December 3, 2021

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.

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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 fêted”.

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.