Sometimes, I forget about Russia...
. . . till one of my old Berkeley acquaintances, Stephen Kotkin, writes an article that reminds me.
Like me, Kotkin entered Berkeley as a graduate student in history, and I got to know him through several courses because we had arrived the same year and because he chose history of science as a second field to complement his first field, Russian history.
Kotkin's a smart, productive guy who -- also like me -- happens to have married a South Korean woman, which gives him an interest in this part of the world as well. Doubtless, he would be interested in East Asia anyway because Russia extends deeply into this area of the globe. Don't forget that it shares a border with North Korea.
Kotkin has been more successful than I -- deservedly so -- and is currently a professor of history and the director of Russian and Eurasian Studies program at Princeton University.
Anyway, I received an email notification of a recent Kotkin article from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in Philadelphia, from which I regularly receive reflective, scholarly updates on news and events pertaining to American foreign policy. Sometimes, I even read these updates, which explains why I'm so well-informed.
Kotkin's article, "Russia under Putin: Toward Democracy or Dictatorship?" (March 2007), offers insights into Russia's current circumstances, and I'd like to quote a few passages, starting with this surprising one:
Here in the U.S., it seems much harder than it should be to get good information on and insight into Russia. For instance, while the U.S. is the world's number-one country in the number of immigrants it receives each year, Russia is second. Perhaps you knew that, but most likely you did not. "Immigrant nation" is not a way we in the U.S. talk about or understand today's Russia. Most of the immigrants to Russia come from former Soviet republics, like Ukraine, Armenia, or Tajikistan, though some also come from North Korea and China. Today more than 500,000 and perhaps up to 1 million Muslims are thought to live in Moscow! At the same time, more than a quarter million Russians live in London. These migratory patterns represent major shifts. They are tied to the huge story of the Russian economy, which is transregional and global, but which we often hear about through a political lens.That's fascinating about Russia being an "immigrant nation," and I was one of the many who did not -- as Kotkin surmised -- know this fact. Moscow, with its population of about 10 million (comparable to Seoul), is thus about 5 to 10 percent Muslim, which is not insignificant and will become more significant as these Muslims achieve economic and political power.
I also didn't know that a quarter million Russians live in London. I wonder what the ethnic breakdown on that is?
Kotkin argues that whereas Russia's government is rather unstable and dependent upon Putin for whatever degree of stability it does have, Russian society is stable because of its middle class:
The part of Russia that is stable is the society. Russian society is enormously dynamic. According to professional studies by the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, something like 20-25 percent of Russian society qualifies as solidly middle class. Other studies -- similarly measuring everything from level of education, foreign language knowledge, travel and abroad to income, lifestyle and, most important, property ownership -- confirm this general picture....This is very interesting -- especially the middle-class identification with European values, for we hear so much about how Russia, as a Eurasian country, does not identify with the West -- but I wonder how truly stable Russian society is if so much of its wealth depends upon working for the state, which is not stable.
That doesn't mean that the society has no poverty, that there aren't deep problems like an overall decline of the population at all ages -- down to 142 million, and still shrinking, despite the immigration. But the country has a dynamic, stable society, and it owns property. We tend to assume that there cannot be property ownership without rule of law. But if that were true, Chinese society or Russian society would not exist. But they do exist. There is no rule of law. But there is widespread ownership of property. For all the deep social problems -- from drug-resistant TB to persistent alcoholism -- Russian society is simultaneously a source of dynamism and stability.
About half of the Russian middle class works for the state. They're bureaucrats and functionaries, law enforcement officials and tax collectors, inspectors and education overseers. They work in the KGB successor, the FSB, and in the big state-owned gas, oil, automobile, or defense companies. There's a gigantic private economy in Russia (Russia's economy is more private than China's). But even those who work in private companies usually work in very large corporations. A tiny fraction of the Russian middle class owns their own businesses, but by and large, Russia's middle class is not independent, small- or medium-sized business owners. Whereas in the United States and Western Europe, 70 percent of employment is in small and medium-sized businesses, Russia doesn't even approach 25 percent for such employment. Still, Russia has a stable, dynamic, growing, state and corporate middle class that has a tremendous stake in stability.
Putin deserves some credit for the current sense of and desire for continued social stability, and he gets such credit from middle class Russians and those aspiring to become so. Again, however, outsiders sometimes miss or misinterpret this point, because they are looking for democracy. American political science teaches that if a country gets a stable middle class, it is on the road to the rule of law and democracy. This is true except in all the cases where it's not true, which is most of the world. The Russian middle class knows Europe firsthand from traveling there, and for the most part its members identify with the values and institutions of democratic Europe. But the Russian middle class is smart, and it knows that if it gets political, it could lose its property and status. Individuals respond to incentives very well (economists are not totally wrong), and for the most part Russia's middle class is not ready to sacrifice its position to push for the rule of law and democracy; rather, it is interested in preserving its wealth, in privileged access for its children to educational institutions and to career paths. So there is no push in Russia for democracy either from the top or the middle, even though much of the middle identifies strongly with European values and institutions.
Still, it's reassuring to hear that a large middle class does exist. And Kotkin is surprisingly reassuring about Russia's direction:
Consolidation of dictatorship is not happening either, and society is a factor in that as well. Russia has no ideology like communism to unify people around a strong dictator, the Russian state lacks the capacity to impose military-style discipline on itself, and Russia has a market economy that is extremely complex to subordinate in part because it’s globalized. Even though there is a strong current in Russian society appreciative of order, few people mistake order for dictatorship. In fact, in conversations there is quite a lot of criticism in Russia of Putin and of the country's direction, especially from people who comprise the Russian state. Meanwhile, Russian society is transforming the country’s socioeconomic landscape with its hard work, entrepreneurialism, consumption patterns and tastes, demand for education, foreign travel, and networking both domestically and globally. Russia's social transformation is a big story, hiding, once again, in plain view. It is enough to take in the commercial advertising throughout society and media, including on pro-Kremlin Russian television, to see that business interests are targeting something commentators are not: Russia's middle class.If Kotkin is right, we'd better start paying attention to Russia's growing, successful, wealthy, European-oriented, smart middle class. Kotkin is also not obsessively worried about Russia's currently 'hardline' foreign policy:
This revived, assertive, resentful Russia is nothing to fear. Russia has state interests that are different from U.S. interests (or Japanese interests or Chinese interests). Russians are more assertive in pressing their perceived state interests, but are they effective in doing so? Have they persuaded Europe that they’re a partner in energy security by cutting off the gas to Ukraine, or are they using their energy muscle in a way that could be compared to stepping on a rake? When you step on a rake, you smack yourself in the forehead. That's Russian foreign policy. They smack themselves in the forehead.My 7-year-old son would love that image of a rake smaking hard against the forehead, for like all little boys, he likes slapstick humor, but I suppose that we're to find the humor reassuring since it implies that Russian assertiveness is not especially effective in the world. But if Russia learns to sidestep the rake so that its handle pokes Uncle Sam in the eye for watching too closely, might we also be reassured to learn that Russia is learning from its mistakes? Far better for Russia not to step on the rake at all but to practise a less-rakish foreign policy.
Anyway, Kotkin has several other reassuring things to say about Russia today, but I'll spare the quotes and let you go read his entire article if you have the interest.