Guest Write: James C. Pearce
James C. Pearce completed his PhD in 2018 at Anglia Ruskin University. Pearce has conducted research in the Russian Federation since 2015 on matters related to historical memory in the public space and education, the discipline of history as well as Russian foreign policy in the twenty-first century. He has taught Political Science, History, and International Relations at three institutions in the United Kingdom and Russia, and presented his research at multiple international conferences in two languages. James currently teaches in Moscow and is developing his research on the role of historical memory in Russian elections, and Russian students’ attitudes towards the new historical narratives. He is author to the recent book "The Use of History in Putin's Russia". We absolutely recommend you to check it out here.
Two weeks of protests in the Far East, amendments to the constitution, journalists and politicians arrested, one of the highest COVID-19 cases worldwide and the economy about to implode. These headlines are not factually incorrect, but neither do they explain Russia in 2020.
Capturing the world’s biggest country in a single article is always tricky and knowing where to begin is even harder. Russia borders North Korea and Norway and has 150 indigenous ethnicities who speak around 100 languages across nine time zones. Western media is happy to repeat stories about Putin’s increasing grip on power and hybrid warfare. Though important, these still leave much to be desired. Russia does have a free press and freedom of speech. There are plenty of easy to access newspapers and sites that criticise the Kremlin daily. The internet is largely open, and Russians are among the most active social media users in the world. That is not to say propaganda is non-existent. And yes, most of that occurs on state-controlled television channels where most Russians get their news (around 70%). There have also been clampdowns on the press and the arts in recent years. Although troubling, it is still a very modest part of daily life in Russia. The reality is most Russians are not so disgruntled with Putin or even paying much attention. The rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin is starting to wear thin, but most people were more focused on their private affairs anyway. If the reader sat down and spoke with my Russian students, they would struggle to see much daylight between their Western contemporaries. They dress the same, spend all day on their smartphones, go to the mall, eat junk food and then hang out in the park discussing boys. Walking through a typical Russian town, there are no visible signs of oppression and authoritarianism. Life seems rather normal. Russia in 2020 is a socio-economic crosshair complicated by the political system that has evolved since the Soviet collapse, and more recently, COVID-19. Socio-economic change has been a long time coming but is now urgent and unavoidable. Whilst Russian civil society is growing, a demographic crisis is occurring alongside it. More than half of Russians have higher education and 75% of the population is urbanised, according to Rosstat. Yet, rural areas are depopulating, and the birth rate is also in decline. There has been a brain drain in recent years, as record numbers of young people want to emigrate. Russia is also ageing: 35% of the population is over 50, and their pensions just 180 euros a month. Capitalism made many Russians wealthy and modernised parts of the country. But the results of this were not felt equally; a lot of money from state coffers ended up abroad in the 1990s, where it is of no use to ordinary citizens. In the last decade, sanctions, fluctuating oil prices, devaluation of the ruble, the war in Syria and now the pandemic have all taken a hit at the economy. According to Romir, 46% of the population spend half their income on food, and thanks to COVID-19, unemployment sits between 5-6 million. How we got here is no mystery. From the early 2000s up until 2013, a certain level of political and economic stability existed that suited the majority. Consequentially, most of society and the Russian state simply carried on and looked the other way. The government saw little incentive to introduce extensive economic reforms. There was no pressure politically, oil prices were good and the troubles in the North Caucasus were over. Credibility had been restored at home and abroad following a turbulent decade. If the population were kept happy, they would vote properly. To help ensure this, the government increased its focus on patriotism to foster a more cohesive national identity and champion loyalty to the state. Following the Crimean annexation, the government was also able to ride a patriotic wave for a few years. However, this resulted in a lack of long-term economic planning. The economy became over-reliant on commodities instead of diversifying. Banks were handing out mortgages in foreign currencies to people in no position to repay. COVID-19 revealed just how much most small and medium-sized businesses were struggling. Most had no savings and were living month to month barely breaking even. Over the past few years, Moscow’s mayor spent billions to modernise the city infrastructure in exchange for Muscovites’ political loyalty. Today, Moscow is a vibrant cosmopolitan city that rivals European capitals and New York. It is adorned with parks, museums, theatres, modern bars, restaurants and cafes full of people. In Russia’s regions, it is another story. Most regional governments are running fiscal deficits and are left to pick up concessions from the federal government. Public spending has increased in recent years, but the results are mixed at best. Many small towns are ‘one company’ or industry reliant, with a lot of residents commuting to the nearest cities in search of higher-paying jobs or leaving altogether. Following the pandemic, the government launched an economic rescue package of 2 trillion Rubles. It is a start, but further reforms to the tax system, social safety nets and incomes are a top priority to help limit the economic damage. Larger companies will survive but may get into a lot of debt in the process. Interest in politics remains low, and public politics is actually very limited in Russia. Most have no idea who their elected officials are in the State Duma. Bureaucratic procedures in local governments have increased, though they yield little real power. Yet, since 2012, people are more willing to openly express their discontent.
As Putin was set to return in 2012, after his successor/predecessor amended the constitution, protests broke out in Moscow. Although irregularities have hung over most Russian elections, they at least existed. Leaders, it was now thought, had to come and go. Putin was by no means unpopular in 2012, but many Muscovites, particularly the small and educated middle classes, felt his return undermined their vote. This is not unlike the ongoing protests in Khabarovsk, a city of around 600,000 in Russia’s Far East. Here, tens of thousands of people took to the streets as they protested the arrest of a popular governor, who allegedly ordered the murder of businessmen fifteen years ago. Glimpses of democracy are there despite the recent constitutional changes. The ruling party recently lost three governorships and had a disastrous electoral performance in Moscow’s 2018 parliamentary elections. Popular protests also forced the government to amend unpopular pension reforms, and the press has been influential in securing the release of a few arrested journalists. Even then, the reader must remember that Russian democracy will never look like ours. Russia never had democracy until 1993. The government operates within the democratic system established then, but most government officials were born and raised in the USSR. Russia has come a long way since the Soviet collapse, there is no denying it. It has an open society, but corruption remains a huge problem. Putin is not the sole cause of it, either. The Soviet past, failure to establish a multi-party democracy and economic shock therapy of the 90s are all equally to blame. Those who were born towards the end or after the Soviet collapse are now active in public life. They have grown up in an open society able to travel abroad and have memories of hardship in the 80s and 90s. Polling by Levada shows that Russians care most about socio-economic issues: owning a car, a flat, getting a decent education and healthcare, earning a good salary and getting married. As such, they are beginning to demand more effectiveness from lawmakers, mostly out of a deep-rooted fear the worst days of Perestroika or economic collapse in the 90s could return. Although the desire and need for positive change exists, what gives the state and society pause is the knowledge that going too far with reforms in the past has often backfired. In some ways, avoiding historical repeats in the present is more of a priority. Whilst I think it would be impossible to round this piece off with any future predictions giving current circumstances, I will simply say this: despite the challenges it faces going forward, Russia has a lot of wonderful things and great potential. One can only hope for the best.