March 11, 2016

The Retreating State in Russia

Only television reaches every little village across Russia’s vast territory.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a Facebook group that discussed the extinction of Russia’s periphery. The ideological basis of the group was an article by Sergey Medvedev, Professor of Political Science at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and one of the group’s leaders, published in the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. In his Forbes article, professor Medvedev described a drive from Moscow to Tartu. He claimed that, somewhere near the border of the Pskov oblast, he had passed places where the “state ceases to exist”. There were practically no human settlements, roads passed through forests, and lonely and gloomy travellers and seedy shaslik joints were a rare site. The Facebook group contained many photographs of empty villages and nearly extinct little towns in the Russian periphery, and the posts stated sadly that in the border areas the Russian Federation was ceasing to be. In itself, this does not constitute news; there is a separate branch of realist photography that deals with taking pictures of large abandoned factories and towns across the former territory of the Soviet Union; albums like this can be easily found on the Internet.
In June 2014, I was on an interdisciplinary research trip in Yakutia (Sakha) in the Russian Far East, about as far north as you can get. We followed the Yana River downstream and saw several former mining and industrial settlements on the way. These had been abandoned in the early 1990s—it was said that, in earlier times, cars had been left in the streets and kettles on stoves. By 2014, everything that could be taken away had been, including some of the buildings. The scavengers were the residents of the neighbouring Yakut villages, where we lived for a couple of weeks.
When we drove around the villages of the river basin, we discovered settlements that had been abandoned by the state in a quite different way. The villages were still there, but halfway outside the dominion of the state. Our base was a village called Saidy, with about 700 residents who lived on cattle and horse husbandry, hunting and fishing. At some point I understood that there was something wrong in the village. It may have been the moment I went into one of the local shops (there were three in total) and chatted with the shopkeeper, who revealed that he was officially unemployed and that the shop was illegal. I later discovered that all of the village’s shops were illegal, although they were proper shops with shelves and freezers that sold everything from soap to frozen vegetables and red caviar. The only thing not to be found in the shops was alcohol. Alcohol was prohibited, not only in Saidy but in the entire river basin.
Generally speaking, it was easier to list the legal institutions in the villages—as a rule, there was a local administration unit, a school, a kindergarten, a cultural club and a boiler plant. Saidy also had a milk-processing plant. Everything else—shops, transport companies, collective cattle and horse husbandry companies—conducted their activity unofficially. The locations could be categorised as typical “depressed small northern settlements” if it weren’t for the booming informal economy. People claimed that “those who work hard live well,” and, indeed, everyone in and outside the village actively traded in dairy products, meat and fish. When I asked a person we might call a village elder how he explained getting by without any shops to the authorities at the district centre, he said that “Nobody cares about that there!”

