One Day in the Life of Russia

"Freedoms vital to the creation of a modern civil society are declining. Dominant, state-controlled energy and aerospace companies are losing ground, weakening an economy already under strain."

In 1962, Soviet readers were stunned by the open publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a vivid portrayal of a Stalin-era gulag prison. Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a former gulag inmate, managed with a glimpse of a day in the life of one prisoner to describe a whole system of privation.

Arriving in Moscow last Saturday, I was reminded of the novel when I picked up Friday's edition of the respected English-language daily, The Moscow Times. A single day of its news coverage offered telling indications of Russia’s travails.

The lead story reported that a draft bill in the parliament, or Duma, would limit foreign ownership of all Russian media to 20 percent. The Kremlin was said to support the bill. The Moscow Times averred that it was aimed at two Russian-language media outlets that investigate powerful figures—Forbes magazine and the Vedomosti newspaper. The latter is jointly owned by The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and Sanoma Media Finland. Current law bans majority foreign ownership of TV and radio stations, but not the printed press. The new law, if enacted, would further tighten media restrictions.

The BBC, The Moscow Times said, had lodged a protest with the authorities after one of its crews was assaulted while looking into reports that Russian soldiers had died near the Ukrainian border. Last month, a Russian politician was beaten when he drew attention to the burials of paratroopers who may have been killed while fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Russian government says it has no troops there, except military "volunteers" using their vacation time. In an interview on the next page, a rebel chieftain in eastern Ukraine said whole battalions of Russian volunteers were fighting there.

In a second story, state-controlled Gazprom said it was limiting flows of gas to European countries that shipped some of it to Ukraine in reverse flows. Since June, Gazprom has cut off shipments to Ukraine. It says the dispute is about price, but the political crisis between Russia and Ukraine may be a factor. In another story, the natural-gas giant’s chief was quoted as saying he expected production this year to be 6.7 percent below last year. Analysts, the paper said, foresaw lower output. One reason is the cut-off of shipments to Ukraine, the company’s second-largest customer after Germany. Another reason, the story said, was that rival Russian gas producers were more flexible in setting prices and terms with customers.

Noting that earlier in the week Vladimir Yevtushenkov, owner of one of Russia’s fastest-growing oil companies, Bashneft, had been put under house arrest, The Moscow Times spoke of fears of a bid by “politically connected business interests” to seize the company. The newspaper speculated that state-controlled oil behemoth Rosneft, or a company close to it, may seek to gain control of Bashneft. Yevtushenkov was said to have been linked with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose influence has ebbed since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. Days later, there were reports that Yevtushenkov’s house arrest was being relaxed, but he could not leave the country.

Another story said Amazon titan Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin may "derail" legendary Russian rocket-maker Energomash. It produces the RD-180 engine, which powers U.S. Atlas rockets that launch civilian and national-security satellites. A Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA), is Energomash’s largest customer, but ULA has announced a partnership with Blue Origin. As with Gazprom, Energomash’s prospects may have been set back by responses to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The Moscow Times added that last week, NASA awarded a multibillion-dollar contract to Boeing and SpaceX to develop new rockets to lift astronauts into orbit. Now Russia does this, for a fee.

Finally, The Moscow Times reported that Russia was demanding that a free-trade treaty between Ukraine and the European Union, concluded last week with a special concession to Moscow, be reopened. Russia has asked to be seated as a third party in negotiations on a new accord. Moscow says it is worried that Ukraine will bar imports of Russian goods that fail to meet EU quality standards. An EU official has ruled out amending the treaty, which the Ukrainian and EU parliaments ratified last week.

As these stories suggest, Russia faces major challenges, some self-inflicted. Freedoms vital to the creation of a modern civil society are declining. Dominant, state-controlled energy and aerospace companies are losing ground, weakening an economy already under strain. Russia’s relationships with Europe, its most important economic partner and a cultural beacon, are fracturing.

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