March 26th, 2012

Following my long-shot praise of the Russian playgirl and reformer Xenia Sobchak (surely the better transliteration), I thought I would offer her and the movement of which she is a part some unsolicited advice on what to do next. I’ve emailed it to opposition parties picked with a pin, hoping it will reach her eventually.

Commenters are invited to add their takes.


Dear Ms. Sobchak:

Like many other casual and less casual observers of Russia, I have been struck by your surprising emergence as a prominent activist in the protest movement against ballot-rigging in Russia and more generally the corrupt authoritarianism of the Putin government. I have written about you favourably on the current affairs group blog to which I contribute, The Reality-Based Community. This letter is an open one and will be posted on the same blog. The comments there from our regular readers will I’m sure be worth your time.

You are of course one among many leaders of the protests, and others like Boris Nemtsov have been active in opposition politics much longer than you. At present your value is symbolic and mediatic. This has its importance, and your service to the movement -is in part as a lightning-rod to attract attention such as this letter. I make no apology for making you a channel to address the wider movement. At the end I will offer some thoughts which are specifically for you.

My last visit to Russia was in 2007 as a tourist on the Trans-Siberian, and my last working one a few years before that. I am out of touch, and would be delighted to be proved wrong in my pessimistic assessments from a distance. Besides, I have no expertise to offer you on political organisation, campaigning, or media: and therefore cannot help you and your colleagues navigate the immediate crisis. What I do know a little about is policy. In your reported speech you rightly said that the opposition must decide what it for as well as against; and this letter is a response to your challenge. To succeed in wresting power from Putin’s machine, the opposition needs a diagnosis of what’s wrong with Russia today; and workable programmes of reform that will attract ordinary Russian citizens. “Programmes” in the plural because the democratic alternative naturally includes a range of viewpoints on a left-right and other ideological axes.

“Democracy” is I hear not very popular in Russia; it’s associated with the chaos, looting and sleaze of the Yeltsin era. The opposition must offer a credible “Democracy 2.0″, advancing tangible reforms through robust and transparent democratic procedures. Democrats must not rely on a starry-eyed trust that such procedures guarantee sensible outcomes. They don’t; see Israel’s fully democratic blunders since 1967. An attractive alternative must offer both practical solutions to everyday problems of the life of Russian citizens and communities, and a coherent vision or story - consistent with the practical programme - of Russia’s future as a nation.

It’s a huge agenda. All I can or should do is provoke you and your colleagues into a discussion on a few aspects. I will comment on four: the diagnosis; the policy ecosystem; inequality; and energy. Finally, some lines directed at you personally on (with no apology) sex and drugs.

(Warning: long wonkish post below the jump, before the fun stuff at the end)
I. What’s the matter with Russia?
II: An alternative policy ecosystem
III: Inequality
IV: Energy
V: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll

I. What’s the matter with Russia?

The old-style Marxism you were exposed to at school did have the merit of insisting on analysis before action, even if the analysis was blinkered and usually wrong. The Putin system has, I suggest, two main features. The modern aspect is Bonapartism, in the Mark 2 version of Napoleon III: the autocrat has electoral legitimacy, sustained by control and manipulation of the media, puppetisation of other representative institutions, coopting of strategic business élites into privileged subservience, and selective persecution of key dissenters. The people are kept happy by bread and circuses: your past function has been as performer in the circus. Another example of this style would be Chavez’ Venezuela.

A Bonapartist system relies on control of a few chokepoints and does not have the comprehensive apparatus of monitoring and control of the people that characterised Soviet Communism. It is therefore much more vulnerable. One big foreign policy mistake or domestic scandal, a momentary loss of control of the media, the police wavers, and it can collapse. But if the Russian opposition is counting on such a scenario, I think it is mistaken. For the other aspect of Putinism is its reversion to the patrimonial rent-seeking of Muscovy. Before Peter the Great, Russia was run as the private property of the Tsars. They extracted surplus by differentiated levies on any economic activity; the tiaglo was less a tax in the modern sense of a uniform law-governed levy than like the salary the owner of a business pays himself. The system allowed the maximum extraction of rent. It was astonishingly stable. Peter the Great abandoned it not because of internal stresses but because it condemned Russia to perpetual backwardness in the contest with other European powers.

Putinism reproduces this model of the state as landlord in relation, not to the whole economy, but to natural resources, and particularly oil and gas. To understand rent-seeking, I recommend going back to the pre-Marxian classical economist David Ricardo (Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Ch 2, On Rent). The landlord extracts all the surplus after normal wages and normal profits: more from good land, less from average land, next to nothing from marginal land. The tenants have the same income (for equal effort) everywhere. In Russia, the rent from natural resources is redistributed to favoured servitors - the new boyars - and the people, in measured doses, in order to keep them loyal.