Autonomous Legal Space

Overall, the region was managed by communities, and decisions were made by “respectable people”. When we arrived, an event was organised at which we could introduce ourselves and talk about the objectives of our research. Only later did I realise that the people invited to the event were the same “respectable” ones mentioned above—in addition to the village elder, there was the school principal, an entrepreneur with the largest horse-breeding farm, the aforementioned unemployed shopkeeper, the owners of the largest cattle herds, etc. Not long before our arrival, the village was virtually isolated, as the GSM antenna had only been erected that spring, brought from an abandoned industrial settlement.
Communities controlled the economy (“We allow shops to do business on the condition that they do not sell alcohol,” the village elder told me—without specifying the identity of the “we”) and also collectively ensured public order. Various regions had different methods for this, but the common denominator was razborka, mainly violence based on general agreement, i.e. beating up the culprits (of thefts or serious violence). In Saidy, I happened to meet the local regional representative, whose region was half the size of Estonia. I asked whether there was a lot of razborka in his region. The man answered: “It is not an issue here, but it is at home!” When I asked where his home was, he answered that he was from Dagestan and told me the following story. People in his home village suspected that three doctors were killing children and selling their organs abroad. The doctors were dragged to the village square and burnt alive. When I asked what the police had done about it, he said “The police support the people; they are locals, after all”.
It is not important whether or not such an incident actually took place. (One of my colleagues who studies Dagestan said that such executions do occasionally happen there and that the story might well be true.) The regional representative’s story illustrates two points: firstly, how policemen working in the Russian periphery understand justice and the state’s monopoly on violence, and, secondly, that in certain cases the state has already lost that monopoly. While, in Siberia, a murder is still a crime that prompts policemen to come to the crime scene through snow and storm, things may be different in the North Caucasus. It was not long ago that the President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, threatened to allow the Chechnya FSB to shoot employees of the Dagestan FSB who entered Chechen territory; this caused uproar in Russia—Vladimir Putin himself had to intervene and call Kadyrov to order. Even though Kadyrov’s actions are revealed now and again, no one knows how many people in the North Caucasus receive justice on the basis of everything but the criminal code. Unlike Siberia, the Caucasus also includes a corrupt state system that represents clan interests playing a role in these matters. The Dagestan policemen who watch an execution organised by the people ignore much more important laws compared to the village sheriff who collects bribes from Siberian shopkeepers each month. They have thereby also institutionalised the alternative legal space.
However, we can see different aspects of the same phenomenon in Siberia and the North Caucasus—justice is administered by the community according to its own interpretation. Researchers who study legal pluralism call this a semi-autonomous legal field, meaning that the state has been excluded from regulating certain aspects of life and monitoring the performance of those regulations. In the Russian Far East, I noticed that the local administration’s role did not involve representing the state’s interests in the community—it was, rather, a peculiar legal “facade” for conducting affairs with the state. In a region where decisions are made by “respectable people”, the village elder and the entire apparatus try to legalise the community’s decisions or divert the unhealthy interest of state institutions away from the community. I doubt things are different in the North Caucasus.
For a year, I lived in a village where, according to the local people, “no laws apply”. What they meant was that the village had no policeman and all conflicts were resolved between the participants. One aspect of this was that it was relatively dangerous for strangers who had no acquaintances in the village to move around in the settlement. Other than that, life in this place and a couple of similar neighbouring villages was relatively good. To maintain order, an interesting and complicated system had been created of clan-leading old men, local “authorities” who had been imprisoned (also called zeks), and relatively violent local adult men. This entire system existed in the border zone of the Russian Federation, in an area that should be completely under the control of all sorts of “competent bodies”.

