Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What’s in a Name? Russia Must Overcome Its Imperial Place Names, Butakov Says


Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 19 – Since the end of Soviet times, many Russians have worked to eliminate the names of communist heroes from the map of Russia; but that is a far smaller and ultimately less important challenge than overcoming the imperial names embedded in the mental maps of Russians, Yaroslav Butakov says.

            “The categories ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ are so deeply imbedded in the consciousness of those living under Russian power that they dictator corresponding political doctrines, political understands and political expectations,” the regionalist writer argues. They must be changed if Russia is to advance (afterempire.info/2018/06/19/names/).

            “Russian geographic nomenclature,” Butakov continues, “over recent centuries has been overfulfilled with terms distorting the spatial picture of the world. Their only assignment is to stress the basic and world-building function of the ‘eternal’ imperial center.”  And that is what they unfortunately have done.

            In an earlier essay, he considered the term “Far East” as it is in appropriately applied to the regions of the Russian Federation along the Pacific (afterempire.info/2018/06/07/fareast/). But similar problems arise if one considers the terminology used for other parts of the country as well, Butakov argues.

            “A resident of ‘Central Russia’ is accustomed to think that he lives in ‘Central Russia,’ but that is only because Moscow is located there.” A quick glance at a map shows that “Moscow is in no way the center of Russia but rather is located on its extreme western borderland,” the regionalist says.

            As Butakov points out, “the geographic center of Russia is located between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk.  Given that, “Moscow and all the European part of the Russian Federation is Beyond the Urals” for this center; and “from the point of view of the Pacific regions, Moscow in general is the Far West.”

            Moving the Russian capital by itself will not solve this problem: it will simply lead to the appearance of another hyper-centralized state focused on a different city.  That is what happened when the capital was shifted to St. Petersburg by Peter the Great and then shifted back to Moscow by Lenin. The essence of the empire wasn’t changed in either case.

            The essential task, Butakov says, is “to liquidate the empire-centric nomenclature together with the empire and to create a polycentric political space.” To promote the latter, he suggests, it will be helpful to promote the former first.

            “Everyone, especially in the regions, awaits changes in Russia in the first instance from what ‘they are saying in the capitals,’” he continues.  But that isn’t necessary. “History shows that even in centralized states changes often begin with political events far from the very largest cities.”

            According to Butakov, “the historical wound, even curse, of Russia is the lack of the majority of regions of their own names. In contrast to the European Tyrol Provence, Alsace, and the various states of the US, in Russia, it has been customary to call regions according to the names of their main cities.”

            This tradition extends back for centuries; and “in principle, it does not exclude the creation of regional self-consciousness. But it does make this process more difficult.”

            “Any Russian oblast is as it were an attachment to the oblast center,” just as the regions are to Moscow. “The exceptions are only the national republics, although even in them, there is always a dominant city. Here we see the complete opposition of the situation in the United States and in Europe.”

            Those Russian regions located along major rivers have done better in terms of identity, Butakov says. “At least, they have the chance to identify themselves not with the central city, ‘the residence of the tsar’s representative’ but with a natural object.  And still better off are those like Kamchatka or Sakhalin which are already embedded in the names of the region.

            “But why not revive some old name, for example one connected with an ethnos that has disappeared or alternatively creatively think up and develop a new one?” Butakov asks. In Europe there are many regions named of peoples who have disappeared: Andalusia, Lombard, Saxony, and Prussia,” to name only a few.

            Some regionalists are promoting this in what is now Kaliningrad and in the area around Moscow.  And “the creation of new regional identities on the basis of well forgotten old ones seems fruitful and prospective.” In the case of Russia, in fact, it may well be the only possible path forward.

            “Regional polycentrism,” he argues, “obviously presupposes not competitive emulation of Moscow by other Russian megalopolises but the liquidation of the very Muscovite-imperial model, when a gigantic ‘capital’ gives commands to a faceless ‘land’” beyond.

            According to the regionalist writer, “when each region acquires its own real geographic name like the American states or the European historical districts, empire-centric thinking will collapse in the consciousness of people.” And consequently, getting rid of imperial names is a task of first importance.

Putin Pension Plan has Achieved What Many Thought Impossible – Uniting Russians Against Their Government


Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 19 – The decision to raise the pension age, formally announced by the government but undoubtedly approved by Vladimir Putin, has done what many had thought impossible: it not only has united the Russian people against their government but it has prompted opposition figures and union leader to behave as they should.

            As commentator Aleksandr Melnikov notes, the pension plan fiasco is “unique” in Russian history because it directly affects “the material interests of tens of millions of people” all at once and in ways that they understand (aleks-melnikov.livejournal.com/528575.html).