Where is the weakness in this scheme? As with Muscovite patrimonialism, it looks stable, and can be kept going as long as the natural resources hold out. Accordingly my diagnosis, for what it’s worth, of Russia today is that Putinism will be a hard nut to crack, and the opposition should expect to work for a decade or more.

Bamapartism and Muscovitism share one flaw. they tend to get things wrong in the long run. Both are anti-intellectual, unlike Marxism, and prize reliability above creativity. Even in the slow-moving 17th century, Muscovy could not keep up with little Sweden in military technology and organization. What is Russia’s contribution today on the frontiers of information technology and biosciences? Negligible. There is no prospect of this changing under Putin. Russia will continue to slide down the world pecking order.

Internally, the reliance on loyal hacks (a feature of both models), combined with the absence of any ideological organizing principles, leads to systematically second-rate policies. The declining health care system, and the failure of the 1993 reforms, was for instance not addressed till 2011, and then just by throwing money at it. The same holds for the environment, the military, etc. As time goes on, more and more citizens will wake up to this pervasive second-rateness.

Which creates an opportunity.

II: An alternative policy ecosystem

Whenever the government of an advanced country - the USA, Britain, Germany, France - , or the EU or ECB, announces a new policy, white paper in hand and on its website, it is immediately greeted with a wave of analyses and counter-proposals. These stem not only from a political opposition but also, and typically in greater depth, from civil society. Independent or lobby-funded think tanks, charities like Oxfam, campaigning NGOs like Greenpeace, policy-oriented academics like Paul Krugman, international organizations like the IMF and OECD, self-appointed bloggers like me, all put in their pennyworth. Even in the era of print, Western governments did not have a monopoly of policy ideas; and the Internet has enormously expanded the opportunities for, and lowered the costs of, participating in a policy debate. Although government bureaucracies have far greater resources overall than civil society, in fact they don’t put very much into policy development, and the disparity of arms is less than it looks. The area of genuinely and necessarily secret information, that would privilege the government’s inside view, is vanishingly tiny: such as intelligence of the nuclear plans of Iran and North Korea. There is even a flourishing open community on cryptography.

From an admittedly casual look at the English-language websites of Russian opposition parties (Yabloko; A Just Russia; The Other Russia) I do not get the impression that there is anything comparable in Russia. Where are the parties’ white papers on health, climate change, bank regulation, the information society, criminal justice, etc., etc.? I suggest that the opposition should invest effort into building an alternative policy ecosystem, examining all the big issues facing the Russian polity over the coming 25 years. (I put 25 years because it’s a reasonable horizon for energy investments.) It should be open to the vast global resource of foreign and international experience, standard-setting and analysis. At the same time, a strong domestic capability is essential in order to avoid a simple copying of favoured foreign models, which rarely works, and to graft foreign knowledge securely on to Russian traditions and values.

You may object that this idea is not democratic but élitist. What schoolteacher in Omsk is going to participate in a debate on say net neutrality in telecoms regulation? You’re right, it is élitist - because a deliberative democracy must find space for expert knowledge, and the range of expert opinion on contested problems, as well as grassroots input from ordinary voters and community groups. As long as the experts don’t think that expertise gives them the final say, they can serve and enrich democracy and improve its outcomes. Furthermore, the alternative policy community will itself be diverse, reflecting a range of political sensibilities: conservative, liberal, green, socialist. There will rarely be a single expert view on an important problem that could supplant democratic choice.

As I’ve said, the Internet makes the infrastructure of an alternative policy community absurdly cheap. It also allows access to dissenters within government. In a Putin-type system, young policy analysts inside the executive will surely often be frustrated when their proposals are shelved, not on the merits, but because they offend some interest group or powerful player. You can reasonably hope for their anonymous collaboration.

In the advanced democracies there are a number of non-governmental bodies whose analyses are as credible as those of governments; the Rand Corporation in California. the Institute of Fiscal Studies on London, SIPRI in Stockholm. In Russia the intellectual competition from government must be much lower. With time, the alternative policy community could seize the intellectual high ground. When your proposals become the reference to be attacked, you have won.

