It’s so much more than just that. It’s a unique civilisation, without any close analogues in history.
Thus spake Vlad Putin in his speech the other day. Or rather he spake nine months ago, but the speech was kept on the back burner until the time was judged propitious for its release.
He then evoked a vivid memory of one of Chekhov’s short stories, where two officers argue whether or not Pushkin was a great psychologist. One of them wins the argument with an irresistible logical flourish: “If Pushkin hadn’t been a great psychologist, they wouldn’t have erected his statue in Moscow.”
I don’t know if Vlad has read that story; I rather doubt it on general grounds. However, he did employ similar logic to prove his point about Russia being not just a country but a civilisation:
“This is already an obvious fact: [otherwise] we would never have had modern weapon systems, high-tech systems, high technology indeed, that no other country possesses, at least not yet…”
The US may take exception to that last claim, but the conclusion was unassailable: in order to preserve this civilisation “it’s precisely high technologies and their future development that we must definitely emphasise.”
By singling out the kind of high technologies that kill people en masse, Vlad sold his great civilisation short. It has also perfected technologies involved in hacking, trolling, applied toxicology and money laundering.
However, his conclusion can’t be faulted. Without keeping pace with Western science and technology, Russia is destined for ever to stay on what Russian journalists call “the oil needle”.
Yet that fix depends on fickle markets: when oil prices are high, Russia can indulge her affection for designing sophisticated weapons and trying them out on those who can’t respond in kind. When the prices are low, the unique civilisation totters and begins to fall into China’s eagerly open arms.
Putin and his cronies will amass their billions either way, but the rest of the population may get restless. To wit, Vlad’s approval ratings have already dropped by some 40 per cent, and they are heading in only one direction, what with oil currently selling for less than it costs to produce.
Last year, even before Covid, the Federal State Statistics Service reported that 20.9 million Russians, more than 14 per cent of the population, were living on less than £163 a month.
The situation is even worse in areas where no natural resources are extracted. Thus in Smolensk (p. 330,000) more than 16 per cent of the people are trying, and often failing, to survive on less than £4.50 a day.
And of course coronavirus, while devastating all economies, is even deadlier in places like Smolensk. “Never… have I seen so many hungry and desperate people as during these months of coronavirus pandemic,” said a spokesman for a major local charity.
So yes, high technologies may well be a solution. However, developing them to a level where they could help the people eat regularly involves two things, and both are in short and dwindling supply.
One is money, which rushes out of Russia in a mighty stream, eventually settling in the numbered accounts of Putin and his immediate entourage. The other is brains, which follow the same path, ending up in Western companies, research centres and universities.
There they prove yet again that, if Russia were indeed a real country, rather than a mythical ‘civilisation’, she’d have no shortage of talent. After all, say what you will about Google and Facebook, but we’ve got both courtesy of Russian immigrants.
As it is, the brain drain has reached diluvian proportions. Apparently, Russian scientists and engineers stubbornly refuse to abandon the habit of eating, even in exchange for the privilege of living in a unique civilisation held together by unrivalled spirituality.
A scan of Appointment ads in the Russian press explains this exodus adequately, with no commentary needed.
For example, Vektor, one of the country’s leading research centres, is advertising a vacancy for a senior scientist in the genome research department.
Research areas: human genome, gene editing, development of anti-HIV and cell technologies. Required qualifications: a degree in biochemistry, numerous publications in science journals, at least 10 years’ R&D experience in such areas as molecular biology, virology, biotechnology.
Salary: from 20,000 roubles a month (about £225).
Now, I don’t know how much a scientist with such qualifications would earn anywhere in the West. But even in the absence of such detailed information, one can see a potential candidate jumping on the first plane out of Russia, whenever they start flying again.
We aren’t talking about more or less comfort here. At stake is basic survival, and the law of self-preservation hasn’t yet been repealed even in Russia.
Putin is half-right: Russia indeed is no longer a country. But neither is it a unique civilisation. It’s a mass of poor, desperate, brainwashed people bossed by a state that’s indeed unique.
It’s history’s only fusion of secret police and organised crime, with the two constituents forming a homogeneous elite. The elite relies on fascistic methods of boundless propaganda and violence to keep the population in check, while siphoning trillions out of the country.
Nowhere this side of tinhorn Third World dictatorships is the contrast between the rulers and the ruled so vast. Yet none of those dictatorships gets the kind of good press Russia receives from the West’s fascisoid papers and parties.
But then some of those purloined trillions can buy any number of papers and parties. Alas, there’s little left to keep the people fed and the brains in the country.
P.S. Umberto Eco, RIP