A year ago, two Ukrainian gunboats, Berdiansk and Mariupol, were, along with their 24 crewmen, illegally seized by the Russian navy in the Sea of Azov.
A week ago both the sailors and the ships were returned, but with certain parts missing. That is, I hope you understand, the parts were missing from the boats, not the sailors.
The sailors, as far as I know, have retained a full complement of their organs and body parts. But the boats weren’t so lucky.
That they were stripped of their weaponry and navigational equipment is, I suppose, par for the course. Piracy must have its rewards, otherwise what’s the point?
The Ukrainian navy being a formidable adversary, it stands to reason that the Russians wanted to uncover the secrets of Ukrainian machine guns (of Soviet manufacture) and radars (ditto).
Even as we speak, Russian boffins must be analysing the specifications of those weapons, their rate of fire, accuracy, range. Or at least they must have been doing that until someone said: “Boys, why not just ring the manufacturers? They’re in Russia, they’ll tell you what you want to know.”
Yet it wasn’t just the top secret Russian guns that the pirates lifted from the Ukrainian ships. They also stripped the boats of everything that wasn’t welded or riveted to the deck, including such non-bellicose items as dome lights, sockets – and lavatory bowls.
One suspects that the order to do so didn’t come from the Kremlin – those chaps tend to think in bigger categories. No, that was a display of the ability to think on one’s feet of which the Russians are so justly proud.
As the government spokesman once explained, the Russians’ microbiological makeup possesses an extra spirituality gene. Hence it’s spirituality, as Putin explained, that acts as the brace holding the nation together.
That means the Russians despise philistine acquisitiveness and material goods – that is, until they find themselves in the West where such things are readily available. While still in Russia, however, they rely on their unmatched spirituality to get them through life.
This attitude has much to recommend it, reflecting as it does an ability to adapt to ambient conditions. Since material possessions have always been scarce in Russia, the Russians have learned to despise them. Might as well.
Naturally they also despise the effort that goes into producing material goods. Nicking them is of course a different matter. One can do so without compromising one’s towering spirituality in any way.
Thievery, therefore, takes pride of place next to drunkenness as the country’s national characteristic. Much as I like to ascribe those proclivities to Putin, neither started with him.
According to a probably apocryphal but eminently believable account, 1,000 years ago Grand Duke Vladimir chose Byzantine Christianity over Islam specifically because of the latter’s injunction against alcohol. “Drinking is the joy of the Rus,” quotes the Primary Chronicle, “we can’t be without it”.
Runaway thievery also goes back to the origin of the Russian nation. In the mid-19th century, Tsar Nicholas I asked the court historian Karamzin how things were in the provinces. “Ils volent, sire,” sighed the historian (“Thieving, Your Majesty” – in those days educated Russians expressed their spirituality in French).
Karamzin was referring to the tsar’s viceroys, many of whom weren’t paid any salary at all on the assumption that they could live nicely off the fat of the land. Yet as one went further down in Russian society, one could always observe the snowball effect: thieving increased.
The Russians never got around to the idea that private property is inviolable because it’s a guarantor of liberty. John Locke believed it was the guarantor, and there he went too far. But the Russians never even graduated to the indefinite article.
Under the tsars, every Russian from the loftiest courtier to the lowliest peasant could be dispossessed on a whim. Most prison sentences were accompanied by confiscation of property, if that’s the right word.
Confiscation means the state taking away something that’s privately owned. Yet in Russia the tsar held the patrimonial freehold on every square foot of land. All others in effect held merely a leasehold.
The tsars could reward loyalty with gifts of land. Catherine II, for example, gave Prince Potemkin estates bigger than all of the UK. But what the tsar gives, he can take away.
No one in Russia, noble or common, rich or poor, had any guaranteed protection of property, no certainty that tomorrow he wouldn’t starve, and that’s before the Bolshevik looters took over.
Russian folklore reflects both the insecurity and the resulting disdain for acquisition in proverbs like “don’t be sure you’ll escape prison or beggar’s bag”, “work isn’t a wolf, it won’t run away into the forest”, “work likes fools”, “you won’t build a stone house by honest work” and – appropriate to my theme here – “you don’t steal, you won’t survive”.
There exist countless other proverbs to the same effect: money is worthless, working to earn it is useless, those who do so are either fools or knaves. It’s little wonder then that the same people whose property isn’t respected feel no compunction to respect property that belongs to others.
The loo bowls were then fair game, especially in a country where millions of people still use outdoor facilities, that is a jerry-built booth housing a hole in the ground.
Since winters in Russia can be rather cold, certain activities that Westerners take for granted become life-threatening – those booths aren’t heated and, without going into unsavoury detail, it’s hard to stay fully dressed while there.
This situation only exists in the countryside, but then it’s a safe bet that many of Putin’s pirates aren’t committed urbanists. And even if they do live in towns, they know many people who don’t.
Hence what they nicked could be flogged, and the temptation must have been irresistible. Those shiny porcelain objects could be quickly exchanged for the Russian national drink, sometimes bypassing the exchange medium of money.
Now, though I’ve generously allowed that Putin didn’t order his brave sailors to snatch the loo bowls, there’s no doubt that his kleptocratic government fosters the culture of thievery. And I don’t just mean the trillions in oil revenues they’ve dumped into Western offshore havens while a third of the population are starving.
Speaking at the Russia Is Calling! forum on 20 November, Vlad felt called upon to explain why Russia doesn’t produce shale gas. The existing extraction methods, he explained, aren’t sound enough ecologically, which must have brought one of those mirthless diabolical grins to Greta’s face.
“We’ll just wait until the Americans have spent a lot of money on R&D and then – scritchy-snatch [my attempt at translating the onomatopoeic Russian expression цап-царап].
It’s good to see that the folk wisdom of “you don’t steal, you don’t survive” exists in the rarefied atmosphere of the Kremlin. For what’s a national government if it doesn’t keep its finger on the pulse of national ethos?