III: Inequality

Russia is now once again a very unequal society. I suspect that your unique history prevents many Russians from seeing this in a proper context. Soviet Russia was a pretty equal society in socio-economic terms. At the same time, Party rule and “democratic centralism” made it a wildly unequal one in political ones. The association between class and power was broken, as in clerical theocracies like the Papal States between 1500 and 1850. The post-1991 democratic and pro-market revolution in Russia accordingly led to the re-emergence of ordinary class inequality, and this was to some extent normal. The current situation, however, is not. Russia’s Gini coefficient  of around 42% puts it slightly behind the USA, and far behind the other OECD countries: and unlike Russia, the USA already had huge concentrations of wealth and disparities in income in 1991.

Inequality is increasingly recognized as a huge policy problem worldwide. Inequality within countries is growing in most developed countries, even Sweden. (Global inequality is doing better because the large poor countries are growing faster than rich ones.) Some attribute this to the “winner take all” features of a service economy - the third best car-maker earns almost as much as the top one, the third best footballer, TV host, footballer, derivatives salesman or social media entrepreneur earns a fraction of the leader. Others say that the new rich are more aggressive than their predecessors in seeking and holding on to the rents that skill or luck place in their way. At all events, large inequalities have measurably bad effects on health, crime, educational opportunity and social mobility. To these we must add the danger to democracy of concentrated power and wealth, oligarchic or even dynastic.

To a social democrat it is one of the functions of the democratic state to contain and if possible to roll back inequality, by transfer payments to the poor, progressive taxation, and universal provision of health care and education. Some politicians have argued on the same basis for universal broadband access to the Internet. The welfare state is the opposite of a utopian scheme: it is designed to limit and repair the damage the market economy inflicts on the social fabric that sustains it, and can never completely succeed. On this pragmatic basis, the welfare state is widely accepted (in Europe at least) by Christian Democrats, British Tories and other moderate conservatives.

In Russia, analysis might start by accepting that inequality is a fact of life, but it’s also an evil to be opposed, without hope of complete victory, just as physicians fight death. You need to monitor class inequalities in health education, access to the Internet and public services, political responsibilities, etc; and think up a raft of policies that have a chance of reducing them.

Health care is a priority here. A decent universal healthcare system was one of the few unquestionable achievements of Soviet Communism; we can still see the model in Cuba, and it works. It’s entirely reasonable for older Russians to be nostalgic for this, and such nostalgia has been exploited by reactionaries. Reformers need to convince citizens that they are determined to restore universal health care, better than before; and to recognize that in this area the free market simply cannot work. (For the theoretical explanation, look up the 1963 paper of Nobel prizewinner Kenneth Arrow: “Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care”, American Economic Review 53 (5): 941–973, For the practical evidence, look at the OECD surveys of national health policies.) There are a good many working models of universal health care, from the regulated private insurance of Switzerland to the plain socialist services of the Nordic countries and Britain: you can have a technocratic or ideologically driven argument within this spectrum, but every point on it relies on heavy state intervention.

You may well respond at this point, what about gender inequality? It has been getting less in many countries, which is very good news. Middle-class women like Margaret Thatcher and Dilma Rousseff have broken through at the top of politics in a good many countries, and it’s happening at the top of business as well. Similarly, in countries with a history of racial discrimination, purely race-driven inequality seems to be declining. In other words, class has come to dominate other forms of inequality: and it has been getting worse.

IV: Energy

Energy policy is crucially important in Russia because oil and gas are its biggest exports, and because control of the revenues is the central power base of the Putin régime (see above). Now both will run out some day - oil before gas. The timescale is decades, not years or centuries. What’s more, they will run out everywhere in the world, and everybody will have to switch to renewables, nuclear or coal. The other factor driving the switch from oil and gas is climate change, which rules out a switch to coal. In any case, Russian coal is in Siberia; it can only be burnt there for electricity, as exporting on any scale would be expensive.

One issue for Russia is how to handle the export earnings in the fat years before the lean ones inevitably come. Norway is putting its billions into a rainy day sovereign wealth fund (current value $600bn, or $120,000 per Norwegian). Putin is just spending the money to keep in power, preparing a nasty crunch for Russia when the money dries up. Meanwhile, Russian industry has been weakened by the “Dutch disease” of a high exchange rate propped up by the natural resource exports. .

