: economical struggle that is pretending to be a political persecution.

First thing we should remember, that Rakova, Zuev and others are absolutely loyal members of Putin’s elite. They are not dissidents. Zuev does have some liberal inclinations, but he’s loyal. These guys have close relation with powerful figures in elite – e.g. Hermann GrĂ€f (ex-minister of economics and now is CEO of the largest Russian bank). So, this is not a fight against opposition, this is conflict within elite. Why did it happen?

In Russia, one group in elite (there are many groups inside) has almost total monopoly for printing textbooks/manuals/schoolbooks for the education system (schools, colleges, universities). It gives them few hundreds billions of profit per year. Decent money, n’est pas? So, other group (by rumors, close to GrĂ€f) decided to destroy this monopoly to get some share of this pie. Marina Rakova as a deputy Education Minister spearheaded the assault. But the first group has struck back, and with much more power. So, the main target of this investigation is Rakova, and Zuev and Shaninka school are just collateral damage.

Why this is being disguised as “attack against liberals”? Because in Russia it’s much simpler (and cheaper) to involve police/FSB when you say “I want to destroy this person because he/she is the enemy of Putin” rather than “I want to destroy this person because I want his money“.

I’m not saying that what I’ve written is an absolute truth. I’m outsider, and I cannot see what’s under a rug. But based of what I know and read, I’d say that 85% chances is that this is really a purely economical conflict.
PS: I’m Russian, who leaved the country 20 years ago. But I have relatives and friends there, I continue to follow the news from there. Mostly because the events there can be more surprising and intriguing than in Games on Thrones.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  vladimirgin

Or 
 Starsz War, eh?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  vladimirgin

Helpful insight. I see no hope for the Russian people in Russia because of the oil and gas supporting this regime. Anyone with skills should get out for a better life, assuming western countries would let them in.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

It sounds like Russia’s main problem for the future is the decline of education. Lecturers are being replaced by poorer versions who are programmed in the ‘correct’ way, thereby affecting the quality of students in the future.

Doesn’t this sound like every developed country we know? The freedom of students to investigate new avenues of thought is being blocked in just about all leading countries. Except China??

Gabriele
Gabriele
2 years ago

I do not dispute the facts in this article. However, I find the thesis that the problem of Russian education is due to the closing of the Russian mind a bit weird considering that the author is comparing today Russia with Soviet Russia. I hope we can all agree that Soviet Russia was clearly more repressive than Putin’s Russia?

Let me quote the article.

Sergei Guriev, once head of the New Economic School who chose to leave Russia after “a frightening and humiliating interrogation” in 2013 because of his support for Navalny, told Kolesnikov and Volkov: “Russia’s main problem is the deterioration of human capital. Russia inherited an important competitive advantage from the Soviet period, but this advantage — its education system and respect for human capital — is constantly being demolished; educated people are leaving; colleges and schools are falling behind their peers. It’s possible that, in ten or fifteen years, Russia will not have obvious sources of economic growth or be catching up to its neighbours.”

It seems to me that Sergei Guriev is saying that the problem is lack of investment in education rather than straight repression. On the other hand, the author is building upon this to saying that problem is the attack on the liberal mindset. I do not think this is true, or at least that is not what Sergei Guriev is saying.
Honestly, Russian intellectuals are used to repression, given that there never was a period of free expression in Russia. The problem is that Putin’s regime is wasting resources and not investing in education that has no political connotations, like the Soviets did.

Last edited 2 years ago by Gabriele
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

This appears to be common to ANY person or institution with power. Power corrupts, so we should seek to limit the centralisation of power and the amount and duration of power any one person has access to.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

So what is the difference between Putin and the Democrats?

R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago

Louis XV died in 1774, and Madame De Pompadour in 1764, so it would be rather suprising if we knew anything of what they were saying in 1857! The remark (if made) was in 1757, after the Battle of Rossbach. I’d advise a proof-reader…I’m available if the money is right…

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

The photo at the head of this piece is quite apt, then: a sea-green regimentation has swept through society, broken occasionally by scattered whitecaps that would tell of the turbulent waters bubbling under the surface (the swirls of white within the green malachite). Those who would comprise the intellectual capital would not abide forever by the imposition of a grey sameness on the soul, I imagine.

The photo editors at Unherd seem to be clever (the other photos for three other famous men today are cleverly chosen, what with Fauci in a mask and Christmassy baubles dangling near Boris’s ear). But sometimes the headlines writers need to up their game. Their headlines are a little listless.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

Want to place a bet that the headline writer is a bot?

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

But surely this is standard behaviour from the ‘Authoritarian Playbook’ and seems to me a feature of socialism and its various cousins. If your analysis is correct, then Germany is agreeing to finance the Putin regime through its new coalition’s promise to pay for Russian Nord 2 gas whatever the price and for as long as stocks last.
I like the look of your book, John. Scottish devolution has been a disaster for the UK. Although the ironically funny side is that Blair’s plan to stay in power via 50 Scottish MPs has totally backfired making the probability of a majority Labour Government almost unfeasible.

Juffin Hully
Juffin Hully
2 years ago

A tediously written incoherent ramble. I have struggled to reache the end of this piece.

Government persecution of Russian liberals is, sadly, nothing new. What is missing in this piece, and from the general discourse, is how, if at all, the West should react to this (gathering signatures under petitions does not count).

NB: Kirill Serebrennikov is a theatre director in Moscow, not a ballet director. He only directed one ballet, AFAIK, and is mainly known for his theatre and film work

Alison Tyler
Alison Tyler
2 years ago
Reply to  Juffin Hully

I have always felt srrowful for Russians, warm, enterprising and welcoming, continually over centuries subjected to apalling governance, so much so they would either not recognise nor appreciate good government if they recieved it.

George Knight
George Knight
2 years ago

It seems to me that ordinary, honest Russians are caught in a vice. On the one hand you have the Putin clan and on the other you have the Mafia. Both groups are powerful and ruthless, not to say very greedy.