Ethnic Parallel Worlds

Last October, I returned to a region located on the shore of the Arctic Ocean between the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and the Taymyr Peninsula, a part of Krasnoyarsky Krai, after an absence of 15 years. Things had not changed, at least in terms of legal pluralism. Although border guards had appeared in the village and the police posts had been strengthened, order was still in the hands of clans and zeks. Police did not meddle in the affairs of the local people, the more so because the policemen were Yakut, not Russian as before.
This example allows us to move on to discuss the next aspect of the symbolic retreat of the Russian state—ethnic barriers. Despite the fact that less than 20% of the Russian Federation’s population is of an ethnicity other than Russian, the so-called ethnic regions/republics are much more important in territorial and economic terms. The control of the local “crème de la crème” in Russia is more or less functional, but a new phenomenon has emerged at the grassroots level—the Russian language is becoming less important on the peripheries of the ethnic regions. This process has already been going on for some time.
In the early 1990s, Russians started to migrate to regional centres and cities of the European part of Russia due to the collapse of the state system and economy. The proportion of the native population in villages near towns in Tyva, Yakutia, Buryatia, Khakassia, the Volga region and the North Caucasus increased significantly—in some places doubling. As a result, the younger generation’s Russian-language skills decreased considerably. Although schools, especially secondary schools, still employ the state language, the language context is overwhelmingly unilingual. In tundra villages, I met young people who were evidently struggling with the Russian language, and some of my old acquaintances had started to make more mistakes when speaking Russian. Local teachers also complained about deteriorating Russian-language skills. The increase in unilingualism is also supported by the growing poverty of the peripheral villages; some of the young people have virtually no regular opportunities to visit the town—a Russian-language environment. Some years ago, a scandalous story was published in the information bulletins of the small ethnic groups in Russia. A young Tyvan went to see an official in St Petersburg, but as he did not speak Russian he took an interpreter with him. The Russian official, naturally, berated him and announced that Tyva did not exist and never had done. This happened only a couple of months after President Putin had caught an exceptionally large pike in Tyva.
Poor Russian-language skills are also one of the causes of the alienation between Russians and non-Russians. The relationship between these groups, especially Asians in Russia, is already complicated. Ethnic discrimination is evident on both sides. In rare cases this leads to conflict, but it generally results in self-imposed isolation and communicating only within one’s own ethnic group. Even among people with good language skills, it is possible to observe the return of ethnic parallel worlds.
While the ethnic separation of the 1990s started to disappear in many of the Siberian ethnic regions in the 2000s, grouping people on the basis of ethnicity is yet again becoming more intensive today. Nightclubs in Yakutsk are again informally divided into Yakut and Russian clubs, as in 2000–1. It is also very interesting to watch the talent shows on Russian television, especially Minuta slavy, in which Asian performers are generally supported by Asians, and so on.
In peripheral villages, ethnic parallel worlds are manifested in the near total absence of Russians and the feeling of alienation felt towards them, and in the fact that people distance themselves from the orders of the federal government—ignoring these orders, in turn, contributes to the renewed and thriving black-market economy. As I drove around the tundra villages, I was amazed to see how poaching had become ubiquitous in the past 15 years. The reason is simple—legal hunting has become increasingly difficult, just like legally selling meat and fish. Nowadays, hunting-fishing licences are granted and territories allocated in Moscow—7,000 km away. The consequence is that the locals let things slide and turn a blind eye to all kinds of illegal economic activity. One hunting specialist at a district centre said to me: “How else are people supposed to earn a living?” Moreover, I have reason to believe that the centres of the republics and ministries know about the black-market economy and tolerate such offences because they are incapable of providing legal means of sustenance to the people.

Ambivalence of the Retreating State

In conclusion it can be said that in the Russian Federation there are large areas where the state has rescinded its rights and given up on its obligations. This especially concerns the economy. People in the periphery basically live by the rule “they do not ask and we will not bother them”. As state officials want to avoid excessive costs and paperwork, they allow the people in the backwoods to live as they like and are not especially curious to know how the residents obtain the means to survive. This does not only concern non-Russians. A search for “how people live in Russia” on YouTube reveals a massive number of videos about poor Russian villages near the Belarusian, Ukrainian or Lithuanian borders where people live in a natural economy and get their income from God knows where. I have seen Siberian villages where the entire way of life appears stuck in the post-war years—overpopulated barracks leaning to one side, village streets blackened with coal dust, and people with no money whatsoever, as a result of which they live on seasonal credits. In all these places, the state has given up on its obligations towards its citizens, in return granting them the freedom to break the law within certain limits.
As a final point, I should note that the state’s retreat does not mean it has abandoned the periphery indefinitely. One institution reaches nearly all households in Russia—television. The stream of information on television is what holds the world’s largest state together and creates a sense of belonging in its population. There are television sets in every household, even in villages that do not regularly communicate with the outside world. The second institution that symbolises a connection with society in general is the national medical system. Every proper settlement in Russia has at least a medical assistant’s practice, if not a hospital. The third institution that connects people with the state is the school network, mostly at the primary level. This is followed by bodies maintaining law and order and various administrative structures. Contrary to what might be thought at first glance, the Russian Federation benefits from intentionally forgetting a part of its population. The prevalent sentiment of the state letting everything slide allows several economic and social issues to be ignored, makes it easier to avoid asking unpleasant questions, and prevents the further fragmentation of resources. In an ideal case, the state can always resume its position if future years are more fruitful. However, no one today dares to predict when that time might come.


