Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sometimes, I forget about Russia...

Stephen Kotkin
(Or maybe Lenin?)
Professor of History
Princeton University
(Image from

. . . 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....

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.
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.

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.



At 6:47 AM, Blogger highlandsgirl said...

Funny, as (an American) growing up, Russia had a real mystique. But while living in Cyprus until 2004, many of my son's classmates at his international school were Russian. I couldn't help grinning at his stories about "Igor" and "Vladimir." There was a large population there (for an island of less than a million), many drawn by possibilities of establishing "offshore companies" in which revenues were not scrutinized by the government.

A good Armenian friend remembers her school days as part of the USSR with fondness. She completed a university education, had dance and music classes, but when Armenia pulled away as the Soviet Union dissolved, economic chaos followed. She recalls weeks without electricity or running water in her flat in Yerevan before she emigrated. Now she cleans houses to support herself and her three children in a new country, hoping for a better life for her children. Many of her friends' husbands went to Russia for work and never came back to their families.

As for migration and the Muslim population in Moscow, it's a societal change which isn't coming without its stresses. My husband was walking with a couple of Central Asia men there last autumn when he was working on a story about this very issue. Several times, police stopped them, checked documents, harrassed them. He never even got a nod. Here's a recent BBC story that relates --

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Highlands Girl, for the comment. You seem to have an interesting history.

I can understand your Armenian friend's fondness for a time of greater stability. Russians doubtless feel some of the same fondness for a time of stability and security, however restricted life may have been.

Your husband is a journalist, I take it? I've heard that all people from the Caucasus -- regardless of Muslim, Christian, or even Pagan -- suffer discrimination in Slavic Russia. Perhaps Muslims face more problems.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:31 PM, Blogger highlandsgirl said...

Actually we're both writers. And as for "interesting history," we're in Istanbul now (by way of China, UK, Singapore and Cyprus) but graduated from that little place on the Brazos when you did. I was an English Lit major there.

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Now, that's interesting! You were a literature major at 'Jerusalem on the Brazos' and graduated at the same time as I . . . which raises the overwhelming question -- oh, do not ask "What is it?" Let us go, and make our visit.

"What is it?" isn't the question of course. Maybe it's "To be, or not to be?" Maybe that is the question...

But not my question. My question is ... did we know each other?

And also ... am I in trouble for something stupid that I might have done way back when?

But feel free to maintain your secret identity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:07 PM, Blogger highlandsgirl said...

This is highly amusing. We actually discussed "Do I dare to eat a peach?" waiting in line at Memorial cafeteria.

No, nothing to be worried about from your past. But you did, during a late night at Denny's consisting of too many cups of coffee (for me) and eating sweet rolls with ice cream (your idea), give me an excellent reading list to work through.

I regret to say, that 25 years on, I haven't finished it. Please forgive me. It's here somewhere in the bottom of a drawer. . .really. . .

Robin Martin née Dye

At 7:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Robin Dye ... yes, I recall a blond woman and some ice cream at Denny's Restaurant. It sounds as if you were full of the ice cream and I was full of myself.

Didn't you also teach me how to break loose of someone who's grabbed you by the wrist? You surprised me by your strength ... though you'd doubtless attribute it all to your self-defense technique.

(Lest anyone misunderstand, Robin was demonstrating self-defense, and I was a pupil, not an attacker...)

Anyway, did you stumble across my blog by accident?

And what sort of writing do you do?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:41 AM, Blogger highlandsgirl said...

No, I went looking for you. I was telling my daughter about the new Harvard president, Dr. Faust, and I started thinking about friends who may have continued on in the academic world. Isn't Google an amazing thing?

Your very well put-together blog left no doubt that you were the Jeff Hodges from BU days.

I haven't done a very good job of keeping up with friends through the years. Perhaps my address has changed too many times. I did see Dr. Hanks in London when he was there researching punctuation in one of GC's tales. But that was at least 10 years ago.

What kind of writing? Hmmm. When we returned from China (teaching English) I specialized in food writing and was a restaurant critic. It was a niche market, and publications actually paid me to eat and write for them. Ideal.

Now, however, I write and edit a variety of projects: articles about marginalized peoples (e.g. Kurds, the Roma), studies on Muslim women's issues, Christian persecution, Central Asian culture, etc.

I'd love to hear more about your family and work.

Incidentally, two of my children are in an international school here that's about 30 percent Korean. So my youngest has picked up more Korean than Turkish on the playground.

Do you still have long hair and a beard?


At 5:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, Google is great. Great is Google. Google -- according to one scholar -- is God. Not just a god. God. Google is omniscient and omnipresent, and thus obviously God.

Tongue in cheek, of course.

I'll continue this conversation by email.

Jeffery Hodges

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