It is possible that the crunch will come before the physical exhaustion of the reserves. The switch to wind and especially solar photovoltaic energy has been gathering pace. Installations of photovoltaic systems worldwide grew 40% last year, wind energy ones grew 22% from a higher base. Global investment in renewable energy passed that in fossil fuels in 2010.  Such growth rates are the sign of a revolution, not incremental change. They have benefited from large subsidies in key markets, but these are being rapidly reduced as costs continue to fall. There’s no reason to think the cost reduction has ended. In a few years, renewable energy will be clearly the cheapest option for generating electricity over much of the globe. Its integration into the grid will become a growing headache. For now gas is the best option for gap-filling, but the quantities burnt will be much less than for baseload, and nuclear, storage and geothermal provide (more expensive) low-carbon alternatives. On a somewhat longer timescale, electric cars will replace oil-fueled ones.

For the next few years, the trend is clear. The price of oil and probably gas will go up, and that of renewable electricity will go down. Reinforced by these price changes, the big shift is inevitable, even without government incentives and likely future progress on batteries and other technology bottlenecks.

Looking further ahead, the future for oil exporters is both uncertain and bimodal. On one scenario, prices keep going up until reserves are exhausted. On another, they first rise and then crash because demand has slumped (though some will still be needed for aviation, shipping and petrochemicals). Either way, there will sooner or later be an income crunch.

The decline for gas will be less dramatic. Gazprom has 40 years of proven reserves at current rates of production, though its new fields are in the high Arctic and expensive to tap. The decline will be led by demand. The electricity generation market will ensure the decline in gas is gradual. But the transition away from fossil fuels will kill it also in the end.

The alternative policy community in Russia should develop deep analyses of all these trends and draw up policy approaches under the likeliest scenarios. Unlike Putin’s, these should be responsible: concerned with prudent husbanding of the temporary windfall of export earnings, and designed to secure a sustainable future for Russia after the oil and gas run out or become worthless.

Sustainability means a transition to renewable energy. The current target for this in Russia is merely 4.5% of total energy supply by 2020.  The EU target for the same year is 20% of primary energy, meaning about 35% of electricity; and even that is low in the face of the challenge of climate change. Russian policy is backward not only by the benchmarks of leaders such as Germany, China, the USA and Japan, but by those of India, Brazil and Kenya. Getting the Russian economy to carbon neutrality by say 2050 would require massive investment in all of a suite of well-known components: solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, energy efficiency, and a smart grid. (It is significant that Russia has been making no contribution to these key technologies.) Before this, you will need numerous policy changes and restructured incentives, such as feed-in tariffs for small-scale generation of solar power on residential and commercial sites, combined geothermal heat and power, and so on..

V: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll

Strike the rock and roll, I don’t know anything about it.

I’m not being prurient but sex and (to a lesser extent) drugs are aspects of your past life which you will have to deal with in your future one, so long as you stay a prominent member of the opposition. You also voluntarily placed them in the public domain, wisely or not, so you have to accept that strangers may comment on them. All I can say is that my comments may be impertinent but are well-intentioned, and you will have to deal repeatedly with far worse.

You have two options for handling your past. For the sake of completeness, the first is the Mary Magdalene or George W. Bush approach: you were young and foolish, you have turned the page and are a different woman now. I have no idea whether you have in fact undergone such a Damascene conversion. What I am certain of is that you must not fake it. One new indiscretion, one new compromising photograph or video, and you would be politically finished. George Bush Jr. got away with his admission of drug use as a young man because his later domestic life was of impeccable suburban respectability. Contrast Bill Clinton.

The better option IMHO, and the only one if you have not abandoned your former lifestyle entirely, is to counterattack. Yes, you know more than most people about sex and drugs from personal experience, which you won’t go in to. But these are important issues for Russian society. You then go into policies connected with these.

Read up first. On drugs and alcohol, two of my fellow-bloggers (Mark Kleiman and Keith Humphreys) are real experts and you could not do better than read their books. I’m not one. However, it’s obvious that current Russian drug policy is a punitive and ineffective mess. Complete drug legalisation is unrealistic and would probably make things even worse than now. However, the choice is not between complete liberalisation and the “war on drugs”: there are plenty of cautious measures in between, tried and tested by level-headed people in places from Hawaii to Madrid to Amsterdam, that have succeeded in reducing the harm done by illegal drugs. Read all about them in Mark Kleiman’s book.

Alcohol is a drug too, and the most important and harmful one in Russia. Again, avoid the extremes and aim to reduce harm. It’s vital to avoid the impression of being killjoys, a trap which Gorbachev feel into. You want to promote responsible social drinking: a bottle of wine between friends, not a bottle of vodka by yourself. A possible slogan for both alcohol and illegal drugs: “fewer and better drugs”.

On sex, like most adults I have the delusion of being qualified to opine. I think there are two lines you can take, not exclusive.

