09 February 2013

Алтарь, дача и престол?

Amongst the sycophantic pseudo-Western corporate media, news from Russia will generally fall into one of two broad categories. The first and most common is the look-how-bad-they-are-at-human-rights angle, with all of the hypocrisy that entails. You get the hand-wringing about how three poorly-behaved girls (who for some reason or other thought an Orthodox church erected as a monument against Stalinism was an appropriate place to bully churchgoers and throw what amounted to a public tantrum in the form of a lame pop-punk song) are treated in court, whilst nearly six hundred people are subject to far worse treatment in Guantánamo and will likely never even get their day in court. You get the umbrage over the death of Sergei Magnitsky in police custody (wrong as that was), the legislative reaction to it from the usual suspects, and the faux outrage over the predictable counter-reaction. (All the name-calling of Russia over its stances on international issues like Syria in the DC-elite cupbearer press can be folded into this category as well.)

[A notable aside - shortly afterward, the United States Department of Justice under Barack Obama begins asserting that, in essence, it has the legal right to kill anyone it likes, anywhere in the world it likes, at any time it likes, without even going through anything like due process first. And the reaction from the usual suspects who usually claim that President Obama is an unaccountable executive tyrant, faced with a clear example of unaccountable executive tyranny, proceed to defend it because, apparently, extrajudicially killing people is awesome because terrormuslimsseptembereleven. For rather obvious reasons, I am not exactly holding my breath on the Dead Pakistani Children Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2013, that will freeze the assets and restrict the international travel rights of, say, John Brennan or Eric Holder.]

The other angle one usually gets treated to on Russia is how, thanks to Putin, their economy is always on the brink of doom. (Imagine that ‘brink of doom’ being spoken in a mad scientist voice - roll the ‘r’ briskly and clip the ‘i’ short, leaving a dramatic pause for ‘of doom’, with perhaps a bolt of lightning and a cat howling in the background, and finish with a flourishing ‘DOOM, I tell you!’ and a deranged cackle of glee - to help get an idea of how this sort of reporting comes across.) Here is one recent example, and here is another one essentially saying the exact same thing nearly six years previously. The usual arguments are trotted out: too much public ownership, too much mining and drilling, too little reliance on the economic expertise of the neoliberal theorists who just so happen to be the ones making these predictions. Though much of their analysis may rightly be considered the self-serving neoliberal bunkum that it is, they may have a couple of valid points as far as the petrol industry goes. But the real economic and social revolution that Russia ultimately needs to ensure its long-term economic sufficiency may already be quietly occurring. Indeed, it has been occuring for the past decade and a half.

At the end of Putin’s first term, in 1999, the vast majority of Russia’s food was being produced on small, family-owned organic cottage farms. As The Bovine blog put it, 90% of Russia’s potatoes, 87% of its fruits, 77% of its vegetables, 59% of its meat and 45% of its milk came from 35 million of these cottage farms, these дачи. In 2003, this food revolution was further facilitated by President Putin’s passage of the Private Garden Plot Act, which basically entitled each Russian citizen to a Chestertonian ‘three acres and a cow’ (well, between one and three hectares, to be precise, and the cow was optional), and exempting from sales tax any produce from these garden-plots. What’s more, the Russian government plans for these дачи to be more than merely subsistent: they plan to turn their organic food into an export commodity. The upshot of all this, is that the Russian consumer is more free and informed, and possessed of a more direct connexion with the source of her food, than the American or European consumer is. On such an economic basis as this, it should be noted, the Nordic social democracies were established: the relatively-egalitarian, relatively-civil and civically-oriented societies were built upon small fisheries and homestead farms.

This is not the only positive trend to come out of Russia, it must be said. The growing importance of the Russian Orthodox Church in the politics of that nation, as well as its civil society, education and dialogues on moral and social issues, is overall a very positive trend, particularly given its long history of repression under the Soviets. Where it has spoken out on economic issues in particular, it has given voice to the need for a human life-oriented, social economy in a way which very closely echoes historical Patristic and modern Catholic social teaching. It is also attempting to address the failures in the humanities which accompanied both Soviet repression and gangster-capitalist dissipation. With the relations between the Russian Church and the Roman Catholic Church looking generally rosier, the foundations for an alternative, post-secular vision of the West’s historical trajectory can begin to be laid.

Add to this the fact that Russia is now prioritising internal matters, domestic institution-building, upholding regional stability and promoting values of localism, patriotism, solidarity and spirituality over-against the pseudo-Western neoliberal formulation of globalism, individualism, consumerism and moral decay; and Russia is not looking so bad at all in its cultural and economic outlook.

All this is not, of course, to say that Russia is without problems cultural or economic; it has plenty to go around, and has had for a long time. The rapine of the Yeltsin years has left a legacy of political corruption and short time horizons which continues to make itself systemically felt. Alcoholism, drug abuse and divorce rates are still running rampant. To call the Russian birth rate in recent decades ‘anaemic’ would be an exercise in grotesque understatement, and the long-run outlook for Russia’s population is, in spite of the optimism from Putin’s government, still very much up in the air. (On the other hand, on a positive note, abortion is continuing to fall off in Russia.) Troublingly, ultra-nationalism and racism are also playing more prominent roles in Russian politics, particularly amongst Putin’s opposition.

But hearteningly, Russia’s government has already taken steps to re-enshrine at the centre of Russia’s public life the алтарь and the дача - the altar and the cottage of Richard Oastler’s High Tory formulation. The logical next step would be the throne, or the престол. Though perhaps it would be too much to hope for a traditionally-monarchical Vladimirov dynasty in Russia (despite the media claims of neo-Tsarism), it is not beyond the scope of reason to believe that Russia might not come up with a feasible alternative.

This being Chinese New Year’s Eve, I promise something more appropriately-themed on this blog tomorrow.

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