            Putin has thereby “achieved the impossible, in one moment drawing into politics the broadest masses of Russian citizens, including those who haven’t voted for anti-Putin parties, taken part in political meetings and are indifferent to the arrests of opposition figures, the commentator continues. 

            Moreover, by taking this poorly thought out action, Putin has told Russians both that “social stability is at an end” and that “the political opponents of Putin have been right in everything.” That is creating a sea change in Russia, but whether this revolutionary situation will lead to a revolution remains unclear.

            It is certainly true, Melnikov says, that Russians are asking whether the policy they see being imposed reflects the political and economic system which exists under Putin.  “And this is a revolutionary question.”  Increasingly, they are drawing that conclusion and coming to see that “this system will be destroyed. Sooner or later.”

Putin and his siloviki may be able to hold things in check for a longer time than one might expect, but in the end, the results will be the same as they were for the Russian Empire and the USSR. Putin is responsible for this, and for that, those who want a better future for Russia and Russians should be grateful, the commentator says.

            Melnikov almost certainly overstates his case and underestimates the resources of the Putin autocracy, but three developments this week support his view that the Russian people and their possible leaders have been transformed by what Putin has incautiously done after promising never to do it.  They include:

First, polls show that 92 percent of Russians oppose raising the pension age, and nearly two million have signed petitions to the government against that step, a greater unanimity than even Putin himself has ever achieved with all his political technology and repression (svoboda.org/a/29296510.html).

            Second, leaders of the opposition and leaders of the trade unions are being to act like they should, coming out against a government policy that hurts the people. They have organized some demonstrations and have announced more in the coming weeks; and now they may have the people behind them (echo.msk.ru/blog/corruption/2224438-echo/, graniru.org/Politics/Russia/activism/m.270948.html and kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5B279EEBB89EF).

And third, unlike many opposition enterprises in the past, this movement is drawing support not only from the two capitals but from cities and villages across the Russian Federation, something that will present a far greater challenge to the regime than it has faced in the past (kommersant.ru/doc/3661966).

Moreover, the regime’s response is only making the situation worse. Russian officials have been insisting that pensions for those who get them will go up significantly if they continue to work a few more years.  That notion is falling on deaf ears for both demographic and cultural reasons.

On the one hand, many Russians, especially men, won’t live to get any pension. In the Russian Far East, for example, fewer than half will do so if the pension age goes up. In short, they will pay into the system with their taxes but get no benefits at all. The government will thus keep it all.


And on the other hand, concern about gaining a pension and living for a few years has been embedded in the minds of most Russians as the closet thing to a communist utopia any of them are going to see. Taking that away is a surefire means of infuriating them beyond the point of any explanation.

As one thoughtful analyst puts it, one could raise the pension age in other countries without political fallout, but in Russia, because of its specific Soviet past, doing so, especially in the radical way Moscow has chosen to, will inevitably be not only unpopular but something that will snap the ties between the people and the state (nakanune.ru/articles/114043/).

Maintaining the Draft Will Harm Both Russian Army and Russian Economy, Sociologist Says


Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 19 – The Russian government should dispense with the mass draft because keeping it is blocking the technological advance of the armed forces and keeping those drafted from acquiring the skills needed to advance the Russian economy when they finish service, sociologist Sergey Belanovsky says. 

            This double whammy, the director of research at the Moscow Center for Strategic Planning argues, can best be avoided by ending the draft, relying on volunteers, forcing the military to modernize, and providing more training to those entering the workforce (sbelan.ru/Research-Presentations/Efficiency-use-labor-resources-in-armed-forces-of-the-Russian-Federation.pdf).

            In his 22-page study and in the summary in Novyye izvestiya today (newizv.ru/article/general/19-06-2018/sotsiolog-sohranyat-vseobschuyu-voinskuyu-obyazannost-srodni-bezumiyu), Belanovsky supports his positions with detailed sociological data about the military, the economy and the cohort of men aged 18 to 25.

            Belanovsky’s argument has been made repeatedly by Western observers and some Russian economists who note that because the Russian army has traditionally relied on numbers rather than technology, officers have less incentive to shift to labor-saving technologies that could make the military a more effective force.

            And both groups have pointed to the way in which military service, even when reduced to 12 months as now, has the effect of leaving new entrants two the workforce less prepared than they would otherwise be. In all too many cases, their military service does not prepare them for any job more technologically advanced than a janitor or guard.

            In the past and despite the recognition of the political leadership of these two factors, there are at least two reasons why the Kremlin may be more prepared to accept this argument now than in the past.  On the one hand, Putin has said he wants to end the draft and so advocates of that start with a real advantage.

            And on the other, the declining size of the draft-age cohort means that if the military continues to take large numbers out of it, this will have a serious and negative impact on the Russian economy, at the very least making it far more difficult for Moscow to pursue the economic breakthrough the Kremlin insists it needs.