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Monday, December 3, 2012

Russia reflections: censorship

I'm sure I'll have many more thoughts over the next few days about my experience. But now that I'm back in the US, I'll say what I really didn't want to say while I was there: there is a strong and widespread sense that anti-American sentiments are rising, aided and abetted by Putin's administration, and somewhat to my surprise, by the Orthodox Church.

Many of the questions I received by Russians were about censorship. My stories - about overprotective parents who wanted stories of woods without wolves (lest they frighten the children) - seemed almost naive to the Russians. While I was there, as recorded on the front page of the English language Moscow Times (November 30-December 2, 2012), "a city court declared Pussy Riot's 'punk prayer' video extremist, meaning that media outlets can face closure for publishing the all-female band's famous performance in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. Thursday's far-reaching decision also means that hosting platforms like YouTube must remove the video for Russian users and that national Internet providers will have to block access to sites that continue to carry the video." This isn't the first time Russian courts have tried this. They also banned the infamous anti-Islamist film (which came from the US) "Innocence of Muslims. In fact, for a while, all of Youtube was banned, until popular outrage compelled the government to restore it.

I was talking with one woman who was flipping around TV one night and found a program featuring an Orthodox priest talking to a roomful of children. First they sang some songs together, all very innocent and sentimental. Then the tone turned: the priest asked them, don't you love going to an Orthodox school? Don't you wish everyone could? Shouldn't all schools be Orthodox? When you go to university, wouldn't you prefer to study in Russia, and avoid western ideas? Does Russia have enemies? Yes, it does!

Another person talked about attending a local event, and hearing someone else make a very innocuous joke about church. Suddenly, others started pulling back. Don't you believe? they asked.

There is both fear and evidence that Putin is tightening controls, and using the Orthodox church as one of his strategies. There is a growing convergence of church and state. Several people remarked to me that people are tired of chaos, seeking black or white. There is even nostalgia for the the Soviet days, because everything goes golden if far enough in the past.

The same Moscow Times reports that Putins' approval rating is falling. But only from 69 percent in May to 63 percent in November. But at that, it's higher than American ratings of Congress. Meanwhile, there is widespread understanding that the Mafia has moved from open gun fights on streets to more decorous engagements in the halls of government. One of my cab drivers pointed proudly to some apartments in the old part of Moscow, truly beautiful. "But expensive," he said. "They cost a million dollars." When I remarked that I thought most Russians only made about $10,000 a year, he shrugged and said, "government and Mafia people."

It happens that I took an interesting book with me (downloaded from Bilbary before I left). It's called Why Nations Fail, by American economists Daron Acemoglu, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James Robinson, a Harvard professor. The theme of the book, which used the Soviet USSR as a prime example, is that political institutions reinforce economic systems that are either inclusive (democratic, participative, encouraging of innovation) or extractive (hierarchical, exclusive, controlling). At first, the Soviets succeeded (and were hailed by many American intellectuals as "the future") but only because they followed a clear path from agrarian to industrial. Once they got there, the USSR totally stagnated, focusing on transferring wealth from the masses to the elite. In the long run, that's simply not sustainable. So the empire collapsed.

But the extractive institutions under Putin seem to be even more deeply entrenched, funded for now by the older technology of oil. While there appears to have been a great explosion of capitalist wealth (as witnessed by many shops, businesses, etc.), the underlying uncertainty about whether people will be able to keep their wealth (because it will be skimmed or stolen by the state or organized crime, or some combination of the two) is corrosive. And ultimately the "creative destruction" caused by real innovation (in which whole sectors of the economy fail because the underlying premises change) is seen by extractive institutions as dangerous. And so innovation occurs elsewhere.

On the other hand, I found free wifi everywhere I went. Many young people (if 21 or under, born after the collapse of Communism) seemed to have cell phones and laptops. When the people can get information quite different from the overtly biased, government-friendly media, they will surely grow restless, understand that there are alternatives, and either leave, or stay and foment reform. That's a genie that's hard to put back into the bottle.

So I have complex feelings. On the one hand, I got from my brief trip some measure of the Russian people. They have real magnificence in their history: language, literature, architecture, culture. To a person, I found them smart, warm, funny, and generous. But their political institutions are overtly corrupt, controlling, suspicious, and ratcheting up in pugnacity and rapaciousness. Sad.

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