Jüri Luik, ambassador, Director of ICDS
Aimar Ventsel’s article highlights a subject that we tend to forget when speaking about Russia. It is the largest country in the world and sprawls over nine time zones. The distance between Lisbon and Moscow is 3,900 km, but the Russian capital is 6,500 km from Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. Russia is authoritarian, which is why we subconsciously refer to it as a unitary state; however, the federation consists of 85 subjects (as they are called in Russia)—these include small oblasts as well as huge krais and republics. Naturally, they are not autonomous units; everything is managed by Moscow—but in theory, not always in practice. Take Krasnoyarsk Krai in Siberia, for example—Estonians have had farmlands in the Chernozem belt there since the Empire, and the graves of the victims of Stalinism are located in Norilsk on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The area of the krai is 2.4 million square kilometres, yet the population is only 2.8 million. Although all the subjects have the same public order, the economic, social and, of course, cultural differences between and within them are remarkable, due to the enormous territories and distances.
Thus, power is fragmented across Russia, and this in turn fragments the development of the country, the division of its resources and the use thereof. Moscow was the most important region, representative city, and capital of the empire during Soviet times, as today. People do not stint on drowning the giant city in luxury, decorating and maintaining it. Moscow is the centre of power, and if the Russian people were to organise an uprising again, it would definitely start in Moscow. Sociologists at the Levada Center consider that, although Muscovites are more educated than average Russians, they are also a lot more conformist.
Some subjects are rich, some poor, but most of them receive funds from the federal budget. The finances are spent on the “capitals” of oblasts and large cities, not on the countryside. Indeed, state authority does not reach these places and people there live as they always have. Country residents have no political power, no relations, and their reach is local. Neither do they have “connections”, the source of power on every level in Russia. To them, power is distant and completely abstract. To this day, people in Russia cannot properly privatise farmland, which is why rural economic activity has not begun to prosper. Throughout Communist times, the authorities engaged in the systematic and brutal annihilation of self-assertive communities in the countryside; today this process has, unfortunately, been completed. Sad scenes are common in village life all over Russia. There are exceptions, of course, but they rather confirm the rule.
The distance and extreme fragmentation involved also mean that country residents cannot be considered a significant political power. While the working class in the cities are a political power (such as workers at the Uralmash heavy machine production facility, who are ardent supporters of Vladimir Putin), country residents are not. Federal television maintains the state in a common sphere of influence. In ethnic Russian areas, this role has also been assumed to an increasing extent by the Orthodox Church, which has grown to be a ministry infinitely loyal to the Russian president.
Siberia is a different matter, of course. Being a “Siberian” is a separate concept, an icon of independent thought in Siberian cities and elsewhere. The distance to Moscow is great and state authority does not reach people as simply as that, unless provoked. The ethnic groups, especially those in the north, who live near large reserves of oil and gas are unhappier than others. Armed authorities guard these regions keenly so that Russia’s precious assets do not fall into danger.
We should certainly pay more attention to the various regions of Russia. Although they have no formal political influence, we cannot expect one man to lead such a large state singlehandedly. The issue lies not only in giving orders but how those orders are executed in various places. The emperor gets his due, but many use their imagination in distributing what is left after that. This is also of interest to those of us who observe Russia from the side lines.

