Moscow’s Last Line
One thing I quickly noticed when I first moved back to Moscow, was the rapidly expanding and even exploding middle class. Because of this, I also noticed the city had become much more European since I was last here – sushi bars everywhere (somehow it quickly went from borscht to big Macs, and now California/Kremlin rolls – all within the decade!) and SOOO many people now own cars that traffic is permanent gridlock. Imagine New York City with snow and ice and that is today’s Moscow!). While we were in gridlock the other day, I asked my Russian friend Dmitri if life was harder in modern times than it was under Communism?
He replied “Both, it’s easier because I don’t have to stand around in lines waiting for everything or hunting down food. There are full stores now. No lines. But it is all expensive. We have a saying now that there’s only one line in Russia left – the line for money.”
It appears Karl marx’s theories have finally came true in modern Russia: it’s all about the money. That too is the key to understanding Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s not a Mikhail Gorbachev who is tougher, or a more sober Boris Yeltsin. He is Russia’s Deng Xiaoping – Mao’s realistic successor who told the Chinese that ”to get rich is glorious” and then Mao put into place the modernising reforms necessary to do it.
Abba Eban once said “men and nations will always do the right thing in the end – after they exhaust every other possibility”. That is Putin’s obvious message to the Russians: ”For a decade, we’ve tried every foolish idea, from default to devaluation to good old shock therapy. Now we only have one last idea: passing solid reform legislation so we can get real foreign investment to build a solid, modern economy. Because in this world, without a solid economic foundation, you’re nobody. So we need to focus on the only line that matters now – the line for money.” This is “Putinism”: From Das Kapital to DOScapital.
This explains why Putin rolled over so easily on George Bush’s decision to scrap the ABM treaty as well, thus limiting missile defences. When that treaty was forged in 1972, Russian foreign policy was focused on one thing – geopolitics, the ideologically driven global competition for influence with the U.S., and everything, particularly economics, was prioritised below that. That’s where all the food lines came from. Russian foreign policy is about two things today – geoeconomics and geopolitics – and there is a serious competition between the two. So if Russia can save money and win Western help by walking away from the ABM treaty, then walk it did.
Don’t let this fool you though. Russia’s foreign policy and military elite considered Bush’s ABM move a slap in the face. Then elites could start to form a front against him. Putin is ignoring these whispers, because in his view Russia will never again be a contender in geopolitics until it first figures out geoeconomics.
In today’s Moscow, there are young capitalists coming of age, and they, like the Chinese, believe they can get rich by making things, not the old Soviet way – by stealing things from the state or taking them from the ground. Interestingly enough, last year Russia’s Parliament quietly pushed through much of the tax reform and judicial legislation that America was nagging for it to pass for at least a decade.
The confidence of Russia’s young generation – that it can actually do this ”capitalist thing” has enormous geopolitical significance. One reason that Putin was so enthusiastic about keeping so many nuclear weapons while reflexively opposing the U.S., was because they were the only currency that defined them as a superpower. If Russians believe they can also be powerful on the basis of geoeconomics, they aren’t going to surrender all their nukes or military quest for influence, but the chances of their obtaining a real partnership with the West will be much greater.
So let’s hope Putin eventually makes it to the front of Russias last line.