Putin’s Government Prioritizes Russian State at Expense of People

Andrew Fedorov, Contributing Writer

Since the early 1940s, my grandfather has kept track of the price of bread. During the Second World War, while living in Chelyabinsk, a major industrial city in Russia’s Ural Mountains, he starved to the point of puffing up. Since then, he has tracked the state of the world by checking how his local market prices its bread.

While he spent a few months in Moscow this summer, his indicator swung in a disturbing direction. Food prices shot up with a 7.5 percent increase in July and another 7.6 percent in August. Unlike with previous increases, he could not explain the spike in prices with any of the free market operations that he’s been trying to understand for the last two decades. This time, it was fully explained by direct government action. As part of his retaliatory sanctions, President Vladimir Putin banned the import of Western foods into Russia. This failed to substantially impact Western economies and simply reduced the quality of life for Russians.

This latest government strike against the Russian people indicates the governing philosophy of Putin’s government. Innumerable times, the government has demonstrated its belief that the power of the state is of the utmost importance and the welfare and lives of the people is of no importance at all. We can see this attitude in the recent disrespectful unmarked burials in small villages of Russian soldiers who died fighting in the Ukrainian conflict, which itself is a merciless power game from Putin’s perspective.

But the most poignant and typical instance of the enactment of Putin’s policy happened in late October in 2002, when a group of young terrorists from Chechnya (incidentally, another area where Putin’s lust for state power has violently struck down the principle of self-determination) took a theater filled with Moscow musical enthusiasts hostage. After refusing to negotiate with the terrorists for three days, Russian special forces used underground passages to fill the theater with sleeping gas. It failed to immediately knock out the terrorists, and though hostages reported that they were aware of the gas, mysteriously, no bombs went off. Special forces executed the sleeping terrorists with shots to the head and evacuated the sleeping hostages. Unfortunately, they took less care in evacuating the victims than in the executions and laid the hostages on their backs, where they were allowed to drown in their own vomit. In the end, a few halfhearted terrorists were stopped, 130 innocent Russians died and Putin’s government news channels played it off as a success.

This philosophy is, of course, not unique to Putin’s government. Russian leaders, from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin, have long undervalued the lives of their citizens, and the life expectancy of Russians has long been abysmal. Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen recently wrote in The New York Review of Books that “with the exception of two brief periods — when Soviet Russia was ruled by Khrushchev and again when it was run by Gorbachev — death rates have been inexorably rising. This continued to be true even during the period of unprecedented economic growth between 1999 and 2008.” She additionally wrote that “male life expectancy at age 15 in Russia compares unfavorably to that in Ethiopia, Gambia and Somalia.”

Life is becoming unsustainable in Russia. A few weeks ago, while staying in a pilgrim hostel in a small coastal town of Spain’s Galicia province, I discovered that one of the volunteers who ran the hostel was Russian. She told me that she was from Saint Petersburg and that while walking the Camino de Santiago, she had decided to stop in this small town because she couldn’t handle the stress of events at home and the way they permeated every aspect of life. She had been living and working illegally in Spain for three months because there, unlike in Russia, she said she “felt like a human being.”

In a rabidly capitalist, inegalitarian society, which Russia most certainly is (it has one of the world’s largest numbers of billionaires, one of the smallest numbers of millionaires and rampant poverty), the common man, who is by definition poor, is not considered to be of any importance because he is of no significance as a consumer.

It is an obvious and widely acknowledged fact that Russia is not a de facto democracy. The consequences of this fact, however, are that the common man is even further devalued. When a man is not worth a vote to a politician, he is worth nothing. When the most powerful politician in an undemocratic country continues to hold to the principle of power at any cost, the cost is inevitably the people. As we have seen time and again, Putin is willing to pay this price, and thus, seemingly unwittingly, he is putting in place the factors that will one day be used to explain a war, a revolution, or, at the very least, his loss of power. All this he does in the name of power, because he fails to understand that a state is not made up of rocks, rivers and mountains. It is not made up of Crimean lands or even a full circle on a pie chart of power. It is made up of people.