Taavi Minnik, journalist at Postimees
A few weeks ago, after the Munich Security Conference and Dmitri Medvedev’s speech, Foreign Policy magazine wondered whether the world was again in a Cold War and was baffled how Russia, a poor country with limited resources, could afford a confrontation with the West. In truth, the world has been engaged in a Cold War for some time, and Medvedev’s address is a perfect manifestation of how the current Russian leadership interprets the global situation: they do, indeed, think that they are at war with the West. We are fortunate that the war has been “cold” thus far.
However, Western leaders have not wanted to acknowledge the situation; similarly, they have not faced the fact that Russia is a strategic opponent. This, in turn, influences the way the West reacts to Russia’s actions. For example, military aircraft of the Warsaw Pact states would not have dreamt of breaching NATO’s airspace with such persistence during the previous Cold War. The Western states’ reaction to the Soviet Union’s attempt at occupying Afghanistan was far more acute than the West’s reaction to Putin’s attempts to occupy Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014.
Foreign Policy’s bafflement is understandable: the fact that the world is being pushed towards a global conflict like the one in Syria, or that foreign territories are occupied as in Ukraine, seems like madness. At least, this is what a westerner would think. Nevertheless, it is quite normal for Russia’s current leaders: they have done it before and it is far from certain that they will not do it again in the future. Their faith in themselves is also based on history: if Russia could manage to restore the empire after World War I, it is also possible following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Raivo Vare, entrepreneur
My good colleague Aimar Ventsel is one of the few Estonian experts, in addition to Karmo Tüür and some others, who keeps an eye on what is going on in the various regions of Russia, not only the large centres. It is practical and general observations about the situation in different places in Russia that provide us an overview of the state of the huge country as a whole. The only problem is that events in the provinces have no impact on the political development of the state. Throughout its history, Russia’s fate has been decided in cities, primarily in the capital.
On the other hand, provinces have to some extent always led separate existences. It is not possible to manage a territory as great as Russia without tolerating a certain degree of regional independence. This tolerance is combined with authoritarian centralisation supported by the main power structures and the regents and administration sent by the ruler. In reality, it is impossible to rule such a large and multifaceted state by controlling every aspect of it. “Hands-on” leadership, as demonstrated from time to time through the mass media to convince subjects about everything being managed by the “centre”, can be only practised in key areas. This also explains Vladimir Putin’s unexpectedly soft and cautious approach (compared to his usual style) to the issue of the job title of Tatarstan’s president and to dealing with the general mess in the North Caucasus—this has been mainly associated with the phenomenon of Ramzan Kadyrov, but it also has an impact in other regions. Events in Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabard-Balkaria and elsewhere illustrate this well.
Considering this complex context, we can see that, for centuries, the centralised management of the state has, for practical reasons, been supplemented by the so-called kormlenije system—the local elite is allowed a certain amount of power to organise administration and embezzle part of the profit received from the local economy in return for control of the territory and paying rent to the centre. This effect is the more powerful because of the state’s uneven development and the distribution of the population. More than half the Russian population lives within 600 km of the country’s current western and southern borders, while less than a tenth lives on the other side of the Ural Mountains, spread across a huge area. Then again, the power situation is the same in the ethnic Russian oblasts near the Estonian border, for historical and economic reasons. As Aimar strikingly remarks, the situation is diversified by ethnic plurality, primarily in the sparsely populated eastern regions and even more so in the North Caucasus, which belongs to an entirely different cultural space.
Such an environment has given rise to the situation where the local representatives of the central power on one hand become corrupt, and on the other try to achieve a certain equilibrium with the ethnic elite, as they perform administrative functions as passively as possible and let the system regulate itself under the aegis of local communities, clans and ethnic groups.
What is the main mistake people outside Russia make in speaking about the hardships, poverty and self-regulation of provincial life in Russia? They presume that the dire situation and economic downturn cause discontent among the residents, and that this could provoke changes in the whole country. This would be certainly true for many countries, but not in Russia. Why? Because the people of Russia, both Russians and other ethnic groups, have lived in harsh conditions throughout history and have become masters of adaptation. Those who are active and dissatisfied move to the centres. People have done this in czarist, Soviet and modern times, just as Aimar describes. As locals understand that all attempts at separation will be suppressed with force, they try to convert continuing loyalty into economic benefits. This interest is shared by regional elites and communities, and the situation is resolved through an unusual balance in which the state seems to have retreated and everyday life is mainly regulated by the communities themselves. This is why the rulers of Russia have always made decisions concerning the state’s internal policy at the centre, while the provinces were and are left to their own devices. Some regions rich in resources, such as West Siberia, Yakutia and some others, are exceptions to this, as the grip of the central power is slightly stronger there, but this does not mean that the models of organising life described by Aimar are not thriving in those locations.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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