The first is practical. Sexual satisfaction is for most people an important part of happiness. Conversely, sexual dissatisfaction makes a lot of people unhappy. It looks as if this is nothing to do with government, but not so:

  • Government is responsible for education: and this should, but rarely does, include proper sex education, including feelings, relationships, ethics, and negotiation as well as the biological facts of reproduction and contraception, and the physiology of pleasure. Informed youngsters will (the evidence shows) be more responsible as well as skilful lovers.
  • Government is responsible for housing: and overcrowding and lack of privacy make relaxed sexual exchanges difficult to come by for many Russians.
  • Government is responsible for criminal justice: and the laws against rape and sexual harassment in the workplace need to be properly enforced, and with sensitivity for the typically female victims.
  • Both sexual dissatisfaction and sexual violence are connected to alcohol abuse - and this is a major concern of policy anyway for health, crime and safety reasons.
  • Finally, sexual health is a part of health in general: it’s important that men and women have access to good reproductive and sexual health services, and can get help for treatable problems of sexual dysfunction.

Sex is, simply, good for you. So another possible slogan is: “more and better sex”.

My second suggestion is much higher risk, and you should think carefully before trying it. It would certainly grab the headlines. I draw it from what I was taught by the women I have loved; whether it resonates with you I cannot say.

What does a woman want from a lover? At least these: commitment, fitness and energy; a modicum of knowledge and a willingness to learn; intelligence, humour and honesty in dialogue; above all, consideration for her needs as well as his own. Now these virtues of the bedchamber are, translated to the voting booth and public square, what any country wants from every citizen. Set aside for a moment the good old images of motherland and fatherland, and think of Britain or Russia as a bride, or - to be more contemporary - as Juliet anxiously awaiting a blind Internet date. Some men just don’t know how to treat her, from clumsiness and ignorance; the relationship never gets started. Some men claim to love but act as rapists, seizing only the crude satisfactions they crave and leaving their victim weeping and defiled. And some love truly, the way Romeo loved Juliet, seeking his own fulfilment through hers. His penetration becomes her self-discovery, his taking is giving, his gift is an offer of new life. That kind of sex is a patriotic ideal for the future of Russia.

By the way, this thought comes to me via a long line of erotic religious poetry, in both the Judaeo-Christian and Muslim traditions. The Song of Solomon in the Old Testament was originally a secular love poem, but it was brought into the canon of sacred texts by men who saw in it a fitting metaphor for their own religious experience. John Donne, made Dean of St. Paul’s in 1621, imagined being tied up and raped by his God:

Except Thou bind me, never will be free,
Nor ever chaste, except Thou ravish me.

The 13th-century Andalusian Sufi Shushtari went even further in his poetry, taking on the role of a full-service prostitute to Him: “no details of their intercourse are left out” (Gerald Brenan). Compared to these, my love-affair with a country is relatively tame.

This letter is too long for the occasion but still far too short to do justice to its theme. If you have read this far, I trust you will accept, as the French nicely say, the assurance of my respectful sentiments.



PS to my commenters
Before Betty, Katya and Mrs Tilton jump all over me for uninformed male projection, let me stipulate that of course women’s shopping list for men also includes nice, funny, hard-working, “handsome, clever and rich”.  I suspect that these desiderata are less for Juliet’s one night of passion than for a long-term relationship, and including them would bowdlerise my conceit; Jane Austen’s three are necessarily selective and élitist, which is fatal to it.

3 Responses to “An open letter to Xenia Sobchak”

  1. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    Wimberley’s allusions to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll may be-ahem-excessive. But they are meaningless to old Scrooge, so I’ll let them slide.

    What interests me more are two missing tropes: republicanism and liberalism. The first term evokes public virtue: something sorely lacking in contemporary Russia. Even though our local wingnuts may agree, it is still true: republicanism is a necessary complement to-and check on-democracy. (It is a shame that our Republican Party lacks any sense of republicanism, just as our Democratic Party elites are a little weak on democracy.)

    Liberalism is the other key check on democracy: rights inalienable by the democratic process, backstopped by republicanism and rule of law.

  2. James Wimberley says:

    Poor old Scrooge:
    As far as I can see, the opposition is already stronger than most pampered Westerners on republican virtue. The protestors turned out in subzero cold at some personal and professional risk. My point was that such virtue is no substitute for a policy agenda. Compare the Bolsheviks to the Left SRs in 1917-18.

  3. [...] Footnote I know, I know. But her looks are a crucial part of her story: both her past and her possible futures. Update Follow-up post. [...]